I notice that quite a few questions include "Orthodox" in the title. I wonder if people could clarify what it means to be an "Orthodox" Jew relative to another Jew that is not considered "Orthodox".

(I am guessing it is something like the terms "liberal" and "conservative" applied to Christian groups, generally speaking, contrasting those who don't believe the Christian bible describes historical events and understand it more allegorically vs those who do believe it is historical and understand the words more literally)


5 Answers 5


Before I define the label "Orthodox", I want to spell out what kind of entity is being labeled.

The Enlightenment and the fall of the ghetto walls created a religious crisis for Ashkenazic Jewry. First for those in Western Europe, but the development does reach Eastern Europe over the course of the next several decades. Until then, for most people Jewish observance and belief were not subject to conscious decision. This is the lifestyle of the Jew. Each area really only had one, they didn't differ all that much.

Then the Enlightenment gave Jews a choice. People needed a reason to stick to Judaism. An ideal to aspire to. And that led to the rise of movements. Some movements, like German Reform, responded to the new opportunity by not insisting on those qualities of Judaism we call Orthodoxy. Chassidus was a different kind of early response; to give the people in the field that ideal, a way of being passionate about one's Judaism that would make it more appealing than the newly offered other choice -- assimilation. (In fact, it was not 100% clear in the 2nd generation which way Chassidus would end up going. The Tzemach Tzedeq, the 3rd Lubavitch Rebbe, allegedly credited the Vilna Gaon and the Misnagdic opposition to weeding out the more avant-garde and antinomian splinters of the Chassidic movement.)

In Hungary, the Chasam Sofer's response was a counter-reaction, with the slogan "Chadash assur min haTorah -- the new is prohibited by the Torah".

And similarly, Germany produced two very different forms of Neo-Orthodoxy -- one by R' SR Hirsch, the other based in Berlin. They did not mingle socially, and were in fact recognized by the Prussian Government as members of separate religions. (The Berlin form being unified with the non-O Jews, whereas Rav Hirsch's community "walked out", forming the Austritt community.)

The Vilna Gaon's tradition evolved into the Yeshiva and Mussar Movements.

Meanwhile, the more modern elements of East European Jewry embraced the new wisdom calling itself the Haskalah (Enlightenment, in Hebrew) and studied Judaism from a more academic and scientific perspective. In their hopes to modernize the community as a whole, they ended up undermining the more traditional movements. America developed its own version of Reform. Back in Europe, Neolog gained ground.

Then we had Conservative, Modern Orthodoxy, Religious Zionism, the American and Israeli Yeshiva Movements (trying to recreate the Lithuanian original, but not quite ideologically identical), the rebuilding of post-War Chassidus, etc...

All this went on among Ashkenazim. There was no similar culture shock in the rest of the Jewish world, so there was no similar rise of Isms. But when Ashkenazi, Sepharadic, Ottoman and Yemenite Jewish communities met, primarily in Israel, those other communities saw Orthodoxy as having the nearest equivalent of their One Jewish Lifestyle version of Judaism. And so the Chakham Baqshi, the Chief Rabbi of Palestine under the Ottoman Empire, worked together with the Orthodox rabbinate, not the other movements. Orthodoxy isn't a property these Ashkenazi movements mutually created, it is a property they preserved.

So, Orthodoxy is less a movement as a set of movements, or at least the property they all share in common. Unlike Reform or Conservative Judaism, there is no defining group of ordination schools, that we can define "Orthodox ordination" by listing a handful of institutions, no synagogue umbrella, and most definitely O synagogues don't belong to any umbrella.

That property, Orthodoxy, admittedly has yet to be addressed. To segue into that... The American Conservative movement is a good example to use for illustration. JTS, now JTSA, the Conservative rabbinical academy, was founded by the same people who had started the Orthodox Union. After the Great Depression, when charity money was at a premium, there was even discussion of a merger between Yeshiva College (now: Yeshiva University) and JTS. But now, no one would consider JTS and Conservative Judaism as an Orthodox Movement.

What changed? Three things really:

1- The negotiations with YU fell apart largely over a single person -- Mordechai Kaplan, who later leaves Conservative to found Reconstructionism. His philosophy was just too heretical (by Orthodox standards) to be acceptable in a religious teacher in an Orthodox institution.

2- The driving responsum, allowing people who couldn't otherwise reach services to drive to them on Shabbos, was a leniency that the Orthodox halachic process couldn't countenance.

Conservative developed from the Breslau Historical School (many of whom were considered Orthodox) who saw the sages of the Mishnah and the Talmuds in their historical context, and thought that this kind of analysis is important to understanding the halakhah. And once one accepts that halakhah has always been malleable enough to be used by the rabbinate for what they considered noble social and political ends, it is natural for contemporary rabbis to do the same.

3- It became the norm in JTS to teach Document Hypothesis, the idea that the Torah was revealed piecemeal over the course of generations, rather than a literal revaluation to Moshe in the Sinai desert. (With a possible exception of the last few verses and other nits one can pick.)

Whereas within Orthodoxy, acceptable beliefs are presumed to be explicable in some way as loosely conforming to the 13 Articles of Faith. Likely not the Rambam's original, but somehow affirming the versions in the siddur -- Ani Maamin and Yigdal.

In other words. they disagreed on Who, What and Why.

Meanwhile, within Orthodoxy, Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Menashe Klein, an Rav Ovadia Yosef (e.g.) came from very different communities, had significantly different worldviews, and also disagreed on practical rulings. But they agreed on certain basics of the faith, and enough about the process of how to come up with a ruling, to mutually acknowledge and respect each other's positions as valid.

  • 1
    +1 For the excellent concise overview of Orthodoxy.
    – Harel13
    Mar 22, 2021 at 19:48

I have used the word "Orthodox" and "Observant" in my questions, so perhaps I can answer, but I can only speak for myself, not anyone else on the site or for the site. You should note 1) I just started participating on this site and 2) I am not Orthodox or observant which, from what I can tell, would put me in a very small minority of people using this site and probably means my perspective, my questions and how I frame them are very unrepresentative of the beliefs and frame of mind of people who use this site.

All that said, my use of the term "Orthodox" is in the sense of Jews who believe the precepts of traditional Rabbinic Judaism and live or attempt to live accordingly. I also mean to include Hasidim in this. It is meant in contrast to Jews who identify as Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, or simply as culturally or ethnically Jewish.

  • 1
    Just by way of clarification, I know very little about these things, i.e. I was not aware of the categories of 'Conservative', 'Reform', or 'Reconstructionist'. I've got some terms I can throw into google now.
    – Jay
    Nov 2, 2015 at 3:35
  • 1
    Yes, after I wrote my answer I looked at your profile and saw you are a Christian living in Taiwan, and if I had known that I would have answered somewhat differently. I assumed incorrectly that the questioner was what I perceive to be a typical user, which is an Orthodox Jew (perhaps I am wrong about this, too). I would attempt to re-answer, but you'll do better just Googling the terms. Nov 2, 2015 at 3:44
  • 1
    GottschalkIsrael I think there are lots of non-Orthodox and even non-Jews on this site. Although I have Jewish heritage, I am not Orthodox, for example, and I've been here since day 1 of the site. Nov 2, 2015 at 19:30

It turns out that your question is actually a bit more complicated than you might have expected.

Throughout history, Jews have always been divided among various groups. In the early- to mid-19th century, the Reform and Conservative Movements of Judaism formed. Without going too deeply into the details of those movements, they were (and are) more liberal movements within Judaism with respect to the extent to which they considered themselves bound by the halachic (Jewish law) rulings of the past. Orthodox Judaism, in contrast, is a movement within Judaism that considers Jews to be completely bound by an unchanging (more or less) halacha.

The reason your question is difficult to answer, though, is because unlike Reform and Conservative Judaism, Orthodox Judaism does not have a monolithic structure. While the Reform and Conservative Movements have official organizational structures and policies determining who is "in" and who is "out," the "Orthodox Movement" does not have any central governing body. Since there is no official organization which runs the "Orthodox Movement," there is no universal agreement on what specific beliefs and practices are sufficient to be considered Orthodox.

On this site (and this is also my practice in real life) we define Orthodox Jews basically as those who self-identify as believing that halacha is binding upon all Jews and cannot be abrogated. Orthodox Judaism is subdivided into many small groups, and there is considerable debate about which of those groups can really appropriately be called Orthodox and which of them do not really match the title; however, the differences between these groups usually does not revolve around whether halacha is binding, but rather what the halacha is.

In my personal opinion, anybody who believes that halacha is binding upon all Jews can accurately be called Orthodox. If they legitimately believe that the correct interpretation of halacha is different from what mainstream Orthodoxy believes is the correct interpretation of halacha, I would not revoke their Orthodox status.

