This question relates to what we know about Jewish observance since the exile. I was curious if we knew for certain how observant most Jews were throughout most of history and if that observance varied then as it does in certain western societies today.

There's a belief that the entire world rests on the backs of the Tzadikim Nistarim (the 36 righteous ones) - Tractate Sanhedrin 97b; Tractate Sukkah 45b

This idea seems to indicate, even partially, that keeping Jews observant has been a struggle for the community beyond just the current era.

If you look at a city like New York, you see a wide range of Jews who all vary in observance.

  • Some are deeply pious and observant
  • Some are middle of the road (not the most observant but still connect to the community and observe on some level)
  • Some are entirely secular. (Jewish as an ethnicity with little to not religious foundations)

My question is do we know if this is a modern situation or has the Jewish community always existed with this type of spectrum?

Obviously, the Reform and Conservative movements didn't come into exist until very recently in Jewish history. That being said, I have to wonder if our community has always had such populations as part of the "whole" on some level.

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    I doubt this question is answerable vis-a-vis stackexhange rules (how can answers be anything but opinion-based?) but it is fascinating. – Josh K Dec 16 '18 at 3:59
  • I'm pretty sure we can find examples of all three categories existing throughout history. – ezra Dec 16 '18 at 4:05
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    Lots more than 3, probably lots and lots of shades of gray--Hellenists, Anti-Hellenists, Tzadikkim, Zealots, Saducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Boethusians, Karaites, etc. Going through the written sources will probably yield a boatload of different sects, all with their own particular levels of observance. – Gary Dec 16 '18 at 4:43
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volozhin_yeshiva#Prominent_alumni This is not a new phenomenon – Double AA Dec 16 '18 at 13:40
  • VTC as about Jews/Jewish History, not Judaism? – Salmononius2 Dec 16 '18 at 19:50

While this question may be more opinion-based(since there are no real statistics), it is only recently that the majority of Jews(unfortunately) identify as irreligious(reform/conservative). For thousands of years up until about 150 years ago, up to 90% of Jews identified as religious/orthodox Jews.

There were times of coerced, forced, and epidemic periods of irreligiousity(?), but they never spread or lasted enough to convert the majority of Jews into secular Jews.

The phenomena started with the birth of Reform Judaism that spread ideas of heresy/irreligiousity, and spread/came to the Jewish migrants to America who were looking for a better life while fleeing persecution only to meet a culture whose values didn't fit with keeping shabbat and made it difficult to be an observant Jew. Unfortuantely, most Jews felt forced to work on shabbat and "do as the Romans do" just to survive and fell into the hands of Reform/Conservative Judaism, while trying to make peace with their roots. As the majority of Jews migrated to America, it became the "norm", unfortunately, to become secular in order to survive.

However, nowadays, we are a seeing a return to the mainstream of orthodoxy(baruch HaShem) in amazing numbers.

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    Independently about your opinion of reform and such movements, the opposite of Judaism is atheism or ח"ח converting to another religion. Reform didn't start with America, but with the thoughts of Moses Mendelssohn, but he also had many predecessors, it's just enough to read the story of Chanukkah. – Kazi bácsi Dec 16 '18 at 19:25
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    This is not historically true. -1. There may not be super accurate statistics, but there's also clear knowledge of what is Charedi propaganda/revisionist history, and what is reasonable historical approximation – Double AA Dec 16 '18 at 20:53
  • @Kazibácsi I never wrote it(reform Judaism) started in America. Atheism never really existed among Jews until reform Judaism came around. Do you assume that the majority of Jews weren't religious throughout history? – chacham Nisan Dec 16 '18 at 21:16
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    @Kazibácsi I know...included in the answer is a line that discusses certain "times"; but it never really included the majority of the Jewish people the way it does now, unfortunately. Again unfortunately, about 85% of Jews nowadays don't keep shabbat; it was never like this historically. Even those Jews that did avodah zara kept Judaism daily to some extent. – chacham Nisan Dec 17 '18 at 15:26
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    @Kazibácsi is right, of course. Identifying Jews from 400 years ago who knew nothing and kept barely anything as the equivalent of contemporary "Orthodox Jews" is as anachronistic as it is oversimplistic as it is a word game. There were always many Jews who didn't participate much. Way back when they were called עמי הארץ; now "we" call them "reform/secular". Nothing new under the sun. And the whole bit about the beginning of the reform movement and working on Shabbat in America is so historically twisted it's not even worth responding to formally. – Double AA Dec 19 '18 at 18:53
  1. I think a better question and the answer to your question would be:
    Whether throughout the history the Jews were any different in their observance from the surrounding nations? And my answer is - not at all - in all Galuyos, the observance of the Jews reflected that of the surrounding Goyim.

  2. All the nations were 100% religious and there was no alternative to religion. The deities varied, but there was no concept of "atheism" as "no deity world" (maybe besides China but the Jews didn't get there).

  3. Another problem in measuring Jewish religiosity is that there was a pretty clear distinction between the laymen that were expected to only keep the bases of Judaism and the Talmidey Chachamim, that were expected to observe it "all". So the majority of the working nation were never expected to follow it through, but I don't know if it counted as "religious" or not.

  4. Yet another problem is measuring observance in the pre-halachic times, before there was Rambam or Shu"A, especially before the Talmud. Everybody could follow his own approach with no accepted written Halachah. How do you measure observance then? Some daven and some not, some wear Teffilin whole day and some not etc.

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