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Who is an “Orthodox”?


I became inspired to write this post from another blog post I read recently, “Stop the Presses! Reform Jews can’t be called ‘observant’?”, as well as from an article in “The Orthodox Forum,” by B. Barry Levy, “The State and Directions of Orthodox Bible Study.”[1]

The post, “Stop the Presses! Reform Jews can’t be called ‘observant’?”, at The Grand Scheme, is mostly dealing with the question of whether a Reform Jew can be called “observant” or not. Relating to another post on another blog, author Eileen Flynn wonders about whether it is right to object against the term “objective” being used about Reform Jews. Personally, as I also wrote in a comment to the post, I don’t see the big problem, as long as the person in question really is observant. It is not the “observance” I differ on, but what to be “observed.”

 In his article, “The State and Directions of Orthodox Bible Study,” Barry Levy primarily talks about how to approach and create a consistent understanding within the Orthodox world, on what it means to conduct Bible studies in acceptance to Orthodox values. He does devote a part of the article on what “Orthodox” means, and that is, as well as Flynn’s post, what I will relate to in this post.

First and foremost, in the Jewish world today, we have four general movements, namely the Orthodox, the Conservative, the Reform, and the Reconstructionist movements. I’m not going to spend time explaining the principles of these four movements, but more focus on the meaning of “Orthodox,” and when one can be called so.

Levy introduces the second part of his article with the question “Who or what is Orthodox,” and relates to the earliest uses of the term, namely around the year 1800 (1795 to be precise), limiting the scope of identifying “Orthodox” within the last two centuries. Of course, his article is mostly focused on the scholarship within Bible study, but I did get some good input out of it, namely that the Orthodox Jews seem to accept a certain group of literature. Levy defines it this way:

“Orthodoxy identifies with all of the vast and varied pre-Orthodox rabbinic tradition and theoretically takes seriously its range of ideological positions (and is the only contemporary Jewish religious movement to do so)….”[2]

What I find interesting here, is the use of “identifying,” theoretically,” and “range of ideological positions.” Basically, what Levy here states is that the Orthodox Jew identifies, at least on the theoretical plane, with the vast and varied pre-Orthodox Rabbinic tradition and its range of ideological positions. This Orthodox Jew doesn’t need to be observant, practicing, or the like, in order to fall within this definition, though I would believe that it would take at least a minimum of observance, in order to fully relate to the ideological positions of the Rabbinic tradition, one of which is the duty to indulge in the study of Torah.

This leads me to Flynn’s post about being “observant.” Often I see the term “observant” being used interchangeably with “Orthodox,” as well as with “frum,” as if these three terms share the exact same meaning. I don’t believe so. As I also wrote in my comment to Flynn’s post, the level of observance is not the same as what one observes. Take for example a person who is on a diet. He/she will most likely be very observant when it comes to eat the right food at the right times. He/she doesn’t need to be Orthodox though. Let’s – for the sake of argument – further delve into this example. A person on a diet will observe what this person believes has to be observed, while the Orthodox Jew also will observe his/her diet, but with a whole different scope, namely a more “spiritual” scope, choosing not to eat things which the person on a diet would eat, and the other way around. Both persons can be more or less observant with their diet, though the diets differ. Hence, I would believe, a Reform Jew can also be observant, though what he/she (and I have to admit that it is my experience that it’s mostly “she,” when it comes to the Reform Jews, shame on the men) observes are different from what an Orthodox Jew would observe.

Based on this, my understanding of who is or isn’t “Orthodox,” is based on approach and identification, more than it is on “observance.”

All the best.

[1] From “Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah,” from The Modern Orthodox Forum, the fourth conference 1991, edited by Shalom Carmy.

[2] Ibid. page 43.


  1. eeflynn says:

    Hi, Shmuel,
    I’m so glad you were inspired to explore this question further. I think you make some excellent points — your diet analogy is very effective. It’s interesting that in the years I wrote about religion for the newspaper here in Austin, Texas, I never heard people say “observant” could only be applied to Orthodox Jews. But apparently that view is out there, so it’s wonderful that you are addressing it here.
    Best wishes,

    • qolyehudi says:

      Dear Eileen

      First off, thanks for the words.

      Secondly, I don’t hear it so often either, mostly because I don’t deal so much which the various movements, since most here (Israel) are dealt with within the Orthodox understanding. That is both good and bad. Of course, for me only good, since I am an Orthodox Jew myself, or at least claim so (and according to my definition in this post, I believe I claim so correctly), but when people don’t get challenged in their views, they stagnate.

      But I do still see it, and more and more. I actually don’t believe that it has so much to do with the Reform vs. Orthodox discussion, but more with a growing intolerant attitude to people, who believe or think different from you. As a reaction against “the other,” terms which are viewed positive, seems to be denied them. Take the – for me – everyday present conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, where you are almost denied to say anything positive about “the other.” It also goes for the debates between Christians (and Jews) on the one side, and “leftists” and Muslims on the other, though there certainly are more moderates and fair minded people in this case.

      But in general, if you put it up in simple turns, then I don’t believe that many people will disagree with calling a Reform (or others) for observant, if that is the case.

      Thanks again:o)


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