Ritual Variation among Orthodox Jews in the United States

By Steven M. Cohen, Samuel C. Heilman

Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, January 1986

Only recently have some social scientists turned their attention to those whom we have called the modern Orthodox Jews. 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. 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. 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 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 reward 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.

Topic: Orthodox Judaism, Religious Denominations

Name of Publication: Studies in Contemporary Jewry

Editor: Peter Y. Medding

Page Number(s): 164-187

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Genre: Report

Coverage: United States

Language: English

Copyright Information: Download for personal use, freely distribute link

Bibliographic Information:
Cohen, Steven M. Heilman, Samuel C. Ritual Variation among Orthodox Jews in the United States. Studies in Contemporary Jewry. Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry. January 1986: 164-187. http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=187


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