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How to See the Distinctions of Orthodox Judaism

When you hear the term “Orthodox Jew,” you probably think of a man in a long black coat, with long locks of hair over his sideburns, a big beard, and a black hat. But in reality, there are dozens of different styles within Jewish Orthodoxy, each of them with a different culture, educational philosophy, leadership model, and set of policies.

Judaism encompasses a lot of different sets of beliefs and practices! In some ways, you can see Judaism as a tree with many branches; there’s a common trunk and root system, but each sect or denomination is off on its own branch, and in many cases, each synagogue is on its own little twig.

However, all Orthodox Jews technically accept the Torah as the word of God. So although you can see a massive cultural difference between the Orthodox Jew who wears a shtreimel (the black fur hat worn by some Ultra-Orthodox) and the Orthodox Jew who wears jeans and a T-shirt, most people would find it extremely difficult to discern a difference between their religious beliefs and observance.

Liberal Jews began calling more observant Jews “Orthodox” (which literally means “correct belief” or “proper doctrine”) in the late 19th century as a somewhat derogatory term. But to the Orthodox, there’s no spectrum of “less Orthodox” and “more Orthodox,” so the term didn’t really mean anything to them. Nevertheless, the word stuck.

However, most people make a distinction between “Modern Orthodox” Jews (who engage in many aspects of modern, secular culture) and “Ultra-Orthodox” Jews (sometimes called haredi or “black hats,” who tend to insulate themselves from modern culture). You can always find exceptions, though!

So, why do some Orthodox Jews wear all that black? The simple answer is that they’re in mourning for the destruction of the Second Temple more than 1,900 years ago. However, that doesn’t explain what they wear.

Although some “black hat” Orthodox communities wear somewhat modern black suits, others consciously try to resist modern influences. Their long black coats, black hats, white stockings, and old-style shoes are a way to hold on to the old eastern European culture of the 18th century. Traditional women don’t have the same dress codes, but they do tend to dress more modestly.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews set themselves apart in other ways, too. Many Ultra- Orthodox Jews minimize their contact with the “outside world,” so they usually don’t have televisions in their homes, they tune their radios to religious programming, they don’t go to movies, and at least one group has ruled that its members shouldn’t use the Internet.

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