Dear Rabbi JITC,
“What are the rules of being an Orthodox Jew?”
Now that’s an interesting question. First, I want to give a caveat that halacha (Jewish law) isn’t intended just for “Orthodox Jews”; it’s intended for Jews, full stop. All throughout the Biblical era, the Talmudic era, etc., Jews were just “Jews.” Some were more religiously observant and some were less religiously observant, but Jews were Jews. It wasn’t until the 19th century, after some Jews started identifying themselves as “Reformed” Jews that those who observed traditional Judaism came to be known as “Orthodox” Jews. So, in reality, the laws apply to all Jews, it’s just that many people choose to follow other paths. But I understand your question to mean laws observed by Orthodox Jews, and I’ll refer to Orthodox Jews throughout my response, but really, I just mean “Jews.”
The easiest answer would be that Orthodox Judaism has 613 rules – the 613 mitzvos in the Torah, but that would be grossly inaccurate. In addition to the Biblical commandments, there are myriad rabbinic laws that were added throughout history. (Before anyone starts complaining about “the Pharisees” or whatever, keep in mind that these rabbinic laws include such things as celebrating Chanukah and Purim, and lighting Shabbos candles. So “rabbinic laws” does not equal “burdens” as some would claim.)
I don’t know that anyone has ever counted all the laws in Shulchan Aruch (the code of Jewish law), the Rema (its Ashkenazic gloss) or the Mishnah Brurah (a more contemporary commentary), let alone umpteen volumes of responsa. Personally, I don’t think it can be done, and even if you went to the trouble of doing so, there would always be other volumes that arguably should have been included. So let’s just say that the laws of Orthodox Judaism are many.
The real question, I think, is what laws must someone keep in order to be considered an “Orthodox Jew?” After all, there are Jews who speak lashon hara (gossip), there are Jews who wear shaatnez (a prohibited mixture of wool and linen), and there are Jews who are dishonest in business, all of whom might tell you that they’re Orthodox. I wouldn’t say that they’re not. Violating a law doesn’t make you less Jewish any more than running a red light or robbing a store would revoke your citizenship.
Generally speaking, there are three laws that are typically considered the hallmark of an Orthodox Jew: keeping Shabbos, keeping kosher and observing family purity (i.e., using the mikvah, etc.). But even among these, I’d say that the defining characteristic of an Orthodox Jew is Sabbath observance. We see in a number of ways that Sabbath desecration is a disqualifying characteristic. For example, someone who doesn’t keep Shabbos can’t serve as a witness. He can’t act as a mashgiach (supervising kosher food preparation). If a Jew who doesn’t keep Shabbos handles wine, it’s the same as if a non-Jew handled it, and it may not be drunk. But…
This only applies to those who desecrate Shabbos willfully and publicly. If you accidentally turn on the bathroom light on Shabbos, it doesn’t mean you. If you hide in your bedroom to sneak a cigarette or surreptitiously check your phone on Shabbos – which you absolutely should not do – it doesn’t mean you. Only willful, public Sabbath desecration is sufficient to put someone outside what is really a pretty big tent.
So yeah, being an Orthodox Jew means accepting these laws, and trying to fulfill them, but human weakness and imperfection doesn’t mean you’re kicked off the team. Remember, “Orthodox Jew” is a construct; it’s really just about being Jewish.
Of course, actions alone do not identify one as a Jew in good standing; there are beliefs that are inherent to being an Orthodox Jew. These are codified in the Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith, adapted in Ani Maamin and the song Yigdal. They are: (1) God made everything; (2) God is One; (3) God is incorporeal; (4) God is eternal; (5) It is appropriate to pray only to God; (6) The words of the prophets are true; (7) The prophecy of Moses was true and superior: (8) We have the Torah as it was received; (9) The Torah doesn’t change; (10) God is omniscient; (11) God rewards and punishes; (12) Moshiach is coming; and (13) The dead will be revived. (Each of these has its basis in Scripture.)
Now, while a Jew in good standing is supposed to believe all of these things, it’s hard to control what we think and feel, so I wouldn’t be so quick to disqualify someone who is struggling with some of these beliefs. Just like there’s a difference between someone who struggles with Sabbath observance and someone who desecrates it publicly and proudly, there’s likewise a difference between someone who needs to learn more in order to solidify these beliefs and someone who goes online to mock them.
So, to answer your question, the laws of being an Orthodox Jew are incalculable, since awareness of God encompasses everything we think, say and do. However, failure to observe all the laws doesn’t boot someone off the team. The real point is to buy into the program and to work on yourself. Because what we call “Orthodox Jews” used to be called just “Jews,” and that’s meant to include all of us.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent