July 21, 2024
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July 21, 2024
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An old saw about American Catholics of the 1970s and ’80s had it that “Catholics could not figure out whether they were Joe McCarthy or Gene McCarthy!”  The same holds true for American Orthodox Jews, who have a history and tradition of liberal politics and progressive stances in public affairs but who are sorely conflicted as their community has moved to the right religiously and politically.

Thirteen years ago, historian Jack Wertheimer wrote a prescient article, “The Orthodox Moment,” in which he incisively reported on a Jewish traditionalist world that, despite relatively small numbers (at the time 400,000 out of 5.5 million American Jews), has an outsized impact on Jewish communal life, both in terms of its participation and contributions to the community, and, more significantly, in terms of its polarization. Is what Wertheimer reported on in 1999 still the case in 2013?

What is “Orthodox” in Judaism?  More important, who are the Orthodox?

The words orthodox and orthodoxy themselves derive from early Christian theological discourse, but the terms achieved currency in Judaism when they were hurled at Jewish traditionalists by their 19th-century modernizing antagonists in Europe.  By the 20th century, “Orthodox” had been adopted with pride by the traditionalists as signifying unwavering adherence to normative standards. The nature of the halakhic norm and the sources of its authority are large issues.  Suffice it to say that traditional Judaism is a religion that has raised interpretation to the level of authority, and the authoritative tradition is deemed divinely mandated.

First, numbers:  The number of Orthodox in the USA is debated.  In terms of affiliation, the Orthodox are approximately 21 percent of the American Jewish population.  “Self-identification” (“What are you?”) numbers are slightly lower:  some ten percent of the population, an increase (from six percent) over 1990 identify themselves as such.  In terms of numbers, the numbers of right-wing, sectarian Orthodox and Modern Orthodox are approximately the same. But numbers alone do not tell the Orthodox story.  The Orthodox picture is one of increased bifurcation.  There are at least three varieties of Orthodox Jews in the United States.

Modern Orthodoxy

A series of controversies during the 1950s—over mixed seating in the synagogue, Jewish divorce procedures, and the appropriateness of Orthodox involvement with non-Orthodox (“heterodox”) bodies—clarified a distinction within American Orthodoxy, that between the “modern” version and the “yeshiva” version (that is, the world of  the Eastern-European-origined yeshivas), a distinction that—contrary to conventional wisdom—was virtually unknown before World War II, and which only gradually achieved currency in the 1950s.  By the end of the 1950s, the difference was obvious to all.  Modern Orthodoxy saw itself as serving the broader Jewish community, including the community of the intelligentsia, and including the non-observant—and in some cases the non-Jewish world as well.  Issues of social concern and of philosophical inquiry were addressed and were salient.  In contrast, “yeshiva” Orthodoxy, far more insular in its focus, tended to appeal to Jews who were already observant and Jewishly learned, and, while it did not ignore matters of social concern, these matters were not in the forefront.

There was a significant change in the public perception of Orthodoxy in the 1950s.  Orthodox Judaism was not, as had previously been assumed even by most Orthodox Jews, the practice of a multitude of traditional rituals and observances.  Rather, it was now understood as a religion of Jewish law and normative tradition denoted by the Hebrew word halakha.  By the late 1950s, however, the discovery that Orthodox Judaism was not an unthinking accretion of ancient, obscurantist, practices but was meant to be a consistent regimen of religious normative tradition, with serious textual and intellectual underpinnings, served to enhance Orthodoxy’s prestige in the broader Jewish community.

In sum, the central characteristic of Modern Orthodoxy is that religious observance and rigorous Jewish religious study were not incompatible with secular activity and study, but enhanced each other.  This idea is embodied in the phrase “Torah U-madda”—“Torah and knowledge”—and is hotly debated in Orthodox circles.

“Yeshiva” Orthodox

Inappropriately referred to in the press as the “Ultra-Orthodox,” and in the Jewish community as “Haredim” (literally “those who tremble”), the yeshiva welt—the world of the yeshiva—was historically centered in the Brooklyn-based yeshivas that had their origins in the northeastern European yeshiva of the 19th and early 20th centuries, aka the “Lithuanian” yeshivas. The geographical designation “Lithuanian” is misleading.  The Yiddish “Lita” refers to a general geographic area, which includes swaths of White Russia, in which yeshivas where a particular analytical method of Talmud study flourished and was different from the casuistry of the “Hungarian” yeshivas.  The approach of this method of study is colloquially known as (Yiddish/English) “Litvish.”   The ethnic designation “Litvak” denotes one whose family origins (and perhaps religious practices) derive from this part of the world.

The yeshivish communities are characterized by attention to intensive textual study, from an early age; and by a generally (but not universally) conservative approach to public affairs.  Contrary to conventional view, insularity is not a characteristic of yeshiva Orthodoxy.  The American Jewish sectarian community has expanded, largely as result of a high total fertility rate (TFR), but also resulting from some Modern Orthodox crossover, and includes populations in many urban centers and suburban communities, and a number of yeshivas outside of New York.  Much of the “black-hat” Jewish world resides in yeshiva Orthodoxy—and the black hat itself symbolizes a more sectarian approach on the part of its wearers, not only to religion but to public affairs as well.  In the words of a prominent Orthodox leader, “Your conservative views are tangible in the size of the hat—always black—that you wear.”


Hasidism derives from a kabbalistic tradition going back many centuries, but its contours as a movement were shaped during the 19th century in Europe.  Hasidic Judaism is not one movement, but a collection of separate individual groups with some commonality. There are approximately 30 larger Hasidic groups, and several hundred minor groups.  Hasidic groups are “Hasidic” by virtue of the fact that they are committed to the study of Hasidic texts and closely adhere to Hasidic traditions. Derivative groups, such as Chabad Lubavitch and Satmar, offer their own brand of observance and warrant separate discussion.


In 2013, the issue for the Orthodox is not with the heterodox; it is within the Orthodox world itself.  The Orthodox community, both in the America and in Israel, has become polarized between the haredi and Modern Orthodox.  The salient characteristic of this Orthodox sectarianism is “the chumra-ization of Orthodox.”  The chumra—the stringency in religious ritual practice—was always in Judaism a matter of personal predilection and choice.  But what was once a personal stringency has become standard.  The problem is that when chumra—a stringency—becomes standard, if you do not keep the chumra, you are suspect in all other areas.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

Jerome A. Chanes is the author of four books and numerous book-chapters and articles on Jewish history, sociology, and public affairs.  He is a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, and teaches in the City University system.

By Jerome A. Chanes

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