This page contains short answers to common questions about Torah observance. Naturally, there's much more we can say about each of these topics and quick answers to big questions can be problematic. Still, if we keep this limitation of blurbs in mind, we can find some use in FAQ's even on these imposing topics.
You can find many more FAQ's at the following web sites:
What is Torah Observance?
Torah observance is another term for Orthodox Judaism, which denotes religious practice in accordance with the teachings of the Torah. The term Orthodox can imply rigidity and ultra-conservatism, so I am reluctant to employ it exclusively; although I'll use it periodically. I hope I am showing in this web site that Torah observance need not be and should not be rigid and anachronistic. The Torah does not use any Hebrew word for Orthodox. It just refers to Jews, commandments, and principles for righteous living.
Is Torah Observance for Jews Only?
The Torah does something unusual for religions in that it contains two paths of divine service: one for Jews and one for Gentiles. Rather, than proselytize gentiles to become Jews, the Torah calls for Jews to observe the 613 commandments and Gentiles to follow the seven commandments of the sons of Noah. They are different but related paths of divine service. Check out the pages on Noachide.net for more discussion.
What are Chassidim?
Chassidic Jews are Orthodox Jews like any other. They observe the 613 commandments and principles of Torah life as do other Orthodox Jews. Their culture and religious practices differ to some extent, but the similarities are far greater than the differences. Differences include a greater distancing from secular culture, an emphasis on music (songs and chants mostly) to inspire the soul, a distinctive appearance that includes white shirts (for purity) and long black coats (for modesty) for men and highly modest dress for women, and strong attachment to central religious leaders called Rebbes.
The word chassidic is an adjective that is related to the word Chasid or pious one. In becoming Torah observant, a person can choose to become Chassidic, not to become chassidic, to study some of the teachings, keep some of the customs, or some mixture of them all. The main thing for any Jew is to keep those of the 613 commandments that are relevant today. You can do this as a Chassidic, Sephardic, Yeshivish, or Modern Jew or some brand of your own. I study Chassidus to some extent and have Chassidic friends and acquaintances.
Do Jews Believe in Heaven and Hell?
Somewhere along the line, a popular misconception developed that Judaism does not believe in either heaven or hell. The Torah most certainly talks about both. In Torah thought, life is mostly a training and proving ground. There are pleasures here, yes. Happiness matters too. But the primary happiness, enduring happiness, stems from living with integrity, courage, faith, and righteousness. The reward for such a life is heaven. Another way to phrase this is that such a life prepares a person for heaven which is a place where G-d is revealed in His full glory. If we train ourselves to appreciate holiness, we will enjoy heaven. If we train ourselves only for a life of indulgence, or worse yet, power seeking, we will be lost in heaven and we will need the other place to cleanse us, to strip us of the residue of sin that blocks perception of holiness. The Torah elaborates considerably on heaven and hell.
If There is A G-d, Why Does He Let So Many People Suffer?
I really shouldn't answer this one in a FAQ since the topic is so difficult. It is a very fair question and not easily resolved. However, there is much to say about it. The shortest answer possible is that the struggles of life challenge us to become deeper and stronger people. But that does not explain of course really horrible sufferings of which there are many in life. Here are a few links where various people try to address this question:
Providence and Suffering (Torah.org)
Torah View of Suffering (Azamra.org)
Ki Tissa: When Bad Things Happen to Good People (RavKookTorah.org)
A Torah Understanding of Suffering (ShemaYisrael.com)
When People Suffer Is It G-ds Fault? (Chabad.org)
What Is a Rabbi?
A rabbi is a Jewish religious leader. Most are well educated as Judaism has a massive intellectual component and a rabbi should be able to navigate it. A rabbi should be well versed in Jewish law and literature and training can take as much as ten years. At this point in history, we do not have one formal body that ordains rabbis. Many rabbis are ordained by rabbinical seminaries or yeshivas. Some are ordained by other rabbis who are not affiliated with institutions. Standards vary widely. In the end, you have to decide for yourself with whom to develop a relationship.
You have to decide also what type of relationship to develop. Some people look to their rabbis for extensive legal, philosophical, and practical guidance. Others go to rabbis only for resolution of technical legal issues and rely on self-study and counsel of friends and/or professional counselors for life guidance. You can work out a style that suits you best.
A rabbi should care about people and carry himself with humility and truth. Maimonides says that rabbis should speak gently with people Do they all succeed? Of course, not. Some are terrific, some are in the wrong line of work. All are human.
