Judaism is comprised of several “branches,” also called denominations or streams, that exist on a spectrum from traditionally religious to liberal. Yet the Jews are a people, not a religion; Jewishness and Judaism are not necessarily the same thing. While Judaism is “supposed to be” the religion that Jews practice, there are Jewish people who “pick and choose” whichever elements of Judaism they find personally congenial while others don’t practice Judaism at all. Some have embraced other religions, such as Buddhism. The branches of Judaism, as they are known today, cover a lot of ground.
Half a century ago, Judaism could be described as comprised of three main branches, and most Jews chose to affiliate with one of them: Orthodox (traditional), Reform (liberal, in Europe also known as Liberal or Progressive), and Conservative (a middle-ground branch; known as Masorti outside North America). There were some minor offshoots such as Reconstructionist Judaism, but by and large American Jewry slotted into one of the “big three.”
Although the big three are still very much with us, there is today a broader spectrum to Judaism. For example, some may describe themselves as “Conservadox” (bridging Conservative and Orthodox Judaism). And though I have never heard the term, my own Reform Temple growing up in Brooklyn strikes me as having been more “Reformative” (bridging Reform and Conservative) than true Reform.
It should also be noted that, while each branch of Judaism has its own more or less “official” take on the Jewish faith, simply attending a particular synagogue doesn’t necessarily mean a person believes (or even understands) those official beliefs.
Orthodox Judaism, for example, “officially” teaches that God is real, but you’ll find some agnostics and even atheists who attend Orthodox synagogues. Many would not see this as contradictory because Judaism emphasizes how to live, not what to believe. So while religious beliefs that Jewish people were raised with might change or fall away, many choose to retain the values and lifestyle. There are Orthodox ways to behave and live daily life, such as keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath according to Orthodox halakha (Jewish law); but there is no doctrinal requirement beyond the affirmation that God is One (found in the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4). While it may be true that most Orthodox Jews, for example, believe in a future Messiah, and most Reform do not, one cannot assume that this is always the case for a particular individual.
And unlike previous generations, many Jewish people today don’t affiliate with a synagogue at all. Many formulate their own informal version of Judaism, and do not fit comfortably into any one of the “official” versions of the branches.
Having said that, the following overview of the three main branches is still a valid guide to the landscape of Judaism.
Until the late 18th century, there was only one kind of Judaism. What is now called “Orthodox” Judaism was normative and did not need to be distinguished as a branch until other, less traditional, varieties of Judaism began to develop.
Orthodox Judaism emphasizes living according to the Torah (the Law of Moses), as interpreted authoritatively by the rabbinic tradition. According to Orthodox Judaism, Moses not only received the Written Law (the text of the Torah as found in the Hebrew Bible) at Sinai, but there he also received the Oral Law (its correct interpretation). The Oral Law is so called because it is believed to have been handed down verbally, first from Moses, and then to every generation—until it was finally put in writing beginning about the 2nd century A.D. in the Mishnah.
The Mishnah was further developed and interpreted in the Gemara; Mishnah and Gemara together comprise the Talmud. There are actually two Talmuds: the Jerusalem Talmud or Yerushalmi, and the Babylonian Talmud or Bavli. The Babylonian Talmud is considered the more authoritative of the two, and is widely available in an 18-volume English edition.
The Talmud itself was further commented upon by generations of later rabbis, leading to a body of Jewish religious law (called halakha) that is binding on the individual and the community. The halakhah details Jewish behavior in a wide variety of areas, both religious (how to properly observe Sabbath and the festivals, for instance), and civil (how to handle matters of civil law).
The prominence of the rabbinic tradition in Orthodox Judaism is clear inasmuch as the study of Talmud is central to Orthodox Jewish education. Young children begin by learning from the Bible, but serious students quickly progress to the study of the Talmud and later commentators.
Today there are two main streams of Orthodox Judaism. Modern Orthodoxy takes a welcoming and inclusive stance towards the larger society. Its followers engage with modern society while still observing the dictates of halakha. Secular studies are considered as important as religious studies.
The other stream has often been referred to as Ultra-Orthodox, though many adherents find that term objectionable, preferring Haredi, which is Hebrew for “one who trembles” (as in, at the Word of God), or frum, which is Yiddish for “devout” or “pious.” In contrast to Modern Orthodoxy, Haredi Jews choose much more insular lives, limiting the degree of contact with the secular cultures beyond their communities.
While many engage in businesses whose clientele includes the general population, Haredi Jews generally do not view secular movies or read secular books. Education is gender-segregated. Clothing is distinctive; for example, in some groups the men will wear black suits with white shirts. Women always dress according to traditional standards of modesty. Yiddish is the main language of daily life.
A subset of Haredi Judaism is Hasidic Judaism, whose adherents are called Hasidim. Hasidic Judaism is divided into a variety of dynastic sects, each named after its European town of origin: Lubavitcher Hasidim, for example, originally came from the town of Lubavitch in Russia, near present-day Belarus. Each sect is led by its rebbe, a person considered to have unique spiritual authority and to be a conduit to God for his followers, who will often seek his blessing and advice.
The second distinctive is that Hasidic thinking incorporates the kabbalah, often described as “Jewish mysticism.” In the kind of kabbalah followed by Hasidism (called Lurianic Kabbalah after its originator, Isaac Luria), God is immanent, that is, in and with all creation. In the kabbalistic worldview, God exists in ten sefirot or emanations and “contracted” into himself in order to create the universe. At that time, divine sparks were encased in “shells” which broke, raining the sparks upon creation and bringing evil into the world. Now, say the kabbalists, we must raise the sparks back up through performing the mitzvot, or commandments. From the philosophy of God’s immanence also emerges the idea that we should worship with joy (often expressed through dancing and singing) and find spirituality in everyday acts.
According to a 2013 survey of Jews in the United States, 10% of American Jews identify as Orthodox.1 In contrast, it remains the largest group in Europe.2
Reform Judaism is the product of modernity. The 18th-century Enlightenment in Europe brought, among other things, an overturning of traditional religious convictions. Reason, not revelation, was seen as the path to truth. In this new climate, Reform Judaism was birthed in 19th-century Germany. Many “modern” Jews jettisoned the authority of both the halakhah and the Bible, though the latter is esteemed for the ethics of the prophets and is considered of some historical value.
Reform Jews tend to view many traditional Jewish beliefs and ceremonial observances as outdated and/or mere superstition; some of the beliefs have been adapted to a more modern mindset. For example, the idea of the Messiah as an individual leader, chosen by God, was replaced by the notion of a messianic age inaugurated by human effort. A future resurrection of the dead was likewise rejected in favor of the idea that one lives on in one’s accomplishments and/or descendants. The synagogue service was revised as prayers considered irrelevant for the modern age were discarded. The Talmud and rabbinic tradition are still of historical interest and may contain some wisdom, but are no longer considered binding rules and regulations to live by.
German and other Jews of Western Europe sought to assimilate into the larger society in the belief that this would accord them equal rights. English, French, and German were their nationalities; Judaism was their religion. Therefore synagogue services were no longer in Hebrew but in the language of the land; various customs were borrowed from church services, including even meeting on Sunday rather than on the Jewish Sabbath.
Reform Judaism spread throughout Western Europe and into North America (in Eastern Europe, where the Enlightenment did not have a similar reach, Jews either remained traditional or replaced Judaism altogether with ideologies such as Socialism). Ethics took on a much greater significance than ceremony, and this meant that for Reform Jews the biblical emphasis lay in the Prophets, with their constant calls for justice and equity, over the Torah, which focused much more on ceremonies and religious duties as well as ethics. This emphasis on ethics also led Reform Judaism to engage with the larger human world and become active in social causes.
Originally, Reform Judaism rejected the idea of Zionism, believing that Jews should be at home as citizens of whatever nation they found themselves in. This radically changed especially in the 20th century in the aftermath of Russian pogroms and the Holocaust. American Reform Judaism thereafter became ardently Zionist.
As Reform Judaism developed, it became less radical than in its original iteration. In recent times, there has been a recovery of many aspects of tradition, though more as a matter of ethnic identity or personal choice than religious requirement. Reform Jews tend to embrace whatever aspects of Judaism they find comfortable; the individual has the right to live according to his or her own convictions. As a result, the daily lifestyle of many Reform Jews may be almost indistinguishable from that of non-Jews.
In Europe Reform Judaism often goes by the term “Liberal Judaism” or “Progressive Judaism,” while in Hungary, it is called “Neolog Judaism.” But North America remains the heart of Reform Judaism.
As of 2013, 35% of American Jews identified as Reform.3 While similar statistics are not available for Europe, as of 2010 there were 150 Reform (Liberal, Progressive) congregations in Europe, of which 80 were in the U.K.4
Also known as Masorti (“traditional”) Judaism outside North America, Conservative Judaism developed from roots in 19th-century Germany, but has become a largely American branch. It occupies a middle ground between Orthodoxy and Reform. The name “Conservative” is not a political label, but indicates the movement’s interest in conserving Jewish tradition.
