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Sunday, August 09, 2020
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Reviewing: “Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy” by Chaim I. Waxman. The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in association with Liverpool University Press. 2017. English. 226 pages. Hardcover. ISBN-13: 978-1906764845.

Until the 19th century, the term Orthodox Judaism did not exist, asserts Chaim I. Waxman, Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. The term “Orthodoxy” was first introduced during the early 19th century with the advent of Reform Judaism, as a pejorative term to distinguish the “progressive” Jews from their backward and “old fashioned” co-religionists.

Instead of accepting the term as mocking their adherence to traditional Judaism by strictly following halachah (Jewish law), they have embraced the derogatory epitaph as a badge of honor. Orthodoxy rooted in Europe has been divided into two fundamental sub-groups, generally described as Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. Within the ultra-Orthodox, there are the “Yeshivish,” who follow the Lithuanian yeshiva traditions, and the Hasidic tradition.

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These groups, which originated in Central and Eastern Europe, did not exist in America until the second half of the 19th century. Modern Orthodox Jews are divided into “Centrist” Orthodox, who are “more circumscribed in religious perspective,” and the “Open Orthodox,” who adhere to “a less restrictive religious perspective.” Waxman is quick to note there are no terms that adequately describe the true nature of these subdivisions.

In this significant and enlightening work, Waxman examines a number “of halakhic changes as well as changes in what is deemed to be proper Orthodox conduct,” such as issues relating to the status of women. In some situations, there is more “leniency and openness,” while in other cases there is more strictness and isolation. At times, one can see two completely opposite trends within the different branches of American Orthodox Judaism.

To assist us in understanding these differences, Waxman explains how these institutional changes have affected the communities with regard to their members’ perspective and ritual observance. By describing how Orthodox Judaism developed in America, we learn how and why these changes occurred and continue to arise, and how they are different from Orthodoxy in the United Kingdom, Europe and Israel.

Contrary to popular belief, Waxman found that American Modern Orthodoxy is hardly unchanging. Instead of being static, it continues to change to the point where Waxman concludes, “we cannot know precisely what the group will be like in the future; one thing is certain: it will not be the same as it is now.”

These changes will occur more quickly than they have in the past, even though there is a tendency to deny this will happen. One reason is that although the Orthodox believed they were impervious to outside influences, they have few means to circumvent or combat the effects of postmodernity. Whether the leaders of Modern Orthodoxy will admit to it or not, the movement is influenced by the social environment and reacts to it, and will continue to be a minority within the American Jewish community.


Alex Grobman, a Hebrew University-trained historian, is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

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