Orthodox Vs. Ultra-Orthodox Jews

Orthodox Jewish boys praying at the Western Wall
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It's often difficult to understand the differences between the sects of a particular religion. In the case of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Judaism, the situation is complicated by the fact that even Jews themselves do not really have a standard opinion on what makes one Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox. In general, however, there are a few broadly defined differences between the two groups that can be recognized across communities.

1 Terminology Disputes

One reason that the difference between ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews is so hard to define is that the term "ultra-Orthodox" is a source of contention. The people typically described as "ultra-Orthodox" may feel that the term portrays them as a fringe, extremist element of the Orthodox Jewish movement, when they believe they are the movement's true heirs. These communities generally prefer to be known as "right-wing," "haredi," or "frum." Non-"right wing" Orthodox Jews often refer to themselves as "modern Orthodox" to differentiate themselves.

2 Orthodox Judaism

All Orthodox Jews, regardless of sect, live by the dictates of halakha, or Jewish law, as it has been extrapolated from the Five Books of Moses by rabbis throughout the centuries. This generally means that they eat only kosher food, refrain from certain kinds of activity on the Jewish Sabbath, and observe holidays on the Jewish ritual calendar. Men will generally wear yarmulkes and sidelocks, and married women may cover their hair. The main difference between right-wing and modern Orthodox communities is their approach to engaging with the secular world.

3 Right-Wing Orthodox in the Secular World

Right-wing Orthodox Jews distance themselves from the secular world, fearing that engagement with it will interfere with their practice of Jewish law. To this end, such communities have their own K-12 schools, do not encourage their children to attend college, and to varying degrees censor the amount of secular content community members can be exposed to. Right wing communities also see maintaining the lifestyle of pre-modern Jews, particularly as it relates to gender roles and modesty of dress, as part of their religious observance.

4 Modern Orthodox in the Secular World

Modern Orthodox communities are characterized by a belief that one should participate as fully as possible in the secular world while also observing Jewish law. While the children of modern Orthodox parents may go to Jewish day schools, these schools place a premium on secular as well as religious learning, and students are encouraged to go to and excel at college. Modern Orthodox Jews are also more likely to view halakha as responding to the times in which it is being observed. For example, right-wing Orthodox women do not wear pants, since early sages characterized them as "men's clothing." But modern Orthodox Jews are more likely to believe that since pants are no longer exclusively "men's clothing," women may wear them.

Chana Kraus-Friedberg has been researching archaeology, history and education for more than a decade. Her work has appeared in "Historical Archaeology" and the "International Journal of Historical Archaeology." She has taught at the GED and college levels, and has a Ph.D. in anthropology.