The evolution of halachah in American Orthodoxy

Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy, Chaim Waxman, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization/Liverpool University Press, £29.95


According to Pew, the non-partisan Amrerican “fact” tank, about 12 per cent of America’s 3.6 million Jews by religion, are Orthodox. Of these, about 66 per cent are Charedi, while 33 per cent are Modern Orthodox. How did these groupings arise, what socio-economic factors drive them, and how are they shaping American Jewry? Chaim Waxman, the veteran sociologist, brings together decades of research to shed some light.  

American Orthodoxy is a relatively recent phenomenon arising in opposition to the modernising programmes of new movements. In 1820, American Judaism was traditional, based on the Sephardi tradition. By the mid-1880s, following waves of European immigration, the Reform and Conservative movements had been established, with their own rabbinical seminaries and synagogue organisations. 

Traditionalists organised themselves in opposition. The Union of Orthodox Rabbis, founded in 1902, viewed integration into American society as a prelude to assimilation. The seminary at Yeshiva University, headed first by Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik and then by his son, Rabbi J B Soloveitchik, took a more integrationist approach, the latter promoting science and societal enrichment as Torah values.  

Ultra-Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy were born. It is good that they were. As Waxman shows, those who identify with these groupings are more religiously committed and more likely to have Jewish children than those who do not. 

Yet problems abound; poverty, divorce, abuse, discrimination are real concerns, as they are for society at large. Orthodoxy also continues to grapple with the place of women, diversity, relations with the outside world and secular scepticism, which is leading to new approaches and sub-groups, such as the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and Open Orthodoxy. There is also increased creativity, as the internet brings Orthodox people into greater contact with current trends. This is leading to innovation in the areas of writing, art and music.  

And it is here where the book becomes most interesting because it seems clear that the future is not with movements at all, but with individuals starting to find their own way, shunning institutional or denominational divides, to forge rich creative religious lives which transcend mere sociology.

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