Why Do Orthodox Jewish Men Dress in Black Suits and White Shirts?
Many do but many don't. The Torah only requires dress to be modest and to not be the dress of people who worship idols. The first requirement is obviously the far more relevant issue in our times. Many Jewish men wear white shirts to represent purity and black suits to represent conservatism and modesty. They don't have to. It' s a choice, an expression of their approach to the religion. You can have your own. You can wear different colors and styles. You can choose never to put on a suit all of your life. You like jeans, jeans are nice too. It's up to you.
Does Orthodox Judaism Treat Women Differently Than It Does Men?
As the Torah views all people as being important, all people should be treated with respect - as first class citizens. As the Midrash (part of the Torah containing stories, fables, and philosophic advice) says, "I call heaven and earth to witness, whether it be male or female, Jew or Gentile, man servant or maid servant, the spirit of holiness will rest upon him (or her) in accordance with his actions."
The Torah does outline some differences in religious practice between men and women. Sometimes, these seem discriminatory but careful analysis will show, in my view, that they are not.
In general, men have more specific commandments to fulfill, some of the most conspicuous of these involving responsibilities in synagogue. Since the primary familiarity of most non-observant (or not yet observant as some like to say) people with Torah observance is the synagogue, a misperception has taken hold in some quarters that the Torah discriminates against women. But what often seem like privileges in Jewish law can be viewed also as obligations. For example, men must recite the Shema (paragraphs from the Torah concerning the unity of G-d) every morning. Women do not possess such an obligation. So you have to look at the complete picture. It is complicated.
The differences exist to give fullness to Torah life. The religious lives of men and women are very similar in many regards. Both sexes strive for honesty, truth, and love of G-d and people. Both observe the Sabbath, Kashrus (keeping kosher), and laws of honesty and charity. Both may grow to unimaginable heights in the service of G-d.
The differences in observance have the effect of a stereo music system. Splitting sound into two parts creates a fuller product than if each speaker played the same sound. When you look at the full picture of Jewish life, you see the massive opportunity, infinite opportunity for growth for both men and women. Just as a man can be holy, a woman can be holy. Just as a man could be a prophet (in the days thousands of years ago when prophecy existed), a woman could be a prophet.
I hope to write more on this soon. It is a complicated subject, which like others, I cannot resolve in an FAQ. But rest assured, both sexes are important, precious, holy, and respected.
What Is Modern Orthodoxy?
Modern Orthodoxy is the branch of Torah observant Judaism with the most significant involvement with the world outside of the Orthodox world. While maintaining a religious life in accordance with classic Jewish law, Modern Orthodox people attempt to embrace the most positive aspects of the larger world. Most attain college degrees and embark on careers like any other person. While more right wing sects of Orthodoxy maintain distinctive attire (long black coats, black hats), Modern Orthodox people will wear the same clothing styles as everybody else in society - as long as they are modest.
As you might guess, left wing and right wing sects of Orthodox Judaism often argue with one another in determining the proper measure of involvement with the non-Torah observant world. However, on the fundamental issues of life and law, the different groups are very similar.
Modern Orthodoxy is often the most sensible style of observance for people who were not raised Torah observant. As a Modern Orthodox person, you retain the most positive aspects of your life such as your music, sports, intellectual interests, and friendships while enriching them through your religious observance.
What Is the Purpose of the Yarmulka?
The yarmulka is essentially a head covering that symbolizes humility before God. The word comes from a phrase in Aramaic - yira malka, which means literally 'awe of Heaven.' The yarmulka symbolizes a recognition that a person, while possessing many talents and much worth, owes his or her gifts to God who creates us. You might think of the yarmulka as an expression of intellectual humility, which says, in effect, I may be smart but I am not smarter than My Creator, I am not smarter than life. I have limitations. There is something above my head whose limits are demarcated symbolically by this head covering. This recognition can be very liberating. Have you ever dealt with a person who thinks they know everything? I'm sure you have. The yarmulka is there to remind us all, we don't know everything.
The head covering need not be a skull cap, like that which we find in the basket outside synagogue. You can wear a hat or even a baseball cap if you like. The covering is the main thing.
Does being observant mean I have to be a political conservative?
No. You could argue that Torah principles are as well represented by liberal politics as they are by conservative. It really depends on the issue and how you interpret political platforms. Many Orthodox Jews are conservative and many are liberal. Many are moderates. You can make your own choices here. The Torah gives broad philosophical perspectives on life and religious practice. It does not specify whether you must condone or condemn school vouchers or whether the US should have gone to war with Iraq.