  • Since you seem to be going out of your way to make caveats, you might find this perspective helpful. youtube.com/watch?v=ei4y8JJC8IU
    – avi
    Nov 2, 2015 at 16:10
  • How does your last paragraph exclude the believing Conservative Jew from your definition of Orthodox? May 2, 2018 at 13:29
  • @MichaBerger Because it is far more difficult to say that Conservative Judaism believes in the binding nature of halakha but simply interprets it differently than it used to be. AFAIK, the Conservative movement doesn't believe that (e.g.) homosexual relationships fit within the framework of halakha (though they may disagree on the biblical vs. rabbinic nature of some of the prohibitions); they simply believe that certain extra-halakhic considerations can override halakha in particular circumstances.
    – Daniel
    May 2, 2018 at 14:57
  • @Daniel: My point was that the main point is missing. The definition of O may inhere more in how we define "the binding nature of halakhah" rather than saying the issue is accepting the concept or not. What you're saying now is more that we and C disagree on the definition. Not that we accept it and they don't. And the C of the 1950s also wasn't O, even if we go back to the day before the driving resposum. (Allowing driving on Shabbos r"l for people who otherwise would never go to C-nagogue.) May 2, 2018 at 19:13

The answers that have been given are good sources of information. So i will only add a few asides.

In general, people within the Orthodox movement consider Orthodoxy as the only group that follows Halacha or the Halachik process. As another answer pointed out, certain Rabbi's such as David Bar Chayim disagree with this assessment, claiming that Orthodoxy cares less about following the halachic process, and more about freezing halacha from moving forward. i don't think that he, or anyone that holds that opinion, thinks this "freezing" is done on purpose, but is a side effect of certain other outlooks that cause it as a consequence. Another person answered that Orthodoxy as a movement all believe that the halacha is binding, but that there may be a disagreement on what the halacha is. This is probably the closest statement on how to define Orthodoxy while keeping it within a single sentence. But i think it is missing a piece of the picture, as now there is a certain additional mindset that one often sees within the Orthodox movement. It often goes beyond a disagreement of what the halacha is, and turns into a suppression of disagreements through various methods.

An example would be as follows. According to "Orthodox Judaism," one cannot turn on or manipulate electricity on Yom Tovim (Holydays). The problem with that statement, is that there have been huge halachik decisors that did not rule that way, and many times their rulings are conveniently not mentioned, or the opinion may be mentioned but not their name which would cause the reader to think that the opinion comes from a small time Rabbi, etc etc. This becomes censorship by omission. Here is an example from Yeshiva.co

There is some Halachic discussion regarding the permissibly of electricity on Yom Tov. However, the accepted custom is not to allow the direct use of electrical appliances on Yom Tom, similar to that of Shabbat.

Source: http://www.yeshiva.co/ask/?id=667

The Rabbi on the Yeshiva.co website says that there is merely a discussion about the permissibly of using electricty on Yom Tovs, while neglecting to mention there are many Poskim that allow it.

Another tactic is to admit that there were poskim that ruled in allowance, and then say that those decisors erred because of lack of knowledge, or that we (Modern Rabbis) know more about the science behind it now, and therefore imply that if those Rabbis would have been alive today they would have ruled differently, or imply that they would "rule in accordance with how we rule." An example would be this website citing Ovadia Yosef.

It is correct that there were certain great Poskim who ruled leniently regarding turning on electric lights on Yom Tov. Some Poskim, though, ruled leniently on this matter because they did not quite understand the reality of how electricity actually works, for some of them mistakenly thought that turning on the light does not create a new fire, rather it only a “transfer” of fire. They got this idea from some people who presented themselves as “experts” in the field of electricity who claimed that the fire created by the electricity is already present in the electrical wires in the bulb, and by pressing the “On/Off” button (or flicking the switch), only a “transfer of fire” occurs, and there are instances when one can be lenient regarding such things, as we have discussed in previous Halachot. This explanation is surely mistaken, for the electricity stored in the wires is not fire, and this rationale cannot be used to rule leniently.

Source: http://www.halachayomit.co.il/EnglishDefault.asp?HalachaID=1991

Unfortunately Rabbis who use this argument to subtly discredit opposing views never apply this argument the other way around. i've never heard the argument that "Oh, now that we know more about the science behind x, we see how we erred in this halacha, so we should abolish it!"

I bring these up not to start a flame war or an argument regarding Orthodoxy. But simply to highlight that there is often a specific mindset that goes along with the term Orthodoxy that goes beyond an allegiance to halacha. There are many within the Orthodox movement who don't have such a mindset, but they are usually given a further moniker that separates them from "mainstream orthodoxy." Such names like "Open Orthodox" or "Modern Orthodoxy" or "Normaldox, etc.

Now that you have seen how modern Rabbis respond to the question of whether or not electricity can be used on Yom Tov, lets take a look at just how many "Orthodox" Poskim allowed the use of electricity on Yom Tovs which are often not mentioned by the current Orthodox Movement.

1903 Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (the author of the Aruch Hashulchan) in Bet Va'ad LeHakhamim allows turning lights on on Yom Tob.

1903 Rabbi Yosef Yehoudah Strazberg (author of Yad Yosef, & Ab Bet Din of Makasov, Galitzia) in Bet Va'ad LeHakhamim also allows turning them on.

