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Before the 20th Century | 20th Century U.S. | 20th Century Israel | 20th Century U.K.

Movements of Judaism

Level:  Basic

The different sects or denominations of Judaism are generally referred to as movements.  The differences between Jewish movements are not nearly as great as the differences between Christian denominations.  The differences between Orthodoxy and Reform Judaism are not much greater than the differences between the liberal and fundamentalist wings of the Baptist denomination of Christianity.

In general, when speaking of "movements" in this site, we are mostly referring to movements in the United States in the 20th century.

Movements Before the 20th Century

All Jewish movements that exist today are derived from one movement, identified in the Christian scriptures as the Pharisees.  At the dawn of Christianity, there were several different competing schools of thought:  the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots.  The Pharisaic school of thought is the only one that survived the destruction of the Temple.  The Pharisees believed that God gave the Jews both a written Torah and an oral Torah, both of which were equally binding and both of which were open to reinterpretation by the rabbis, people with sufficient education to make such decisions.  The Pharisees were devoted to study of the Torah and education for all.  Today, this school of thought is known as Rabbinical Judaism.

From the time of the destruction of the Temple until the middle of the 1700s, there was no large-scale organized difference of opinion within Judaism.  Judaism was Judaism, and it was basically Orthodox Judaism.  There were some differences in practices and customs between the Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe and the Sephardic Jews of Spain and the Middle East, but these differences were not significant.  See Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews.

In the 1700s, the first of the modern movements developed in Eastern Europe.  This movement, known as Chasidism, was founded by Israel ben Eliezer, more commonly known as the Baal Shem Tov or the Besht.  Before Chasidism, Judaism emphasized education as the way to get closer to God.  Chasidism emphasized other, more personal experiences and mysticism as alternative routes to God.  Chasidism was considered a radical movement at the time it was founded.  There was strong opposition from those who held to the pre-existing view of Judaism.  Those who opposed Chasidism became known as mitnagdim (opponents).  Today, the Chasidim and the mitnagdim are relatively unified in their opposition to the liberal modern movements.

Movements in 20th Century United States

Approximately 5 million of the world's 13 million Jews live in the United States.  There are three major movements in the U.S.  today:  Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox.  Some people also include a fourth movement, the Reconstructionist movement, although that movement is substantially smaller than the other three.  Orthodox and sometimes Conservative are described as "traditional" movements.  Reform, Reconstructionist, and sometimes Conservative are described as "liberal" or "modern" movements.

Orthodoxy is actually made up of several different groups.  It includes the modern Orthodox, who have largely integrated into modern society while maintaining observance of halakhah (Jewish Law), the Chasidim, who live separately and dress distinctively (commonly referred to in the media as the "ultra-Orthodox"), and the Yeshivish Orthodox, who are neither Chasidic nor modern.  The Orthodox movements are all very similar in belief, and the differences are difficult for anyone who is not Orthodox to understand.  They all believe that God gave Moses the whole Torah at Mount Sinai.  The "whole Torah" includes both the Written Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and the Oral Torah, an oral tradition interpreting and explaining the Written Torah.  They believe that the Torah is true, that it has come down to us intact and unchanged.  They believe that the Torah contains 613 mitzvot binding upon Jews but not upon non-Jews.  The Judaism 101 web site (the starting point of this "site within a site") was written primarily from the Orthodox point of view.  It has been estimated that there are 1200 Orthodox synagogues in the US today with a total of approximately 1 million members.

Reform Judaism does not believe that the Torah was written by God.  The movement accepts the critical theory of Biblical authorship:  that the Bible was written by separate sources and redacted together.  Reform Jews do not believe in observance of commandments as such, but they retain much of the values and ethics of Judaism, along with some of the practices and the culture.  The original, basic tenets of Reform Judaism in the USA were set down in the Pittsburgh Platform.  Many non-observant, nominal, and/or agnostic Jews identify themselves as Reform simply because Reform is the most liberal movement, but that is not really a fair reflection on the movement as a whole.  There are about 800 Reform synagogues in the US with approximately 2 million members.  For more information about Reform Judaism, see The Union for Reform Judaism.

