2016-06-30
For much of the public, Jewish Orthodoxy may be defined by Tevye from "Fiddler on the Roof" or Barbra Streisand in "Yentl," but Orthodoxy is a far more nuanced, vast, and splintered world than those portraits suggest. Picture Joseph Lieberman next to Tevye, and you have an idea of the spectrum that Orthodoxy covers. Modern Orthodox Jews, with their, well, modern attire and often clean-shaven faces are a world apart from ultra-Orthodox Jews, with their black clothes, black hats, beards for men, and dangling earlocks.

The clothes embody vastly different worldviews. Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe in separating themselves almost entirely from the potentially corrupting influences of modern culture. Their communities tend to be nearly exclusively populated by other ultra-Orthodox Jews, their customs hark back directly to those of their ancestors in Eastern Europe, and those who pursue "secular" professions tend to practice them in ultra-Orthodox communities or companies.

Modern Orthodox Jews, however, model their lives on the relatively recent theological notion of Torah u'Madah, literally, Bible and science. This means dwelling in two worlds simultaneously, the religious world of traditional Jewish observance and the secular world of American culture and professional life. It does not mean that these Orthodox Jews live in a religious world on Saturday, the Sabbath, and a secular world during the week. It means, quite literally, that they exist in both worlds at once, living a life in tension between the two and negotiating compromises between them. It is a life modeled on the moral and religious teachings of Judaism, but one which engages, rather than shies away from, modern society, which modern Orthodox Jews no less than ultra-Orthodox ones see as potentially corrupting.

So what are the teachings and traditions on which that lifestyle and worldview are based? Orthodoxy, as its name implies, believes in strict adherence to Jewish law, believing halakah, the Hebrew term for Jewish law, to be the direct will of God as it was revealed to Moses at Sinai. Halakah is derived from the Torah (the Hebrew Bible), the Talmud (the compilation of rabbinic disputation, discussion, and exegesis compiled around 600 C.E. ), and law books and rabbinic rulings throughout the centuries, up to the present day. The vast canon of Jewish law covers every aspect of personal and communal life, even those many people might consider secular or otherwise outside the purview of religion. Halakah lays out not only how Jews should worship God but how they should conduct their relationships, business affairs, personal conduct, and communal life. Myriad laws, for example, detail the minutiae of avoiding gossip, describing in great detail what types of statements are permitted and what are prohibited. Others instruct business owners on avoiding unfair competitive practices or lay out a process for dealing with the ownership of lost items found in a public area.

Of course, much of Jewish law does deal with the specifically "religious" aspect of life. Orthodox Jews' daily routine consists of many "religious" activities. They pray three times a day, either in a synagogue or other communal setting or by themselves. Afternoon and evening prayers are short, taking maybe five or 10 minutes to complete, while morning prayers are longer, perhaps 45 minutes or an hour. Halakah dictates one-line blessings to be recited before any food or drink is consumed, and somewhat longer prayers of thanksgiving to be said at the end of meals.

Two of the more well-known and important aspects of Orthodox life are the Sabbath and kosher laws. Shabbat, the Sabbath, runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. It is widely known that "work" is forbidden on Shabbat, but as with so much of Jewish law, the truth is more nuanced than that. Jewish law books lay out 39 tasks that are forbidden on Shabbat, from lighting a fire to using a hammer to spending money. From there, the many restrictions of Shabbat are derived, by analogy and comparison. In modern times, rabbis have used, for instance, the prohibition against lighting a fire to outlaw electricity. They have also restricted driving on Shabbat. The intention is to create a day of peace, removed from the worries of everyday life, when Jews can focus on their religious lives, their families, and their communities. Jews typically keep Shabbat by praying in synagogue Friday night and Saturday morning (many attend Saturday afternoon and evening services as well) and eating large, traditional meals with friends and family.

For Lieberman, Shabbat has meant walking to and from the Capitol when important debates or votes take place Friday night or Saturday. When he was first nominated as a Connecticut senator, Lieberman skipped the nomination convention entirely, since it was held on Saturday, deciding instead to appear via pre-recorded video. Jewish law allows for wide latitude when lives are at stake and mandates that most laws be broken to save lives; Lieberman has said this would allow him to take care of vital affairs of state on Shabbat if he were president.

When it comes to dietary laws, Orthodox Jews eat only foods that are kosher and certified as so by a rabbi (not blessed by a rabbi, a common misconception). Kosher laws mostly deal with what types of meat can be eaten--beef, chicken, turkey OK; pork and shellfish not OK--and how kosher animals are to be slaughtered. Also, dairy and meat products are not to be eaten or prepared together, and Orthodox kitchens stock separate dairy and meat dishes, utensils, pots, and so on.

Since the focus is on meat, some Orthodox Jews will eat at non-kosher restaurants, or, say, political functions if strictly vegetarian foods are available. Also, because of the increasing number of Orthodox Jews in important professional and political positions, a growing number of restaurants and catering halls in major urban areas will provide kosher meals for those who request them. One can kasher a kitchen, or make it kosher, by boiling the silverware, running boiling water over the countertops, and other such actions. The current U.S. ambassador to Egypt, an Orthodox Jew, has kashered the embassy in Cairo, so it's not out of the question that the vice president's house in a Gore-Lieberman administration might likewise be kashered.

Orthodox families tend to send their children to Orthodox day schools, when these are locally available. These schools follow the Torah u'Madah philosophy and teach Judaic subjects half the day and secular subjects the other half. After graduating from high school, many Orthodox teens spend a year or two studying in a yeshiva, or academy of Jewish learning, in Israel before attending a secular university or perhaps Yeshiva University in New York City, also founded on the Torah u'Madah ideal. While most American Jews, who are overwhelmingly liberal, oppose school vouchers, growing numbers of Orthodox Jews support some sort of public financing of private schools because they believe it will aid the often cash-strapped Jewish day schools.

Orthodox Judaism looks forward to the advent of the Messiah, a utopian future of world peace and fellowship, in which the central Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., will be rebuilt and the Davidic dynasty will be reinstated. The destroyed Temple and the hoped-for Messiah loom large in Jewish liturgy and the Bible's prophetic books. (Unlike Christians, Jews believe the Messiah has never yet appeared on Earth.)

In recent years, Jewish Orthodoxy has marched to the right, theologically, with emphasis put on ever-stricter adherence to Jewish law. Laws once abandoned in the name of integration into American life are being re-embraced, and the line between modern and ultra-Orthodox Judaism is increasingly blurred. But the idea of Torah u'Madah, tradition and modernity, life in two worlds at once, is still alive and well, as evidenced by the growing presence of Orthodox Jews in corporate boardrooms and Wall Street offices--and on presidential campaign tickets.

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