Everything* You Always Wanted to Know About The Three Branches of Judaism

* OK so maybe it's just a few things but it's all we could fit on two pages!
Names of the branches ORTHODOXCONSERVATIVE
(in North America; called Masorti elsewhere)
REFORM
(called Liberal Judaism in Great Britain) Note, unlike Reformed denominations in Christianity, there is no “ed” at the end of Reform.)
Number of adherents among American Jews1
(Does not include 7% who described themselves as "other".)
22%33%38%
Date and place of originRooted in Israel (before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.), After 70 A.D., the Pharisees (forerunners of Orthodox Judaism) became the dominant religious force in the Jewish community. Later (200-550 A.D.) the Talmud developed in Israel and Babylonia; later still, rabbinic commentators in Europe and the Mediterranean codified much of what we now know as Orthodox Judaism. Also called Torah Judaism, the label “Orthodox” came into use in the 19th century; prior to that, there were no other “branches” of Judaism.19th century Germany, as a reaction to the liberalism of Reform JudaismEarly 19th century Germany
WorshipThe congregation is referred to as the synagogue or shul. Men and women sit separately; men wear headcoverings (yarmulkes or kippot, singular kippah) and, at certain services, the prayer shawl (tallit). Songs and liturgy are generally in Hebrew.The congregation is referred to as the synagogue; once close to Orthodoxy in its views of women, this branch has moved toward a more egalitarian position regarding participation in worship services. While services are mainly Hebrew, some English is used.The congregation is called a temple. Men and women sit together; some have done away with the yarmulke and tallit; services may be all English or a combination of Hebrew and English.
The following is true for all three branches: The high point of the Jewish worship service is the reading of the Torah. Sermons do not occupy the central place as they often do in churches, nor do they always exposit Scripture. Sermons may deal with a current event or social concern relevant to Jewish people.
SubgroupsTraditional Orthodox; Modern Orthodox, who believe in greater interaction with the secular culture than do Traditional; Ultra- Orthodox or Hasidic, who incorporate Jewish mysticism into their beliefs and comprise a variety of groups each of which follows a particular leader called the rebbe; Hasidic Jews have numerous subgroups as well, including but not limited to Breslover, Lubavitcher (Chabad), Satmar, and Vizhnitzer. Hasidic (also spelled Chassidic) Jews generally do not socialize outside of their own group, though many interact with Jews and Gentiles in business dealings.Has no clearly delineated subgroups. However, there are variations as to beliefs and behavior.As with Conservative, no clearly delineated subgroups, but a variety of beliefs and behavior under the Reform umbrella.
Basic emphases/ worldviews/ doctrinesTeaches the existence of a personal God who requires Jews to follow the Torah according to the interpretation of the “Oral Law.” Emphasizes how to live in the present life; most assume that a Jewish person who follows the Torah will have a share in the “world to come.” Atonement for sin is available through repentance, deeds of charity (tzedakah), prayer, and fasting on the Day of Atonement. Expectations for the future include a personal Messiah, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and the resurrection of the dead.Occupies a middle ground between Orthodox and Reform. Generally accepts the authority of rabbinic law (halakha) for daily life but also teaches that the halakha should be adapted as times change. Views about God vary widely. This group sees itself as loyal to tradition as well as open to change.Rejects the binding authority of rabbinic tradition, though individuals may choose to engage in traditional practices as a way to express Jewish identity. Views regarding a personal God vary widely from traditional to completely secular. Attitudes concerning the afterlife also vary from “everyone will be in heaven” to “there is no life after death, though we live on in people’s memory or through our children or our achievements.” Ideas concerning sin and forgiveness are generally not an issue other than on the annual Day of Atonement.
Basic lifestyleThis branch of Judaism follows halakha, or Jewish Law, based in the Torah and interpreted and adapted by the Talmud and later rabbis. The halakha can be very complex and governs such matters as what can and cannot be done on the Sabbath, the preparation of kosher food, relations between a husband and wife, and in fact all aspects of life. Lifestyle includes regular synagogue attendance.This branch also follows halakha but has adapted it to modern life; thus specific lifestyle matters will vary from the Orthodox. Women have a more egalitarian position than in Orthodox Judaism and overall there is a more positive view towards secular scholarship, including attitudes regarding Bible authorship and composition. There is a more relaxed attitude towards the larger society in general.This lifestyle is often much the same as that of the average secular person. Specifically Jewish elements may include observing some of the holidays, regular or occasional attendance at the temple, involvement in Jewish social activities, and support for the State of Israel.