Conservative Judaism grew out of the tension between Orthodoxy and Reform.  It was formally organized as the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism by Dr. Solomon Schechter in 1913, although its roots in the Jewish Theological Seminary of America stretch back into the 1880s.  Conservative Judaism generally accepts the binding nature of halakhah, but believes that the Law should change and adapt, absorbing aspects of the predominant culture while remaining true to Judaism's values.  In our experience, there is a great deal of variation among Conservative synagogues.  Some are indistinguishable from Reform, except that they use more Hebrew; others are practically Orthodox, except that men and women sit together.  Most are very traditional in substance, if not always in form.  There are an estimated 800 Conservative synagogues in the US today with approximately 1.3 million members.

Reconstructionist Judaism is theoretically an outgrowth of Conservative, but it does not fit neatly into the traditional/liberal, observant/non-observant continuum that most people use to classify movements of Judaism.  Reconstructionists believe that Judaism is an "evolving religious civilization".  They do not believe in a personified deity that is active in history, and they do not believe that God chose the Jewish people.  From this, you might assume that Reconstructionism is to the left of Reform; yet Reconstructionism lays a much greater stress on Jewish observance than Reform Judaism.  Reconstructionists observe the halakhah if they choose to, not because it is a binding Law from God, but because it is a valuable cultural remnant.  Reconstructionism is a very small movement but seems to get a disproportionate amount of attention, probably because there are a disproportionate number of Reconstructionists serving as rabbis to Jewish college student organizations and Jewish Community Centers.  Many seem to have had a Reconstructionist rabbi at college or in a community center, yet there are only about 60,000 Reconstructionists in the US.

Though most Jews do not have any theological objections to praying in the synagogues of other movements, liberal services are not "religious" enough or "Jewish" enough for traditional Jews, and traditional services are largely incomprehensible to liberal Jews (because traditional services are primarily, if not exclusively, in Hebrew), too long, and too conservative.  Some Orthodox will not attend liberal services because of the mixed seating arrangements and because the liberal prayer book cuts many required prayers.

We have been to services in Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox synagogues, and have found that while there are substantial differences in length, language, and choice of reading materials, the overall structure is surprisingly similar.  See Jewish Liturgy for more information about prayer services.

Movements in 20th Century Israel

Approximately 5 million Jews live in Israel.  Orthodoxy is the only movement that is formally and legally recognized in Israel.  Until very recently, only Orthodox Jews could serve on religious councils.  The Orthodox rabbinate in Israel controls matters of personal status, such as marriage, conversion, and divorce.

The other US movements have some degree of presence in Israel, but for the most part, Israelis do not formally identify themselves with a movement.  Most Israelis describe themselves more generally in terms of their degree of observance, rather than in terms of membership in an organized movement.

More than half of all Israelis describe themselves as hiloni (secular).  About 15-20 percent describe themselves as haredi (ultra-Orthodox) or dati (Orthodox).  The rest describe themselves as masorti (traditionally observant, but not as dogmatic as the Orthodox).  It is important to remember, however, that the masorti and hiloni of Israel tend to be more observant than their counterparts in the US.  For example, the hiloni of Israel often observe some traditional practices in a limited way, such as lighting Sabbath candles, limiting their activities on the Sabbath, or keeping kosher to some extent, all of which are rare among US Reform Jews, and unheard of among US Jews who describe themselves as secular.

Movements in 20th Century United Kingdom

There are an estimated 350,000 Jews in the UK.  Of those, approximately 20% are Reform or Liberal, which are two separate movements.  There is also a small but active Conservative movement called the Masoreti.  The Lubavitcher Chasidim are also active and growing in the UK.

The liberal movements in the UK are generally more traditional than the Reform movement in the United States.  For example, the British Reform movement does not accept patrilineal descent (although the Liberal movement does).  See Who Is a Jew.

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