Orthodox Judaism is is the contemporary form of traditional Judaism. Most Jews are secular or belong to other Jewish religious movements or even other religions (Judaism being their cultural heritage rather than their religion), but there are still over a million Orthodox Jews and these are considered "the" Jews by many. Note that religious Jews in the US are far more likely to follow Reform Judaism.
What Is Orthodox Judaism?
Jewish Orthodoxy is distinguished by its belief in the Oral Law. According to this tradition, Moses received the Torah and wrote it down in the desert of Sinai, but also received a set of instructions elaborating on the Torah and how to interpret it along with it. It was forbidden to write these instructions down, and so they passed down orally from teacher to student until the fall of the Second Temple, when it was decided that they must be written down to preserve them at around 200 CE. These teachings form the Mishna, the earlier part of the Talmud. Orthodoxy then piles on generations of interpretation and discussion of these additional laws, legends, and ethical teachings, creating a body of legal precedent that forms the legal structure called Halacha. Since the Halacha is based on the laws given to Moses at Sinai directly by God, Orthodoxy is extremely conservative and unwilling to change it; the laws are seen as eternal, deriving for all time from God himself.
The historical truth is that the Pharisees invented the concept of an Oral Law, that must not be written down, in the Second Temple period as part of their struggle with the Sadducees, another Jewish sect. The Sadducees were a literate, Temple- and Priest-based tradition that had its own oral and interpretive traditions (not significantly different from those of the Pharisees). The Pharisees were a populist movement of preachers that preached to and taught the poor, who were often illiterate, so the invention of a body of knowledge that could not be written down but had to be memorized was better accepted amongst its disciples and put Sadducee attempts at counter-preaching at a disadvantage. This invention also led to its authority as not mere tradition, but rather a sacred Divine-word tradition. With the fall of the Second Temple, the Temple-based Sadducees were effectively wiped-out and the Pharisees rose to power under Roman patronship. Under these conditions it became reasonable and desirable to write down the "Oral Law", and so the old injunction against doing so was overridden. Orthodoxy arose from these Pharisees.
Orthodoxy includes a relatively wide range of beliefs and factions, but can generally be divided into three movements:
- The Haredi Jews emphasize the legalistic study of the Halacha across all members of society, and disrespect secular studies and customs. They maintain traditional (often Polish) attire, and keep themselves as separated from secular and gentile society as possible - living in closed communities, forbidding non-work-related Internet use, and so on. They (typically ignorantly) reject modern Biblical Criticism, Evolution, and so on. They are a closed-minded religious cult, ostracizing those who stray and indoctrinating their children.
- The Hasidic Jews are somewhat similar, but emphasize more mystic learnings and engaging in euphoric religious rituals and practices designed to achieve religious ecstasy or simply exuberant joy. They place far less emphasis on scholarly and legalistic studies of the Halacha, focusing instead on semi-intellectual studies of mystic texts and traditions such as Kabbalah. As the basis of Orthodox belief, however, Halacha is still studied, of course.
- The Modern Orthodox are less traditional, dressing in modern garb and often encouraging their children to learn and form their own opinions, although of course teaching them their own Orthodox beliefs. Modern Orthodox Jews tend to accept at least part of Biblical Criticism, modern science, and so on, but still often reject them on the whole. They include a wider variety of adherents, from traditionalists that are barely distinguishable from Haredis to atheists that preserve only the letters of the Halacha and tradition as a cultural choice. Modern Orthodox society still values the study of Halacha enormously and most of its members study it to some degree, but it also values secular studies and engagement with secular society. They are often highly Messianic and place great importance on the state of Israel (State). Within Israel, modern Orthodox groups form the bedrock of the settler movement and of racist anti-Arab groups, and Orthodox religion is highly correlated with racist views and opinions.
Orthodoxy is to be distinguished from secular and reform Judaism, that (broadly) accept modern science and knowledge and deny the authority of the Oral Law. Reform Judaism responds by maintaining more traditions, beliefs, and customs, including most notably the belief in the divine nature of the scriptures and interpretive traditions (even while allowing that they are only human, albeit "inspired", creations, and thus can be overruled and rejected in places). Secular Jews typically reject all or nearly all traditional Jewish beliefs and the sanctity of the texts and oral traditions, but maintain holidays and certain customs out of tradition and as a culture. Most Jews are currently secular, with Reform Judaism being the largest religious current and Modern Orthodoxy the next largest. However, the more religious Jews tend to have larger families and demographic trends (especially amongst the cult-like Heredis, where leaving the cult is almost unthinkable and practically impossible) seem to indicate a reversal of this state within half a century, where Orthodox Judaism is expected to become the dominant Jewish religion.
Principles of Faith
Orthodox Jewish rabbis and communities differ from each other in their beliefs and customs, so it is not possible to provide a single list of Orthodox beliefs. Here are some common ones, however.
- Monotheism. Orthodox Jews believe in an omnipotent god that is the Creator of everything, and is One and Only - there are no other Gods in this sense. They often don't believe in any other gods, although some do believe in spirits and even demons. As God is the Creator, he created these too.
- Providence. God is Good, and everything is part of His Plan. Orthodoxy distinguishes between two levels to this: the general construction of the world is designed for the benefit of mankind ("Hashgacha Clalit", general providence), and specific acts by god on an everyday basis reward the virtuous and show the path to righteousness in one's life ("Hashgacha Pratit", private providence).
- Oral and Written Law are the Words of God. These are literally the words of god written down, and without any blemish or error. The "written" law here refers to the Torah, while the Oral Law to the Mishna, the earliest and central parts of the Talmud. As words of God, both contain deep "levels" of meaning and truths that reside below the surface meaning, and can be ascertained by their study.
- Halacha is binding. The correct interpretation of the Oral and Written Laws is the Halacha, as formed by generations of later commentators. Jews must abide by its laws. While there is room for reinterpretation by contemporary rabbis, overruling past laws is generally out of line.
- The Bible is correct. The Hebrew Bible, which is essentially the Old Testament, is a correct and inspired work. While not the actual word of God, it is essentially without blemish. Most other holy texts, including those of Christianity and Islam, are false human creations. The exception are some Jewish books that accept and proceed from the Bible and Oral Law, including works such as the Zohar.
- The Fall in Generations. Generally speaking, the earlier the better. Abraham was the most pious man, Moses was the greatest of the prophets, the rabbis that wrote down the Talmud are greater than later great rabbis, and so on. We are a decadent generation, dimly carrying the past glory. For this reason, one cannot override past rulings - they were made by people greater than yourselves, so even if their reasoning seems flawed there must be a deeper reason for their decision. This has exceptions, but for the most part the earlier the ruling is the more difficult it is to overturn it.
- Divine command theory. What is moral is what God commands. There are variants of it, but generally all conform to the idea that one must do what God commands.
- Young Earth Creationism. While some modern Orthodox reject it, many do not and overall Orthodox Jews believe in the literal narrative of the Bible, including the physical Adam and Eve, the Flood, and so on. The Jewish calendar even starts the count of years from the creation of the world (5771 years ago as of 2011 BCE, if you're wondering). This view is also held by many Christians (cf: http://wiki.ironchariots.org/index.php?title=Earth).