Ritual Variation among Orthodox Jews in the United States

Publication Date: January 1986

Publisher: Indiana University Press; Institute of Contemporary Jewry

Author(s): Samuel C. Heilman; Steven M. Cohen

Research Area: Culture and religion

Keywords: American Jews; Orthodox Judaism; Religious Denominations

Type: Report

Coverage: United States


Only recently have some social scientists turned their attention to those whom we have called the modern Orthodox Jews, those who fashion an accommodation between the perceived ideal of Judaism as an all-encompassing life-form and the contemporary world. On some matters modern Orthodox Jews conform to the beliefs and practices of their traditionalist counterparts. In others, the two groups diverge. Insofar as they do, we might surmise that some modern Orthodox Jews experience a sense of "falling short" or "not living up to" their self-imposed obligation to follow traditional Jewish laws and practices to the letter. On the other hand, many of them resemble, in several ways, those who may be called nominally Orthodox or even non-Orthodox. In each instance, modern Orthodox Jews distinguish themselves from what they perceive to be the extremes of the modernist "left" and the traditionalist "right."

Precisely how they relate their accommodation to the extremes, the nature of their compromises, and the limits of flexibility are analyzed. One area crucial to the lives of modern Orthodox Jews and to distinctions among them is, of course, that of ritual practice.

In this paper, we try to accomplish two related research aims in this area. First, we attempt to simply demonstrate the existence of a perceivable and structured gradient of ritual observance among the modern Orthodox. For those (primarily outsiders) who are unclear as to how highly ordered distinctions among modern Orthodox Jews manifest themselves in ritual practice (or who may be unclear about whether significant distinctions in religious practice even characterize the modern Orthodox), our documentation and description of ritual distinctions among those we shall term "nominal," "mainstream," and "traditionalist" Orthodox should prove instructive. Second, we also demonstrate how social factors other than the symbolic or religious significance of certain ritual practices operate to influence the frequency with which they are performed by various subgroups within the modern Orthodox. Thus, many (including, perhaps, most insiders) might think that modern Orthodox Jews, whose rhetoric speaks of devoted adherence to ancient Jewish religious law and whose practice sets them apart not only from the larger society but from other American Jews as well, are primarily influenced in their choice of which religious norms to follow primarily by symbolic considerations.

We demonstrate that other factors—such as the ability of the Orthodox community to punish transgression or award compliance with religious law or the social costs entailed in performing certain practices—have powerful influences upon the frequency with which many rituals are undertaken. This paper, then, focuses on important differences in ritual practice among varieties of modern Orthodox Jews. We will attempt to derive from the analysis of our data a sense of how people come to grips with tradition in the contemporary context, of how those we term "cosmopolitan parochials" cope with and commonly resolve the tensions of simultaneously living in different worlds.

In Studies in Contemporary Jewry II, Peter Y. Medding, ed. Bloomington IN, Indiana University Press, 1986, p.164-187.