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Perspectives from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism

An introduction to Jewish Spirituality by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

JUDAISM Christianity | Islam
What are the main subgroups within the religion?
by Howard Greenstein

Probably 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.

The 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.

One 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.

A second 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.

For 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 community.

Reform 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.

The 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.

In 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.

Orthodox 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.

Worship 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.

Orthodox 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.

The 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.

Within 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.

An 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.

Whatever 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.


Copyright ©2007 Howard Greenstein

The 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).

What Do Our Neighbors Believe?
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 purchase a copy of WHAT DO OUR NEIGHBORS BELIEVE? visit amazon.com. This link is provided as a service to explorefaith visitors and registered users.



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