Orthodox Judaism Today

With rising numbers and increasingly stringent observance, Orthodoxy thrives even as it faces challenges.

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Politically, too, the Orthodox world increasingly supports conservative policies on such issues as school-choice (vouchers) and public funding of faith-based charities. When it comes to Israel, the trend is perhaps more pronounced, with American Orthodox Jews overwhelmingly advocating right-wing Israeli policies and candidates, some of them far to the right of what mainstream Israelis, even conservative ones, would themselves support.

The mantra of Modern Orthodoxy was for generations expressed in the motto of Yeshiva University--Torah u'Madda. The phrase literally means "Torah and science," but is used to convey the parallel values of Jewish observance alongside engagement with the secular world. Today, though, Orthodox Jews live in world where the balance has tipped heavily in favor of Torah over madda--and in which many people have redefined "madda" as support for making one's livelihood in the secular world, not culturally or intellectually engaging with it.

The Challenge of Feminism

As the world has changed since the 1970s--the success of feminism, the rise of the gay rights movement, laxer sexual norms--Orthodoxy has, with mixed success, tried by and large to insulate itself from such evolutions. The greatest controversies, though, have taken place over questions of women's roles in Orthodox religious life.

In Orthodox prayer services, men and women are separated by a curtain or low wall, with only men allowed to lead services and read or bless the Torah. Women are exempt from many mitzvot (commandments) and cannot become rabbis. In some Orthodox communities, women do not study Talmud.

But feminism--combined with stronger Jewish education for Orthodox girls--has left many Orthodox women (and men) dissatisfied with traditional gender roles and restrictions. Being Orthodox, they retain their adherence to halakhah but have sought change within the limits of Jewish law--sometimes via creative re-interpretations--and also seek shifts in Jewish culture and attitude. This has resulted in bitter disputes over women's issues.

The debate threatens to split Jewish communities while at the same time creating new opportunities for female religious participation. More synagogues are holding women-only prayer groups, allowing the Torah processional to pass through the women's section, or taking other steps to increase women's religious participation. And as these synagogues take these steps, they inevitably face bitter condemnation from within and without, driving a wedge between them and the mainstream Orthodox community.

For conservatives in Orthodoxy, allowing changes in women's religious role is an unacceptable surrender to the broader secular culture; halakhah and Orthodox culture are seen by them as a bulwark against the outside world and its seemingly ever-shifting values. In the eyes of Orthodox feminists, though, Jewish tradition has always engaged and been influenced by prevailing intellectual and cultural norms, strong enough to incorporate them without compromising its core values or laws. To feminists, the change in women's status in the secular world is a monumental and permanent shift that must be reflected in Jewish life and observance; to conservatives, Jewish life and observance must be unchanging and unaffected by the cultural winds around it. Bridging that gap is difficult--possibly impossible--and reflects a profound difference in how the two sides view Judaism and its place in the world.

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Michael Kress

Michael Kress is the executive editor of Parents.com. He was also the the VP of Editorial and Managing Editor at Beliefnet and the founding editor-in-chief of MyJewishLearning.com.