Jewish Studies Orthodoxy
Ilan Fuchs
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0191


The term Orthodox comes from the Greek, meaning “the right idea.” In Jewish communities, Orthodoxy is used to identify a theological and sociological stream in the modern period. From a theological perspective, the term is used to signify the belief that canonical Jewish texts are divine, and that the Halakha (or Halacha), the Jewish legal system, is binding. The Jewish historian Jacob Katz (b. 1904–d. 1998) saw Orthodoxy as a phenomenon that developed in the modern era as a response to secularization. This response created a critical dialogue with modernity that leads Orthodox communities to selectively choose and legitimize parts of the modern experience, creating a spectrum of Orthodoxies with many different sociological variables determined by the extent of integration with modernity (e.g., in Israel, Orthodoxy spans a spectrum from religious Zionism to Haredi [or Charedi] Judaism). The sociologist Menachem Friedman points to several common attributes to Orthodoxy, mainly its rejection of secular society and the emphasis that Orthodox discourse puts on the past as a lost idyllic reality that should be resurrected. Geographically and chronologically, Orthodoxy spans many spaces. It morphs in many ways, and its manifestation in 19th-century Russia is very different from its evolution in interwar Poland or post-Holocaust Israel. But in these different situations and historical contexts, Orthodoxy developed very clear theological and political agendas, all based on a shared textual traditions that allows for transitions between different Orthodox communities, such as modern Orthodoxy in the United States. The Orthodox ethos stems from the positions of Rabbi Moshe Sofer (b. 1762–d. 1839), known as the Chatam Sofer, who had to craft a policy reacting to acculturation, secularization, and assimilation in Germany and Hungary. He promoted a policy of creating fences around the observant Jewish community, preventing the influence of secularism by celebrating particularism and emphasizing the need to maintain a separate Jewish sphere with the most minimal connections to the non-Jewish world.

  • Caplan, Kimmy, and Nurit Stadler. Manhigut ṿe-samkhut ba-ḥevrah ha-Ḥaredit be-Yiśraʼel: Etgarim ṿa-ḥalufot. Jerusalem: Mekhon Ṿan Lir bi-Yerushalayim, 2009.

    This book discusses the different models of leadership that emerged in the Haredi community in Israel and the evolution of this leadership. The different chapters point to the ways leaders emerged with in the Haredi communities, and to the limits of power held by these leaders.

  • Ferziger, Adam S. Exclusion and Hierarchy: Orthodoxy, Nonobservance, and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

    This book discusses the attitude of Orthodox communities in the 18th century toward non-observant and assimilated Jews. The book shows that in that period the Orthodox community was not quick to cast away these people.

  • Friedman, Menachem. Ḥevrah ṿa-dat: Ha-Orṭodoḳsyah ha-lo-Tsiyonit be-Erets-Yiśraʼel, 1918–1936. Jerusalem: Yad Yitzchak Ben Tzvi, 1982.

    This essential book discusses the emergence of the organizational framework of non-Zionist Orthodoxy in pre-state Israel. This served as a foundation to the emergence of Haredi society in Israel after the holocaust.

  • Friedman, Menachem. Ḥevrah be-mashber legiṭimatsyah: Ha-yishuv ha-yashan ha-Ashkenazi, 1900–1917. Jerusalem: Mosad Byaliḳ, 2001.

    This book explores the downfall of the Old Yishuv, the Orthodox Jewish community in pre-state Israel. Friedman suggests the reason for its disintegration, and by doing so explains changes that were created by Haredi community.

  • Katz, Jacob. A House Divided: Orthodoxy and Schism in Nineteenth-Century Central European Jewry. Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 1998.

    Katz examines the rise and transformation of Orthodoxy in central Europe. He sees this history as a narrative of polarization, due to the perils of modernization Orthodoxy invented a narrative of separation and particularism.

  • Katz, Jacob. Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000.

    This classic book sketches the origins of Orthodoxy and the evolution of Orthodoxy at the end of the Middle Ages. Katz explained how Jewish tradition had to be re-read by the rabbinic leadership in light of the crisis of secularization. Katz created a model conceptual framework for scholarship on Orthodoxy.

  • Keren-Kratz, Menachem. Maramuresh Sigeṭ: Ortodoḳsyah ḳitsonit ṿe-tarbut Yehudit-ḥilonit le-margelot hare ha-Ḳarpaṭim. Jerusalem: Mifʻal Dov Sadan, ha-Universiṭah ha-ʻIvrit, 2013.

    The book discusses the evolution of Radical Orthodoxy against the backdrop of Jewish secularization and the popularity of Zionism. The book focuses on the ideological discourse of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, who became the torchbearer for Orthodox anti-Zionism.

  • Sagi, Avi, and Dov Schwartz. Religious Zionism and the Six-Day War: From Realism to Messianism. Translated by Batya Stein. London: Routledge, 2018.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780429425189

    Religious Zionism entered a new phase after the Six-Day War. Its self-perception and its understanding of the political reality pushed it toward more involvement in Israeli politics, but also created an internal discourse that pushed for greater leadership roles for religious Zionists and their ideology in Israeli public life. The book offers an analysis of the theological framework that allowed for this development.

  • Salmon, Yosef, Aviezer Ravitzky, and Adam S. Ferziger. Ortodoḳsiyah Yehudit: Ha-yeveṭim ḥadashim. Jerusalem: Magness press, 2006.

    This collection is an important anthology that discusses many aspects of Orthodoxy from an interdisciplinary perspective.

