The cultural-religious system of Ashkenazic Jewry represents a fundamental continuity of the Rabbinic Judaism encapsulated in the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud. These compendiums concentrate to a large degree on the problem of adapting Biblical law, intended for a free Israelite polity centered on the temple rituals, to a situation in which Jewish communities were dispersed in other lands and lacked a ritual center. Therefore, they serve Diaspora Jews as a model for cultural adaptation and reconstitution in changing circumstances, and they help explain the persistence of Jewish collective identity through the centuries. The Talmud in particular also contains a great deal of narrative, biographical, and legendary material. The great focus in traditional Ashkenazic culture on Talmud and Bible study fostered an imaginative identification with the past generations whose lives were described therein. Furthermore, the Talmudic model of textual interrogation and dialogue contributed to a close link between textual and oral culture. While in principle Talmudic learning was open to all Jewish males, social stratification and economic pressures generally kept it the province of an elite. In certain periods and places, women were encouraged especially to study the Prophets and Chronicles.
The Ashkenazic sense of time and space was conditioned to a large extent by reiterations of the belief that the Messiah might come at any time to gather all the dispersed Jews in the land of Israel. The ritual cycle remained fixed to the lunar calendar, maintaining powerful associations with the agricultural cycle of Palestine. This system ensured both a rough correspondence between the celebration of festivals and the seasons of the year and also a certain disjuncture between the Jewish calendar on the one hand and the secular and Christian solar calendars on the other. Jewish interaction with the coterritorial populations was also shaped by the significant place of Jews in the folklore and religion of Christianity.
During periods of relative peace and prosperity, it was possible for marriage patterns to conform somewhat to ideals that stressed both the means of engaging in commerce and the leisure and competence to engage in Talmudic scholarship. The ideal marriage, therefore, was one between a young scholar who had studied full-time into his teens and the daughter of a successful merchant capitalist. The bride's family was expected to provide a dowry, often including support of the couple for a few years so the husband could continue his study, after which he would either go into business or find a rabbinic position. This pattern, to the degree it ever held as a norm, failed in largely the modern period under the combined pressures of increased pauperization, communal dislocation, and the ideology of personal choice.
Between the late eighteenth and the early twentieth century, religious Ashkenazic Jews were profoundly divided between Hasidim—enthusiastic, often mystical, and in a sense "populist" followers of the eighteenth-century charismatic leader known as Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name) —and Misnagdim (literally, "opponents"), who fiercely defended traditional standards of social hierarchy, learning, worship, and observance.
Beginning in the nineteenth century, various movements arose as problematic syntheses of Ashkenazic culture—especially the Yiddish language—and the Enlightened or sometimes Social Democratic ideologies of modern Europe. A particularly powerful modern Yiddish culture briefly flourished, grounded in generations of Jews who experienced traditional religious childhood and education and then sought to frame new ideals within the older idioms of Ashkenazic Judaism. Zionism, the only such movement that proved to be an effective historical experiment, synthesized the traditional motif of the messianic return to the land of Israel with modern European ideologies of nationalism and colonialism.
Religious roles in Ashkenazic society were highly segregated according to gender. Separate seating was maintained at synagogue services. To varying degrees, rules governing women's modesty (shaving the head after marriage, not singing in public) were strictly maintained. Since domestic life was governed by religious law, women nevertheless had major "religious" responsibilities, and they often possessed informal authority in various matters.