Social Science - Other

What is Orthodoxy in Judaism

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"What is Orthodoxy in Judaism"
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Orthodoxy in Judaism means an unswerving belief to uphold God’s law, or Halacha, as it is called in Hebrew. 

Halacha encompasses virtually all aspects of Jewish life.  Halacha carefully monitors what one may and may not eat, may and may not wear.  Halacha also monitors when it is permitted to have sexual relations,  get haircuts and how much Matza one is required  to eat at the Seder dinner.  People who enjoy the orthodox lifestyle find that it answers many of their needs for a structured environment and a tight-knit community.  

Jews who classify themselves as orthodox are very concerned with whether they have followed all aspects of Halacha.  Usually orthodox Jews live within in a homogenous community and adhere to the word of the rabbi as the final arbiter in what is permissible for the community.  In some communities the word of the rabbi is so strong that people fear they will be asked to leave if they do not follow the rules of the community.    Especially in the ultra-orthodox  communities, children have been brought up with minimal interaction with the secular world, and have been given a very narrow education.

In ultra-orthodox communities married women not only cover their hair, but wear a wig, known as a sheitel.  Young brides do not have the opportunity to opt out, but must follow the norms of the community.  The dress codes of a given community are strongly enforced by the community.   While not all orthodox communities impose wearing a sheitel, it is because the rabbi of the community has interpreted the law differently.   Some orthodox rabbis require that new mothers observe fast days, even if pregnant or nursing.   Other rabbis do not offer their opinion on personal matters unless asked directly.

An important concept to orthodox Jews  is zniut, or modesty.  Zniut  is the reason women cover their hair and wear modest dresses.   There are debates in the orthodox world over whether young girls should be required to wear thick tights in the summer, or if it is OK for them to show their legs while still in preschool. 

Another all-encompassing concept is that of Shomer Negia, not touching a women who might be menstruating.  For that reason, all casual physical contact between men and women is forbidden. Traditional synagogues have a partitioned area behind a curtain where the women can pray.   In recent years, certain municipalities in Israel have been running bus routes where men and women sit in separate sections.  

Adhering to the laws of kashrut has always been important to the Jewish community.  However, in the large orthodox and ultra-orthodox communities,  kosher supermarkets have been established that carry their own brand of almost everything including milk.  Two years ago that had devastating consequences when a brand of baby formula was promoted as being under the highest kosher supervision.  Certain B vitamins had not been included in the formulation and several babies in Jerusalem died.

Over the past 20 years there has been a resurgence in young Jews becoming more observant.  Traditional families that celebrated a few major holidays a year, now find they have to accommodate grown children who require strict adherence to rabbinical law.  That includes not turning the lights or the gas on or off on Shabbat, waiting 6 hours between meat and milk meals, and retooling family traditions to fit the halacha.   The parents comply because these are the ground rules for having a relationship with the grandchildren.  While some parents willingly go along, other parents are upset by what they view as a very narrow upbringing for their grandchildren.  One senior diplomat from the United Nations was upset when his son’s rabbi forbade him from bringing his grandchildren a dictionary.   Other parents feel that their children have thrown away their liberal upbringing that allowed them access to some of the finest educational institutions while concurrently maintaining a strong Jewish identity at home.    

Orthodoxy in Judaism allows individuals to flourish as part of a larger community.  However, those whose personal or artistic talents and ambitions are not eas ily observed within that community suffer to find a way to articulate those needs.  The late writer Chaim Potok described those struggles in his many fine novels including The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev.

More about this author: Tamara Silberman

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