What are the main subgroups within the religion?
by Howard Greenstein
nowhere is the diversity of contemporary Judaism more sharply clarified
than in the classification devised by Leo Trepp in his work on A
History of the Jewish Experience (pp. 314-315). There he explains
the variety of interpretations of Judaism at the dawn of the 20th
century in terms of six different groups.
first he titles “Old Orthodoxy,” which
taught that the Torah is divine and must be obeyed without question.
Judaism exists by itself without contact with the outside world,
which is seen as invariably hostile. This form of orthodoxy, which
is still practiced in some circles and which rejects any hint of
change, prevailed primarily in Eastern Europe. It still persists,
however, in certain communities around the world.
explanation for such rigid discipline in the past was that the performance
of the commandments in all their minute details was a psychological
defense mechanism against the intolerable hardships of persecution.
It gave the people great strength through strict observance, while
the expectation of a personal messiah provided them with much-needed
hope of relief from their hardships.
form of Jewish faith in our time is neo-(modern) Orthodoxy.
For followers of this discipline The Torah is divine and obedience
to it is a service to humankind. The concept of the chosen people
implies that the Jews everywhere must set a moral standard for all
to emulate. Secular culture contains wisdom worth seeking; adjustment
to the modern world is essential, but may not conflict with the
observance of Torah. Good citizenship is a supreme religious obligation.
Aesthetic values too can be ennobling and uplifting.
Conservative Judaism the divinity of Torah is grounded
in the consent of the people. The community itself with the passage
of time will adjust its commandments to their needs. Major emphasis
is directed to history so that the past is a primary guide to inform
the future. Acceptance of new knowledge and observance depends upon
the will of the people. Zionism is a central precept because of
the spiritual and national bonds it signifies for the Jewish people.
Aesthetic values too are important for uniting and elevating the
Judaism strives to maintain a balance between change and
continuity. Some directions it pursues are familiar, others less
so, but in every instance it offers a vision of the Covenant that
is constantly evolving and is never static. In spite of its changing
character, however, certain essential principles remain firm at
any given period.
first is the freedom of any generation to examine existing practice
and to change it for sound and sufficient reasons. In addition,
Reform emphasizes the right to modify public worship for the purpose
of enriching the experience of communal prayer. And finally, a dominant
principle of Reform has been its emphasis upon the mission of social
justice inherent in our biblical legacy. This stress on right conduct
as the path to human fulfillment is perhaps the precept in Judaism
most central to Reform.
America today, and throughout most of the Western world, Jews are
divided principally into those three major branches—Orthodox,
Conservative and Reform. The differences among them revolve more
often around matters of ritual observance than of theological belief.
Jews adhere to Judaism as they believe it was conceived in Talmudic
times with as little accommodation as possible to competing systems
of truth and knowledge. Reform Judaism assigns high priority to
blending the ancient heritage with the teachings of modern science
and humanities. Conservative Judaism stands generally between these
two, retaining as much of traditional learning as possible while
also embracing contemporary civilization as well.
in the Orthodox synagogue is entirely in Hebrew; men and women sit
separately; head coverings are mandatory for men as a sign of reverence
and respect for God. The Conservative service is somewhat shorter
and conducted about equally in Hebrew and English. Head coverings
are customary but men and women usually sit together.
Reform Jewish worship is even more abbreviated, although its newest
prayer book permits a lengthier service. The liturgy usually consists
of more English than Hebrew, and head coverings are optional. Men
and women are always seated together, and instrumental music is
a customary fixture.
Judaism requires the observance of dietary laws as the Bible prescribes
and the Talmud amplifies, the so-called laws of kashrut.
Those laws include the prohibition of certain foods,
the proper slaughtering of animals for human consumption, and a
ban on consuming meat and dairy foods during the same meal. Theoretically,
Conservative Jews are obligated to observe these same dietary laws,
though more often than not, their observance is inconsistent. Although
in recent years a small segment of Reform Jews have begun observing
dietary laws, the vast majority still do not.
current distinctions among these movements are often blurred.
While differences between Orthodoxy and Reform are readily apparent,
the range of ritual and ceremonial practice within each branch makes
it difficult to detect distinctive divisions. None of them is monolithic.
Some Orthodox Jews are fanatically opposed to all change while others
are more moderate recognizing that some flexibility is necessary.
Conservative Jews may lean either toward Orthodoxy or Reform.
Reform too there are significant differences. One group insists
that Reform Judaism must remain what it was in the 19th and early
20th centuries with primary emphasis on social justice and the ethical
mandates of prophetic Judaism. A much larger number are convinced
that, like all movements of protest, Reform began as a revolution
but must now achieve a more reasonable and moderate stance. Most
Reform Jews today are far more supportive of traditional ritual
and Hebrew language than were their predecessors. Jewish
observance in short covers a wide spectrum of activity within every
movement from the most traditional to the most progressive.
additional group of Jews in America have created a fourth branch
which they call Reconstructionism. This option
was founded by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in the early 20th century and
attempted to bridge the distance between Conservative and Reform
Judaism. Their most distinctive attribute is their emphasis on Judaism
as a religious civilization, rather than a religious faith exclusively.
They also assign high priority to the role of Israel for Jews and
Jewish life everywhere, and have infused Jewish religious thought
with elements of naturalism.
adjectives may divide the Jewish people, much more unites them.
Believers and non-believers, religionists and secularists, all of
them are part of the same Jewish people. One of the most fundamental
concepts in Jewish life is k’lal yisrael—the
community or totality of the Jewish people. Except for a small fanatical
fringe, all Jews regardless of their differences, recognize that
the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that they belong,
with diverse interpretations of deity and destiny, to a single entity—the
Jewish people. Nothing matters more.
©2007 Howard Greenstein
late Howard R. Greenstein served as Rabbi of the
Jewish congregation of Marco Island, Florida. He had previously
served congregations in Florida, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Greenstein
was a Lecturer at the University of Florida, University of North
Florida, and Jacksonville University. He is the author of Judaism:
An Eternal Covenant (1983) and Turning Point: Zionism
and Reform Judaism (1981).
This excerpt from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions
and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein,
Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner is used with permission from Westminster
John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. To
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