1912 Rabbi Refael Aharon Ben Shim'on (Chief Rabbi of Egypt) (He wrote this in 1901) in his UMitzor Debash allows turning them on.

1913 Rabbi Binyamin Aryeh HaKohen Weiss in his Eben Yeqarah allows turning them on.

1924 Rabbi Yehuda Yudil Rozenberg in his Maor HaHashmal in Montreal, Canada allows turning them on.

1932 Rabbi Ruben Margaliot in his Nefesh Hayah allows turning them on.

1934 Rabbi Yosef Messas (Rabbi of Tlemcen, Algeria and Meknes, Morocco and Haifa, Israel) in his Mayim Hayim allows turning them both on and off and he reiterated his position in numerous other places.

1934/35 Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank (Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem) in Qol Torah allows turning them on.

1935 Rabbi Ben Sion Meir Hai Uziel (The Rishon LeSion himself) in his Mishpete Uziel allows both turning them on and off and he reiterated this in 1947.

1936 Rabbi David HaKohen Saqli (Rosh Ab Bet Din in Oran, Algeria) in his Qiryat Hanah David (volume 2) allows both turning them on and off.

1945 Rabbi Eliezer Yehoudah Waldenberg in his famous Tzitz Eliezer (volume 1) allows turning them on.

1948 Rabbi Masoud HaKohen in his Pirhe Kehounah (Casablanca) allows turning them on.

1964 Rabbi Shraga Faivel Frank in his Toldot Ze-eb allows turning them on.

1973 Rabbi Shabetai Sheftel Weiss in his Hilkhita Rabeta LaShabeta allows turning them on.

i provide this list not as a means of encouraging people to turn their lights on or off on Yom Tov. But to provide the contrast of how many Rabbis there were who permitted it, and how silent and discouraging the current "Orthodox" movement is about them, which can be summed up by the following words:

There are those, however, especially in some communities outside of Israel that are customarily lenient regarding usage of electricity on Yom Tov. Maran Harav Shlit”a writes that one need not protest vehemently and tell them that they are transgressing a serious prohibition, as there are several opinions among the Poskim upon which they may rely. Nevertheless, if one comes to inquire whether or not usage of electricity is permitted on Yom Tov, we must respond that there is no place for leniency. This is indeed the prevalent custom among our communities, as we ban the use of electricity and telephones on Yom Tov, just as we would on Shabbat; this is based on the consensus of the great Poskim. http://www.halachayomit.co.il/EnglishDefault.asp?HalachaID=1991


In his most recent video, HaRav Dawidh Bar-Ḥayim differentiates between "Orthodox" Judaism so labelled in response to the development of Reform Judaism (and almost entirely in Europe) and what he calls "Halakhic" Judaism so labelled as to denote its strict reliance on traditional sources (TaNa"Kh, Mishnah, Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi, various midrashim, Tosefta and early and late poseqim); but, one which healthily adapts to new realities based on said traditional sources.

The term "Orthodox" Judaism, to HaRav Bar-Ḥayim, denotes an ideology meant to resist change or evolution in almost any form. He sets himself apart from this ideology and defines himself more comfortably as an adherent of the "Halakhic" Judaism outlined above.

For fear of having not done proper justice to the Rabbi's work, I highly recommend watching the video.

  • 1
    So, the many usually-labeled-Orthodox responses to enlightenment that did represent change -- Chassidus, the Lithuanian Yeshiva Movement, neo-Orthodoxy (Hirschian and Berlin), the Mussar Movement, American Modern Orthodoxy, Religious Zionism, the American Yeshiva Movement.... All of these aren't Orthodox? That the word only refers to the students of the Chasam Sofer, whose response was a counter-reaction, "Chadash assur min haTorah -- the new is prohibited by the Torah"? I find that very specious word usage. And bad history. Nov 2, 2015 at 11:20
  • Apologies - I've added a qualification to my summary of HaRav Bar-Ḥayim's "Halakhic" Judaism, which I think helps to clarify the difference between it and what is normally termed "Orthodox" Judaism. Please let me know if I've not clarified enough.
    – Lee
    Nov 2, 2015 at 11:23
  • Since whoever downvoted did not leave a comment, I'm not sure how to improve the answer. All I've done is attempted to summarize HaRav Bar-Ḥayim's response.
    – Lee
    Nov 2, 2015 at 12:20
  • 2
    While R Bar-Hayim is welcome to use words however he wants, his usage doesn't reflect general usage and is hence quite misleading to the OP.
    – Double AA
    Nov 2, 2015 at 13:55
  • 2
    It's not "broader", it's idiosyncratic. I'm with Double AA, this is misleading. A word doesn't mean what one person decides it does; words get meaning by consensus. Nov 2, 2015 at 15:10

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .