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The Difference between Orthodox Jews and Religious Jews?

May 9, 2013 12:23 pm 16 comments

A Yeshiva University campus. Photo: Jim.henderson.

As CEO of 5WPR, I am well versed in matters concerning brands and how media shapes perceptions.  On a professional and personal front, I wonder why it is that Orthodox (and Ultra-Orthodox) Jews are often called “religious” by the media? Speaking as someone whose children attend Modern Orthodox yeshivas, as a member of numerous Orthodox synagogues, and as a board member of Jewish outreach (Kiruv) organizations, I find it to be a question to which there is clearly no easy answer.

The term “orthodox” implies “observant”, and there is a vast difference between being observant and being religious; they are not necessarily one and the same. An Orthodox Jew outwardly carries himself as someone who follows the Torah, the written law passed down from Moses at Sinai.  Yet, often people who publicly appear Orthodox will act in a manner contrary to religious doctrine, hence, all Orthodox Jews are not “religious” and the words Orthodox and religious shouldn’t be used interchangeably.

For example, let’s review some recent news stories reported over the last few weeks and months which could leave one perplexed about whether these people are religious, or even orthodox?

  • Rabbi Tully Bryks, an Orthodox Rabbi at Bar-Ilan University installed two surveillance cameras in the girls’ dormitory and was fired this week; Can anyone doubt that he isn’t actually following the ethics and rules required of Orthodox Rabbis?

  • The “Council of Torah Sages” installed Aryeh Deri who was convicted of bribery, fraud and breach of trust as head of Israeli political party Shas. This means that the first convicted felon to lead a political party in Israel is from an Orthodox party.

  • The heads of Yeshiva University who have covered-up sex abuse cases over the last thirty years to protect the institution and the reputations of individual figures rather than the students they are supposed to look out for, are not acting religiously.

  • The many recent arrests in Brooklyn of men who have been charged and even convicted of child sex abuse, and those within their communities who ostracize the victims in defense of the perpetrator.  Can their prayers, black coats and yarmulkes hide the fact that they are in clear violation of religious code?

  • Ultra Orthodox families who hide assets to obtain government welfare, food stamps and housing credits at the expense of people who really need it, who rationalize that they are allowed to steal from a non-Jewish government according to their understanding of the Torah.

All that said, there’s no question that Orthodox Jews indeed get a bad rap in the media. There are bad apples in any bunch – and the negatives are of course more news-worthy than the countless positive deeds which Orthodox people carry out.

But, it cannot change the fact that being Orthodox and being religious are – in many ways – different attributes. There are some in Orthodoxy who miss a key principle of the Talmud – The way of the pious – as the Talmud describes the highest form of ethical behavior. They look the part, pray, immerse themselves in study of the books and laws of Judaism, but it’s superficial, as they do not live the life of the pious, yet these same people judge other Jews and condemn them as not-Jewish enough.

And indeed, often times rather than focusing on issues of importance to klal Israel, some among the Orthodox leadership spend time making rules on matters which are so inconsequential for so many proud and caring and good Jews, and impose greater restrictions on their communities that deal with outward conduct as a way of maintaining image and control.

In fact, for me, there are many people who should be deemed very religious, whether or not they daven three times a day:

  • A person who goes weekly to spend time with poor and needy Jews, spends hours a week feeding them, listening to their problems and doing everything he can to help people.

  • The many great parents who spend time raising their kids to be good Jews.

  • Community leaders ranging from Chabad Rabbis whose doors are always open for Jews in need to those like Rabbi Avi Weiss who has immense love for Am Israel, while a leading Orthodox Jewish advocacy organization, Agudath Israel of America, deemed him un-Orthodox for making a women a full member of rabbinic staff.

  • Many great Jewish philanthropists such as Michael Steinhardt who changes countless Jewish lives with Birthright Israel and similar programs.

  • And there’s so many more…

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, religious people are defined as “relating to, or devoted to religious beliefs or observances”, and “scrupulously and conscientiously faithful.”  In many ways, for those of us who accept that Judaism is about the religion, philosophy, and way of life of the Jewish people, could not those who are devoted to Am Israel and doing what’s best for the Jewish community undoubtedly be deemed religious?

And surely, along those lines, unethical people cannot be deemed as “religious,” or even Orthodox based on the sole consideration of how fervently they pray, how they dress, or what kind of kippah they may (or may not) wear.

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And, if I care only for myself, what am I? And, if not now, when?”

Ronn Torossian lives in NYC with his family.


  • To define a “Jew” has the same pitfalls as to define an “American.”
    They both come in several models, defying precise definition.
    Okie, Bostonian, Mainer, Hoosier, Valley Girl, Hillbilly, Cajun,
    Texan, Tex-Mex, Tar Heel.

  • Let’s review historical fact, not myth.
    Moses is not a historical person. Moses is a literary construct ascribed to the writings of several people, in several eras, from several tribal ethnic sources, just as Torah and Talmud are the compilation of many, many authors as well as many others who REDACTED earlier texts.
    Think of Moses and his so called texts in this way;
    “The Constitution, by Thomas Jefferson.” Get it?

    Additionally, Jews must always remember that one is not “born a Jew.” Jewishness in not found in DNA, or Jews would not come in all colors, sizes, from all over the world, in every ethnic, racial and tribal category. Jewishness is a chosen identity, not an inborn characteristic. Sorry if that challenges or threatens your sense of “Jewishness.”
    “Jewishness” is an attribute that is mostly imposed by your parents, just as no one is born a Presbyterian; they are born of Presbyterian parents. To insist that Jewishness is an inherited trait is error, born of the Chosen People Myth.
    Educated, cultural Jewish adults know this.

  • Ronn, I was impressed by your statement: “Orthodox Jew outwardly carries himself as someone who follows the Torah, the written law passed down from Moses at Sinai.”

    I would modify your line as: “Orthodox Jew carries himself as someone who follows the Torah(written law by the hand of Moses) given at Sinai”. This is offered first because I doubt many will find this, second because it contains everything by which the LORD Judges each of us by.

    The Tanakh shows your text as: “Isaiah 29: 13) And the Lord said: Forasmuch as this people draw near, and with their mouth and with their lips do honour Me, but have removed their heart far from Me, and their fear of Me is a commandment of men learned by rote; . . . .” Another great read and warning.

    In Israel I am not considered Jewish by those religious leaders you mentioned, how ever I am acceptable according to the Written Torah also to ”.

    I found your article while seeking statements of “What is Orthodox and What is religious in the world”. I am finding that most religions follow the same patterns without care for whether it leads to THE LORD or not. Mostly Not. It will be posted in a few day I trust, maybe you will be interested. Thank you for your time.


  • I have long argued against the term ‘religious’ being equated with the idea of ‘observance’. An ‘observant’ Jew is presumably one who performs (and it is worth while appreciating that ‘observing’ literally means ‘looking at’ rather than actually ‘doing’) according to that which he/she perceives to be ‘Jewish Law’. Such a person may be religious or not. That will depend entirely on the life he leads and in particular how he treats others. Yes, exactly the same criteria applies to a ‘non-Orthodox’ Jew. I have always fought against adjectival Judaism simply because it does not describe accurately the person to whom the label is applied. The so-called ‘Progressive’ Jew is, in fact, carrying on the Jewish Faith, they would argue, and I would agree, as it was meant to be, adapting to modern times without losing the essential core. Indeed, to dom otherwise is rather akin to putting one’s Judaism into a ‘Museum’and keeping it all well dusted. Hasten the day when , whilst differing in the way that we may be ‘Jewish’ we can do so with the respect for each other that we rightly expect from thoise of other religions.

  • Excellent article, but it left out one thing: there was absolutely no reference to a truly religious person’s love for G-d. You may reply that this is implied by helping the poor, being a good parent, being a caring community leader, or philanthropy; when we do good for another, we are loving G-d. But a TRULY religious person will actually say, “I LOVE G-D MORE THAN ANYTHING. I live for Him. I breathe for Him.” I just don’t see that being expressed here. Yes, caring for the poor pleases Him … but He is also pleased by someone who takes delight in knowing Him, and who is awed by His holiness.

  • I think that the author is making a point: many orthodox are bad. we do not like to generalize. many rich people are bad. many poor people are good. there are generalities which are correct but do not take an entire body of people and put them on the defensive because some of them are not what they should be

  • so thats it, you convinced the jewish world that its all a myth..
    and the myth is real.

    and the 3 or 4 or 10 jews that went off the path represent all the TORAH ORTHODOX JEWS.

    Therefore,attention all observant Jews…
    when the bell rings follow ronn t. to the house of sin.
    In my GOOD opinion ronn, you are just another test that Hashem sent to GOOD JEWS THAT TRY TO BE GOOD…
    if they will follow you into darkness

    and your guru also is another lost jew who is here as a test by G-D.

  • Being ethical doesn’t preclude me from observing religious ritual. I think the Torah puts many expectations upon me including both bain adam lchavairo (between man and man) and bain adam lmakom (between man and G-d.) I try to focus on what I should do instead of what others should do. I personally think I have to keep halacha in a way that spiritually connects me to G-d while at the same time be ethical and help others.

  • Superb article. Halevai that the entire Jewish world would read it and take it to heart. Why is this such a unique article? What a pity. This should be the 11th Commandment.

  • Thank you for having the courage to write this material. This needed to be said !
    There are far more members of the ultra orthodox doing good for mankind then there are pseudo orthodox that appear righteous and live a life of compromised values and morals.
    Those of us who are religious recognize that within all communities there are those who transgress, that’s why all of us, evey single one of us are pounding our chests asking forgiveness on Yom Kippur. We can all become more.

  • While I agree with the premise of your article and can’t defend the actions of any of the wrongdoers you’ve cited, it saddens me greatly to see the way people are reporting on the case of Rabbi Tully Bryks at Bar Ilan University.

    Responsible news agencies have made it clear in their reporting that the cameras were installed in the dorm’s hallway. Others, unfortunately are sensationalizing the story by conveniently dropping the word “hallways”, leading the reader to believe that Rabbi Bryks installed cameras in dorm rooms.

    Bryks defends his actions by saying that he had installed the cameras was because of complaints lodged against maintenance staff working in the dormitory. Whether or not you agree with his reasoning—even if you believe he was lying—it is unfair and irresponsible to perpetrate a lie of omission by implying that the cameras were installed in dorm rooms. The cameras were in the public hallway. Tell it like it is!

  • Margo Elena Kligman


  • This sentence says all there is to say about the author “as a member of numerous Orthodox synagogues”

    • Yes he supports numerous synagogues as do many in New York City area. One for quick davening, one for better kiddush or families. What is the big revelation you see there benyamin

  • Richard Gabai

    Very well said Ronn!

  • Too many Orthodox Jews & rabbis don’t study nor have any idea how to interpret passages outside of the areas covered by the formated curriculum of their yeshivas.
    Contrary to this, many religious scholars study and individually develop a bigger understanding for the poor and the needy. For example, how many orthodox rabbis know how a poor man or someone traveling can make exceptionally an individual Eruv (Eiruvin 51b). That’s a loophole that concerns poor Jews who are not affiliated to communities or don’t have the means, but those who want to have the status of Orthodox rabbis have no clue.
    It’s a great mitzvah not to call a rabbi an orthodox ignorant.

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