NOTE TO READERS: This is a ten-part series of online articles that, with G-d’s help, I hope to transform into a larger book. It is prompted and inspired by questions I have been asked over the past half century by my readers and particularly these past five years by non-Jewish political conservatives of Christian background who often love Jews but cannot figure us out. Because most online opinion articles range between 600-3,000 words, this subject cannot be treated properly in one single article or even in a series. However, this series marks an ambitious effort to address a perplexing question, one that perplexes America’s one million Orthodox Jews more than it does even non-Jewish conservative Christians.
Part One: The Basic Definitions of Jews and Non-Orthodox Jewish Denominations can be found here.
4A. The Denominations — The “Orthodox”: Haredim
Just as Protestant denominations subdivide, as in the Lutheran example of the Wisconsin Synod, the Missouri Synod, and the ELCA, so it is that Judaism has its intra-denominational subdivisions. I call it the “Amoeba Paradox”: multiplying by dividing. Among those who have remained faithful to real Judaism — authentic Judaism, Torah-true Judaism — there now are several subgroups, all aggregated as “The Orthodox.” The three broadest Orthodox subgroups are: (i) the Lithuanian Charedim, (ii) the Chasidim, and (iii) the Modern Orthodox. They each in turn further subdivide.
First, nomenclature. The term “Ultra Orthodox” usually is used in Western media to describe Charedim. That term is very insulting. Ultra? Are ISIS and Al Qaeda “ultra” terrorists? Are those of us who stand at the national anthem “ultra” patriots? Perhaps “progressives” who kneel at the Star Spangled Banner indeed would call us “ultra patriots,” but they do not get to define us. Likewise withCharedim. The problem in calling a Charedi Jew by the right term is exacerbated because Anglophones have difficulty pronouncing the guttural consonant, a sound similar to clearing one’s throat. Thus, they warmly wish me a “Happy Hannukah” after I wish them a “Merry Christmas,” but the first letter of Chanukah is more a guttural sound than an “H.” Likewise, any Middle Easterner will tell you that ground chick peas rightly are called “Chummus,” not “Hummus.” The Arab Muslim terrorists of Gaza call themselves “Chamas,” not “Hamas.” The Arab Muslim terrorists of Lebanon call themselves “Chizbollah,” not “Hezbollah.” Obama went to so much effort to pronounce “Pakistan” as “Pahkeestahn,” but few Anglophones take on the “ch” sound that Arabs and Israelis actually master with ease from babyhood as Arab Muslim mothers teach their tykes to slaughter Jews someday while the Jewish moms tell their three-year-old kids to forget the haters and just go to medical school or at least marry a doctor. Therefore, going forward in deference to the audience, this discussion will refer to the Charedim as “Haredim” and to Chassidim as “Hasidim.” (Hebrew, like such Romantic languages as Italian, French, and Spanish, individuates nouns into male and female. The Hebrew suffix “im” turns most singular male nouns into plural. Thus, one “Hasid,” many “Hasidim”; one “Haredi,” many “Haredim.” (For that matter, one “dag,” two “dagim” — one fish, two fish.)
Another word about words: The term “Orthodox” nowadays is used to define Jews who observe the rules of Judaism like kosher eating and proper Sabbath observance. The term “Orthodox,” however, was meant as an insulting, mocking, and derisive term imposed on Torah-observant Jews moving to America between 1881-1914. The term was created by “Reform” Jews to mock these immigrants who, true to their heritage, wore skull caps and similar head coverings like hats and yarmulkas. The “Reform” Jews laughed at the immigrants fleeing to Ellis Island from Eastern Europe after pogroms erupted when Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 and compared them to the non-Jewish Christian metropolitans of the Eastern Orthodox churches of Russia and Byzantine, who also wore distinctive head coverings. Inasmuch as the newly arriving Torah-observant Jews were Yiddish speakers who barely knew English, they heard themselves called “Orthodox” and therefore self-identified as such without realizing the insult. Today, “Orthodox Jews” routinely use the term, blissfully ignorant that they have adopted for themselves a deeply insulting epithet. In a way, it is like the way American terminology has labeled African Americans as “The Coloreds” (NAACP’s 1909 civil-rights acronym advocates advancing “Colored People.” Through a century of terminology changes including “Negro,” “Black,” and “African American,” the language has traveled full cycle back to “People of Color.”)
Haredim are identifiable by their austere black-white clothes, chosen that way not to emulate Johnny Cash but to downplay living life in splashes of superficial color. Essentially all religiously observant Ashkenazic Jews were Haredi entering into the 20th century. They divided simply between those who observe and adhere to Torah (“shomer mitzvot”) and those who do not observe (“m’challel mitvot”). In the mid-17th century, the Cossack pogroms led by Bogdan Khmelnytzky set off massive turmoil — both physical and spiritual — for Jews in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. More than 100,000 Jews were murdered. Many Jews began believing that circumstances had gotten so hopeless that the Messiah was about to arrive. In the disruption’s aftermath, a leading rabbi of that era, Israel ben Eliezer, advanced certain interesting ritual modifications regarding how Jews should focus theologically to aim for greater spirituality and joy. He became known as the “Ba’al Shem Tov” (abbreviated as “The Besht”), and his movement became known as “Hasidism.”
As one example of his modifications, The Besht noted that Jewish law requires that thrice-daily prayers be recited within specific time windows at night, in the morning, and in afternoon. He felt, however, that a person who is beset with too much else on his mind at prayer time would do better by missing the formally assigned time window for prayer and instead better to pray after the deadline’s passage than to force oneself to pray at a time when he simply cannot focus as properly. (The contrary normative school of thought is that, when the time is at hand, one needs to refocus, just as men and women do when they show up at work or play.) Moreover, a central tenet (not “tenant”) in Judaism is that a man must continue to engage in ongoing adult Torah-text learning every day of his life, all his life. Somehow a person must make some time every day for Torah learning (kove’a itim laTorah). The Besht did not nullify nor disrespect this rule but deemphasized it a bit as compared to the Lithuanian approach. Thus, The Besht was not introducing radical changes into core Judaic practice but did suggest certain flexibilities. Again those following his approach are known as Hasidim.
Nevertheless, the mainstream of observant Jews, whose religious center was based in Lithuania and whose greatest rabbinic authority of that time was Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (also called “The Vilna Gaon”), rejected The Besht’s approach and adhered to the more punctilious rules of two thousand years. At the time — the 17th and 18th centuries — the theological differences between “Lithuanian Haredim” (also known as “Litvaks”) and Hasidim were sharper, even as they dressed similarly and appear to non-Jews as indistinguishable in raiment and theology. Today, the differences between Hasidim and Litvaks are almost non-discernible. On the one hand, the Hasidim do not today typically reflect the innovativeness and daring of The Besht. So, as an example, if morning prayers on a given day should be concluded by 10:00 a.m., then the “Lithuanians” in the old days would make it their business to conclude prayers by that time — no matter what — while the Hasidim would not adhere to the clock’s ticking and would recite morning prayers when spiritually ready. But today a Hasidic group instead retains the tradition of starting their prayers at 10:00 a.m. on the Sabbath Day, regardless of whether their congregants would prefer to pray later or earlier. On the other hand, contemporary Hasidim are no less deeply committed to daily Torah learning than are “Lithuanians” or “Litvaks.” Hasidim traditionally are associated more with singing and with composing melodies for Jewish prayer and for Sabbath meals, but Litvaks and Modern Orthodox sing, too. (Though not this one.)
When a non-Jew sees a Haredi Jew — whether Lithuanian or Hasidic — the difference is impossible to spot. Only insiders really have a clue, as by the shape of the fedora the man is wearing. Hasidim, having begun as a movement in poor and repressed ghetto communities in Poland, Hungary, Romania, and elsewhere, strongly identified with their local community, much as many patriotic Americans not only are proud of our country but also are “Texas Proud” or lifelong Cubs’ or Red Sox fans even though they have not been in Chicago or Boston for decades. Likewise, among Hasidim, individuals associated particularly with the town or village — the shtetl — where they lived. Each shtetl had its own Town-or-Village Rabbi (known by the Yiddish word “Rebbe”), and the Hasidim of each shtetl would iconize their ghetto’s Rebbe as the “greatest living rabbi in the world.” This is not unlike the way federal judicial clerks, on their one-year clerkship immediately after law school — if they are fortunate enough to be among the few selected for such an opportunity — come to regard “their judge” as the most brilliant judge in the entire federal judiciary. (I clerked in Louisville, Kentucky for the Hon. Danny J. Boggs in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and, as it just so happens, he actually is the most brilliant federal judge.)
As Hasidism developed, it came to pass that each Hasidic shtetl’s Jews became so convinced that they enjoyed the unique good fortune of having lived in the ghetto where the greatest rabbi in all the world was based that Hasidim in each shtetl would dress like their Rebbe and would study his teachings and Torah commentaries with greater focus than they would assign to those of other centuries’ and places’ great rabbis. As a result, over time there have developed further subdivisions among Hasidim. Although all Hasidim are quite similar in broad ways of thinking and understanding Judaism, those whose lineage traces back to any particular East European shtetl two hundred years ago differ slightly in practice and in garb from those who trace back to a different town. Thus, those from Belz in Galicia followed the Belzer Rebbe and are known as Belzer Hasidim. Those from Munkatch, Hungary followed the Munkatcher Rebbe and are known as Munkatcher Hasidim. Bobov (Bobowa, Galicia): Bobover Rebbe / Bobover Hasidim. Kosov (Galicia-Ukraine): Kosover Rebbe / Kosover Hasidim. Lubavitch (started in Liozno, then moved to Lyubavichi, both in Russia): Lubavitcher Rebbe / Lubavitcher Hasidim. Gur (Góra Kalwaria, Poland): Gerrer Rebbe / Gerrer Hasidim. Karlin-Stolin (Belarus): Karlin-Stoliner Rebbe / Karlin-Stolin Hasidim. Satmar (Szatmárnémeti, Hungary — now Satu Mare (Saint Mary), Romania): Satmar Rebbe / Satmar Hasidim. Does that make a wedded couple, where one hails from a Belzer Hasidic family and the other from Satmar, the “Belzer-Saint Mary”? You decide.
Of the Hasidic groups, Lubavitch is best known worldwide because their last Rebbe was a more worldly sophisticate who also had studied engineering, then audited math classes at the Sorbonne in France from 1937-1939, and gained an appreciation for marketing and publicity. After coming to America, that Rebbe carefully selected many skillful publicists and marketers among his rabbinic students to go to different parts of America where Orthodoxy had not yet taken root in Jewish communities, and they established local outposts of the Lubavitch Hasidic order, which they came to name “Chabad.” Therefore, although Chabad Hasidism is one of the smaller Hasidic groups, it appears to be the dominant one, broadcasting an annual telethon in Los Angeles, erecting Chanukah menorahs at shopping malls, and connecting well with public figures. On the other end of the Hasidic spectrum, the Satmar Hasidim are deeply severe and famously anti-Zionist. They love the land of Israel, raise money around the world to support their institutions there, and visit or live there. On the other hand, they believe that, after the Romans expelled the Jews from Israel two thousand years ago, only G-d’s Messiah would have the authority to restore Jews to Israel and to rebuild Zion. They feel further validated in their anti-Zionist beliefs because Israel politically was founded primarily by decidedly non-religious Jews like such socialist Labor Zionists as David Ben-Gurion. As a result, Satmar Hasidim hold political protests against Israel, and the Neturei Karta (a philosophically related anti-Zionist Litvak group of 5,000 or so in Israel who are not otherwise associated with the Satmar, who are Hasidic) were very supportive of Yasser Arafat and even attend conferences organized by the ayatollahs in Iran aimed at destroying Israel (and denying the Holocaust). In that way, both Neturei Karta and Satmar ultimately appear comical, in the sense of the Bizarro characters in Superman comic books, showing up at BDS rallies and conferences where the Jew-hating sponsors cannot figure out whether to welcome them, pillory them, maul them, or cook them. None of it matters because they are seen by other Orthodox Jews as antediluvian, sort of like the proverbial Japanese WWII soldiers based in caves who never got the memo.
In Israel today, the UTJ (United Torah Judaism) party is an Ashkenazic Haredi party comprised of a merger between Litvaks and Hasidim because, despite the philosophical differences that animate them, they are so similar. The only way to tell them apart often is by the brim of their black fedora, which they wear over their yarmulka. In each 18thcentury shtetl, hats were cut a bit differently. There actually are one or two “Black Hat” stores in America to which Hasidim travel to buy the fedora with the specific brim shape that their Rebbe wore centuries ago. On Sabbaths and special occasions, some Hasidim instead wear a kind of fur hat, a shtreimel, that often is made of the tails of foxes.
4B. The Denominations — The “Orthodox”: Modern Orthodox / Centrist Orthodox / Pseudo Orthodox aka “Open Orthodox”
In the 20th century, many ritually observant Jews began trying to Americanize and Westernize into societies like the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom without abandoning their core observances and beliefs. Over time they came to be known as the “Modern Orthodox.” Modern Orthodox Jews dress in contemporary western attire — jeans, T-shirts, western-cut suits and ties, skirts and blouses, dresses. The clothes tend to be a bit or much more modest than what other Americans wear. Orthodox women avoid wearing skirts and dresses that end above the knee or that show too much back or upper front torso. Similarly, they avoid showing their upper arms, aiming for blouse sleeves to the elbow. Some avoid clothes that are too suggestively tight or are colored red. Orthodox men wear a head covering to instill modesty and humility, to indicate that their being does not end at their scalp but that G-d reposes above them. Married Orthodox women cover their hair — some with scarves, some with snoods, some with hats, some with wigs. Indoors, when only with their husbands and children, they typically do not cover their hair, but some do. Orthodox women wear the wedding ring they received when marrying under the chupah (canopy). Torah-educated Orthodox men do not wear a wedding ring because a woman does not give a man a wedding ring in an Orthodox marriage since the Torah speaks of a man taking a wife. Deuteronomy 22:13. However, one sees many Modern Orthodox men wear wedding rings because they want to fit in with the secular non-Jewish society around them. If one purpose of a male’s wedding ring is to identify his marital status in the eyes of women other than his wife, his yarmulka reinforces his morality.
While Haredi Jews typically avoid attending secular universities and pursuing such careers, preferring trades, vocations, and entrepreneurial efforts, Modern Orthodox Jews more typically study secular subjects, attend secular universities, and pursue secular careers. Thus, inter alia, I attended Columbia University and UCLA Law School, practiced complex business litigation more than ten years at major firms like Jones Day and Akin Gump, and have taught the law of remedies, advanced torts, and civil procedure nearly two decades at law schools. Likewise, Modern Orthodox Jews are more open to watching movies and television, although Hollywood’s transition to outright coarseness, filth, and culturally subversive propaganda has redefined with increased urgency whether a television belongs in any Orthodox Jewish home. And the same with music. Songs of The Beatles were risqué in their day, but Modern Orthodox Jews all followed each generation’s music from Benny Goodman and Swing to Elvis to The Stones to Simon and Garfunkel. Today, in a coarse era when America’s Number One Hit for 2020 was Cardi B’s vile “WAP,” many Orthodox Jews have moved either to 1960s-1990s American Country Music or have dropped American music and moved to follow Israel music and American Hebrew music composed and performed by religious musical entertainers.
Modern Orthodox Judaism came to be known in the 1950s and 1960s by the slogan “Torah and Science.” In time, as America has evolved, so has Modern Orthodoxy. Just as the Haredim — both Litvaks and Hasidim — are socially, culturally, and politically overwhelmingly conservative, the Modern Orthodox trend heavily towards such conservatism. Even so, as with all demographics, a variant exists. Two decades ago, the outlier more left-wing branch of Modern Orthodoxy undertook to denominate itself independently and to re-brand itself outside of normative mainstream Orthodoxy, calling itself “Open Orthodox.” All normative mainstream Orthodox communities, congregational umbrella groups, and rabbinical associations uniformly have come to agree in various official pronouncements that the “Open Orthodox” in fact are not Orthodox at all. Thus, not any Orthodox rabbinic organization or association anywhere in the world accepts rabbis ordained at their one seminary, and virtually no normative Orthodox synagogue will hire them. Accordingly, the “Open Orthodox” have had to create their own inconsequential rabbinic association, and they have perhaps a dozen congregations in America and Canada where a rabbi of theirs serves. Most of their hundred or so graduates end up taking positions as prison chaplains, campus Hillel rabbis, or positions in places with minuscule Jewish populations. Nevertheless, their very presence has led a great many Modern Orthodox Jews now to identify themselves instead as “Centrist Orthodox” to distinguish that they are Modern, not Haredi, but in the center and far from the left.
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