Attitudes toward ScriptureGod gave the Torah, or Five Books of Moses (the “Written Law”), at Mt. Sinai along with the interpretation called the “Oral Law.” In addition, God inspired the other parts of the Old Testament, but the Torah is the most inspired. The Talmud is the Oral Law written down. The interpretation of the Old Testament is filtered through the lens of the Talmud and the later rabbis. Studying the Old Testament without the later commentaries is for beginners; advanced students master the Talmud and the later rabbis. As my grandfather once said to me, “If you want to know what the Bible says, you read Rashi” (11th century rabbi) “and he tells you what it means.” Expect most Orthodox Jews to have a knowledge of the contents of the Old Testament, and some quite extensively, but they view it through the eyes of rabbinic commentators.Views vary; some believe God revealed Himself but not necessarily in the words of Scripture; many accept what is termed “higher criticism of the Bible” concerning authorship and composition. Conservative Jews turn to the Scripture for the basis of halakha but believe, to some extent, that the understanding of it evolves according to the rabbis and changes in society.Scriptures are seen as a human document, not inspired by God, but useful for history (sometimes) and especially for ethics. Whereas Orthodox Jews emphasize the Torah, Reform Jews emphasize the prophets, especially the portions dealing with justice and ethical behavior. Most Reform Jews are not familiar with the Old Testament outside of a few Bible stories or passages used in worship.
Attitudes toward JesusSome take the older traditional view that Jesus was a deceiver who led the people of Israel astray. Others may be more positive. In either case, Orthodox Jews believe the Messiah will rebuild the Temple, gather the Jewish people to Israel from around the world, and bring peace. Since Jesus did not do these things, he cannot be the Messiah.Opinions vary; probably overall closer to the Reform viewpoint.Tend to see Jesus more positively: as a good rabbi, a good teacher, perhaps a political martyr or someone who tried to reform the Judaism of his day. Many believe that Paul changed the teachings of Jesus and thus invented Christianity. Few believe in a personal Messiah, so the question of whether Jesus is the Messiah is not really relevant—though there is an attitude that if there was going to be a Messiah, it wouldn’t be Jesus.
Attitudes towards ChristiansUltra-Orthodox generally do not even socialize with other Jews, much less Christians, outside of their particular group, except for business purposes. Modern Orthodox interact with the non-Jewish world but issues such as keeping kosher would limit some opportunities to socialize.Much like Reform.Tend to be more assimilated into general society, so will have more contact with non- Jews.
Note: Many Jewish people view all non-Jews as Christians, unless they espouse Islam, Buddhism or some other religion. Most Jews, regardless of the branch, find an added comfort level in socializing with other Jews, though as Jewish society has grown increasingly secular, many Jews socialize comfortably with everyone. The rate of intermarriage of Jews to non-Jews is over 50% in the U.S. In the larger social arena, most Jews are glad that evangelical Christians tend to be known as supporters of Israel; yet this is mixed with an apprehension towards the same evangelicals engaging in evangelism. Many Jewish people worry that the political-social influence of conservative Christians in the U.S. will force Christianity or “Christian politics” on the Jewish people.
Attitudes towards the idea of believing in JesusJews who believe in Jesus have left the Jewish people and are considered traitors (a meshummad, literally, a destroyer) to their people. In years gone by, the Orthodox would sometimes hold funerals for family members who became Christians. Arguments for the gospel are countered with the belief that Christians misinterpret the Old Testament, and with criticism of the New Testament and Christian theology (e.g., Christians believe in three gods; no one can die for another’s sins; etc.).Varies from more Orthodox responses to more Reform.Varies widely. Many, if not most, espouse the traditional view, though arguments against the gospel often have less to do with Scripture than with social objections or secular thinking (miracles don’t happen; people wrote the Bible, not God; the New Testament causes or fuels anti-Semitism; etc.). Others are perplexed or indifferent about Jews who profess faith in Jesus, but espouse a “live and let live” philosophy “as long as you’re happy.” However, in recent years, many “anti-missionary” arguments have been popularized among Reform and secular Jews, even though most anti-missionaries come from an Orthodox background.

1. National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01 (New York: United Jewish Communities, 2003), the last major survey of American Jews; the survey is published every ten years. (These figures are based on synagogue attendance.)