For Conservative Judaism, halakhah remains binding, but is subject to greater change and development than in Orthodoxy. Unlike followers of Reform Judaism, where the individual’s decisions are paramount, Conservative Jews view the voice of the entire Jewish people as determinative. The motto “tradition and change,” indicates the balance that this branch seeks as a middle-ground movement. The attempt to straddle a middle ground has created some ambiguity around certain theological ideas. And as far as behavior is concerned, the official commitment to a traditional Jewish lifestyle is not always reflected in the lives of Conservative congregational members.
Examples of the middle-ground approach to certain practices include: mixed seating of men and women allowed (ruled in the 1940s) use of electricity on the Sabbath allowed (ruled in 1950); driving to synagogue on the Sabbath allowed (also ruled 1950).5 All of these are still forbidden in Orthodox Judaism, while Reform Jews needed no official rulings to lift these restrictions.
While this branch was dominant in America in the post World War II years (41% of American Jews were Conservative in the 1970s6) the number of those who identify with it has dropped significantly. As of 2013, an estimated 18% of American Jews affiliate as Conservative. Various reasons have been offered for the movement’s decline, such as emphasizing the expectations of halakhah without much attention to the expectations (such as meeting felt needs) of its congregants.7
In Europe, the equivalent branch is known as Masorti. Masorti means “traditional” and, in fact, these congregations are more traditional than their American counterparts. There are 30 Masorti congregations that are officially listed: 12 in the U.K., 6 in France, with remaining congregations spread throughout various countries. In contrast to the decline of Conservative Judaism in North America, Masorti congregations now comprise the fastest growing branch of Judaism in Europe.8
Reconstructionist Judaism is an offshoot of Conservative Judaism. It is largely the product of one man, Mordecai Kaplan, who viewed Judaism as an evolving religious civilization. Kaplan began as an Orthodox rabbi, becoming Conservative before beginning Reconstructionism. Reconstructionist Judaism is more positive towards tradition and community decision-making than is Reform Judaism, though there is a wide latitude for behavior and belief.
In 1922, Kaplan held a bat mitzvah ceremony for girls with his own daughter Judith, and the ceremony thereafter entered the Jewish mainstream. Though there had been sporadic examples of bat mitzvah in the 19th century, Kaplan normalized the rite for a large swatch of Jewry. Previously, the norm was to hold the ceremony for boys only. (Bar and bat mitzvah are coming-of-age ceremonies, the former taking place for boys at age 13, and the latter for girls at age 12 or 13. During these ceremonies, the boy or girl publicly takes on responsibility for living as a Jew and participating in the Jewish community.)
The movement also played an important role in mainstreaming the chavurah, or small fellowship group. Chavurot (plural) often function as alternatives to more establishment kinds of Jewish institutions. Members meet for Sabbath and holiday services, life cycle observances, and/or study and prayer.
As of 2013, only 1% of American Jews identified with Reconstructionist Judaism.9 Yet with its normalization of the bat mitzvah and its role in fostering the chavurah movement, Reconstructionist Judaism has played a role disproportionate to its size.
Regardless of size, each branch of Judaism has both reflected and shaped the thinking and behavior of Jewish people worldwide. Each has its place on a wide spectrum, ranging from very Orthodox to very liberal. And that spectrum includes fully 30% of American Jews who do not identify as belonging to any branch of Judaism, though they consider themselves Jewish.10 Though there is an essential unity to Judaism, over time it has continued to demonstrate a remarkable diversity.
This content has been adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article published February 1, 1990.
1. Pew Research Center, Survey of U.S. Jews, Feb. 20–June 13, 2013. Figures may not sum to 100% due to rounding. Based on the net Jewish population (both Jews by religion and Jews of no religion). http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/
2. Fishkoff, Sue. “Europe’s Conservative movement enjoying popularity boom.” Jewish News of Northern California, October 1, 2010. https://www.jweekly.com/2010/10/01/europes-conservative-movement-enjoying-popularity-boom/.
3. Pew Research Center, ibid.
4. Fishkoff, ibid.
6. Daniel Gordis, “Conservative Judaism: A Requiem,” Jewish Review of Books (Winter 2014), https://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/566/requiem-for-a-movement/
9. Pew Research Center, ibid.