What is Orthodox Judaism?

Image: Haredi men pray at the Kotel in Jerusalem. (MoneyforCoffee / Pixabay)

A comment on Twitter brought it to my attention that some people were referring to the community that suffered the anti-Semitic terror attack in Monsey, NY on Dec. 28, 2019 as “Habad.” That is incorrect.

You may be asking, “The who? What?”

This seems like a good opportunity to talk a bit about the diversity within the Orthodox Jewish world. I offer the very sketchiest of primers here – entire books could be written on this subject. First I shall point you to Orthodox Judaism and Reyna Weiss’s excellent article, Haredim (Charedim,) or Ultra-Orthodox Jews on MyJewishLearning.com. These treatments do more than skim the surface, which is what I am about to do.

Now, for Rabbi Adar’s 500-word approach to the subject:

  1. There is no such thing as “the Orthodox.” Orthodox Judaism is wildly diverse and includes both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The word Orthodox means that that the particular group of Jews seeks to be fully and strictly observant of halakhah (Jewish law.) The diversity comes in when they start getting specific about what “fully and strictly observant” means for their particular community, or when minhag (custom) of a community comes into play.
  2. Modern Orthodoxy, which made its appearance in 19th century Germany, seeks to be fully compliant with the details of halakhah (Jewish law) while engaging positively with the modern secular world. Within Modern Orthodoxy you will still find a wide spectrum of practice.
  3. There are many other traditions of Judaism that strive for strict observance. They differ about all sorts of things: the importance and legitimacy of mysticism, ethnic styles, the State of Israel, Zionism, models of leadership, attitudes towards contact with Jews outside their particular group, or with liberal Jews, etc. Most of them call themselves “Orthodox.”
  4. A sub-group within Orthodoxy that is itself quite diverse are the Haredi or ultra-Orthodox. (Some feel that “ultra-Orthodox” is a slur, and so the term Haredi or Charedi or Hasidim is preferred.) In general, Haredim wear distinctive and extremely modest clothing and separate their communities from outsiders.
  5. Hasidim are a sub-group within the Haredi world, but their roots go back to the 18th century. It arose as a spiritual revival movement and is strongly identified with its founder, Israel ben Eliezer, better known as the Baal Shem Tov [Master of the Good Name.] (There are also liberal Jews with deep interest in hasidoot, the mystical teachings of Hasidic rabbis.)
  6. Chabad is a well-known Hasidic movement. It was founded in 1775 by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe. The name “Chabad” is an acronym of three emanations of God: Chochmah, Binah, Da’at. They are also sometimes referred to as Lubavitch because from 1813 until 1915 their leadership resided in the town of Lyubavichi in Russia. For more about Chabad, I recommend this article from the Jewish Virtual Library.
  7. There are many, many smaller groups that identify as Orthodox, as Haredi, or as Hasidic. The congregation in Monsey, NY are members of such a group, and honestly I don’t know much about them. As I am able to learn more, I will add the information to this article.

Most important to me is to underline before I finish this that while I do not see Orthodox expressions of Judaism as “more authentic” than other expressions of Judaism, I respect Orthodox Jews as cousins with whom I have more in common than not. We differ on many things but I stand with them against the tide of the dark forces of anti-Semitism that have been particularly cruel to them in the past month.

We are all Jews.