  • Shapiro, Marc. Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2015.

    Shapiro discusses the hagiography within Orthodox circles and analyzes how the past is reconstructed to serve the ideological agenda. The different methods used to advance this cause vary. Censorship, for example, is used by intentionally providing inaccurate translations of older works in an attempt to erase ideological positions considered inappropriate. In other cases, new editions of books go so far as to delete problematic paragraphs.

Halakhic Discourse in the Modern Period

The ethos of Orthodoxy is centered around Torah study, which is considered a supreme religious act and, as such, is a focal point of community interests. The important question to be asked is what makes the halakhic discourse within Orthodoxy unique when compared to the halakhic discourse prior to the modern period. Scholarship on this issue is grappling with this question and is beginning to provide pathways to explore this subject. The intersections between halakhic literature and modernity lead to several results. One is the creation of halakhic texts that emphasize the need to reject outside influences even in places where there is little halakhic justification to reject such influences. The choice of subject matter is also a natural place to find the clash with modernity. Certain topics are introduced as a direct result of a reality in which a religious community is living with a larger nonreligious community with a very different set of values. Issues such as women’s rights, the halakhic status of secular Jews and non-Jews, technological innovations, and democracy are all topics that found their way to the halakhic discourse in light of the influence that secularism and acculturation have on Orthodox communities. A more subtle field in which rabbinic discourse is interacting with modernity is in the language and reasoning used in halakhic texts. Rabbinic discourse has a long tradition of legal reasoning and methodology. Modern values and ideas might find their way into this age-old traditional discourse, but they will be camouflaged with traditional language. Nonetheless, it is hard to exaggerate the importance of the rabbinic canon when it comes to the study of Orthodoxy.

  • Brown, Benjamin. Ha-Ḥazon Ish: Ha-poseḳ, ha-maʼamin u-manhig ha-mahpekhah ha-Ḥaredit. Jerusalem: Hotsaʼat sefarim ʻa. sh. Y.L. Magnes, ha-Universiṭah ha-ʻIvrit, 2011.

    This book focuses on one of the halakhic luminaries of the 20th century who shaped the Haredi community after the Second World War. The book discusses how he navigated the many challenges presented before Orthodoxy.

  • Fuchs, Ilan, and Aviad Yechiel Hollander. “National Movements and International Law: Rabbi Shlomo Goren’s Understanding of International Law.” Journal of Law and Religion 29 (2014): 301–316.

    DOI: 10.1017/jlr.2014.7

    This article shows how a leading Orthodox rabbi is trying to re-read international law into rabbinic literature in order to give an Orthodox position on contemporary issues relating to the day-to-day policies of a modern Jewish state.

  • Hellinger, Moshe. “Religious Ideology That Attempts to Ease the Conflict between Religion and State: An Analysis of the Teachings of Two Leading Religious-Zionist Rabbis in the State of Israel.” Journal of Church and State 51 (2009): 52–77.

    DOI: 10.1093/jcs/csp004

    This article focuses on religious Zionist rabbinic discourse and its tactics when dealing with modernity.

  • Hollander, A. Y. “Halachic Multiculturalism in the IDF: Rulings of Official Religious Authorities in Israel Concerning ‘Women’s Singing.’” Modern Judaism 34 (2014): 271–286.

    DOI: 10.1093/mj/kju017

    This is a test case study of halakhic texts concerning women’s changing role in society. The article offers both an analysis of the halakhic discussions and of the sociological undertones in the halakhic texts.

  • Mashiach, Amir. Halakhah bi-temurot ha-zeman be-mishnato shel ha-Rav Shelomoh Zalman Oyerbakh. Ramat Gan, Israel: Universiṭat Bar-Ilan, 2013.

    The legacy of Rabbi Oyerbakh was that of a halakhic authority who went beyond the strict boundaries of a specific subset of Orthodoxy. His expertise made him a prominent figure who shaped many foundational halakhic texts that discuss modern innovations and their halakhic status. The book explores some of themes in his legacy and the ways he saw some of the challenges of modernity.

  • Radzyner, Amichai. “The Impact of Supreme Court Rulings on the Halakhic Status of the Official Rabbinical Courts in Israel.” In Institutionalizing Rights and Religion: Competing Supremacies. Edited by Leora Batnitzky and Hanoch Dagan, 224–240. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781316599969.014

    The article discusses one of the battlefields between secularists and religious in Israel. Since Israeli law gives religious authorities power to control marriage and divorce, there is significant opposition among secular Israelis who continually attempt to minimize the authority of the religious courts through the Supreme Court and the constitutional framework created in the 1990s.

  • Sagi, Avi. The Open Canon: On the Meaning of Halakhic Discourse. London: Continuum, 2007.

    In this text we find a survey of different opinions in the modern period concerning the nature of the halakhic discourse. The focus is put on the theological, hermeneutical, and ontological meaning of dispute as a constitutive element of halakha.

  • Zalḳin, Motti. Mara de-atra?: Rav u-ḳehilah bi-teḥum ha-moshav. Jerusalem: Hotsaʼat sefarim ʻa. sh. Y.L. Magnes, ha-Universiṭah ha-ʻIvrit, 2017.

    This book discusses the role of rabbis of communities in eastern Europe and their challenges in the evolving reality of the modern period. It is based on many primary sources and an extensive collection of details to create a portrait of rabbinic leadership in the 19th century in the Pale of Settlements.

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