The Three Branches Of Judaism


If you want to share your faith in Jesus with Jewish friends, it’s good to have some understanding of what they believe and what their lifestyle is like. They’ll appreciate that you know something about Judaism, and that can be a great starting point in any spiritual discussion.

It’s important to emphasize that the Jews are a people, not a religion. There are Jewish people who don’t practice Judaism, who have embraced other religions such as Buddhism, or who “pick and choose” what elements of Judaism they choose to embrace.

Also, while the branches of Judaism all have their own more or less “official” take on the Jewish faith, just because someone attends a particular synagogue doesn’t always help you to understand what they believe. Orthodox Judaism, for example, “officially” believes in God but you could find atheists who attend an Orthodox synagogue because it’s the kind of worship they grew up with. That’s because Judaism emphasizes how to live, not what to believe. You’ll have to ask questions in order to find out a Jewish friend’s beliefs. Many Jewish people today don’t affiliated with a synagogue at all, so all the more reason to ask questions.

With that in mind, there are three main branches of Judaism. As suggested above, many Jewish people formulate their own informal version of Judaism, and do not fit comfortably into any one of the “official” versions of the branches. So consider this as a general guideline.

HISTORY Orthodoxy dates back to the days of the Talmud (2nd to 5th centuries AD). It was the only form of Jewish practice prior to the 18th century and the emergence of Reform Judaism. Orthodoxy today seeks to preserve classical or traditional Judaism.Conservative Judaism emerged in 19th century Germany as a reaction to the extreme assimilationist tendencies of Reform Judaism. It tried to be a middle ground, attempting to maintain basic traditions while adapting to modern life.Reform Judaism emerged following the emancipation from ghetto life in the late 18th century. It sought to modernize Judaism and thus stem the tide of assimilation threatening German Jewry.
OTHER TERMS Traditional or Torah Judaism Note: “ultra-Orthodox Jews” are not much involved in the secular world; “Modern Orthodox” Jews integrate into secular life while maintaining an Orthodox lifestyle.Historical Judaism (not used much any more)Outside the U.S., Liberal or Progressive Judaism
U.S. ADHERENTS (as percentage of U.S. Jewish population) 10%18%35%
30% are “no denomination” and 6% are “other”
VIEW OF SCRIPTURE Torah is truth, and Jews must have faith in its divine, revealed character. A true Jew believes in revelation and the divine origin of both the oral and written Torah. The written Torah is the Five Books of Moses; the oral Torah is the divinely inspired interpretation of those books which is found in the Talmud. The Torah is more inspired than other parts of the Hebrew Bible.Varying views. Some would say that the Bible is the word of both God and man.No traditional belief in revelation. Torah is a human document preserving the history, culture, legends and hope of a people. It is valuable for deriving moral and ethical insights.
VIEW OF GOD God is a personal God. He is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal and compassionate. He is good, and He is holy.The concept of God is non-dogmatic and flexible. There is less atheism than in Reform, but God may be considered to be impersonal.Reform Judaism allows varied interpretations of God with wide latitude for naturalists, mystics, supernaturalists or religious humanists.
VIEW OF MAN People are morally neutral, with both a good and an evil inclination. They can overcome their evil bent and be perfected by their own efforts in observance of the Law.This group tends toward the Reform view, though it is not as likely to espouse humanism. Perfectibility can come through enlightenment. Man is “in partnership” with God.Man’s nature is basically good. Through education, encouragement and evolution he can actualize the potential already existing within him.
VIEW OF SIN Orthodox Jews do not believe in “original sin” or a sin nature. Rather, one commits sin by breaking the commandments of the Law.Conservative Jews do not believe in “original sin” or a sin nature. The individual can sin in moral or social actions.Reform Jews do not believe in “original sin” or a sin nature. Sin is often reinterpreted as the ills of society.
VIEW OF SALVATION The term “salvation” is not usually used. Repentance, prayer, and obedience to the Law provide for life in the “World to Come.”Conservative Jews tend toward the Reform view, but there are variations.The term “salvation” is not usually used. However, a better world can be obtained through the improvement of self and society.
VIEW OF RABBINIC AUTHORITY The rabbis have ultimate authority to interpret the Torah, and Jews should live according to those interpretations. One does not “see what the Bible says” without recourse to the rabbinic tradition. Jewish law is the foundation of life; the way to live, as understood in rabbinic tradition, is called halakha.The law is an evolving, ever-dynamic religious code that adapts to every age. Authority comes from the Jewish people as whole (not from the individual as in Reform Judaism).The rabbis function as community leaders but have no authority over the individual lives of congregants, nor do they have a final say in understanding the Bible.
VIEW OF MESSIAH The Messiah is a personal, human or perhaps superhuman being who is not divine. He will return the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, destroy the enemies of the Jews, and be King, extending his righteous rule over the earth. He will ultimately bring peace to the earth. There is a potential Messiah in every generation; his coming is sometimes said to be dependent on Israel proving itself worthy by keeping the Law.Conservative Jews hold much the same view as the Reform, but again, it can vary.The Messiah is not a person; in fact the idea of a Messiah is widely held to be a superstition that can no longer be believed. Sometimes a messianic age is postulated, which humanity can bring in by their own efforts.
VIEW OF LIFE AFTER DEATH There will be a physical resurrection. The righteous will exist forever with God in the Garden of Eden. The unrighteous will suffer, but there are different views as to their ultimate destiny.Conservative Jews tend toward the Reform view, with variations.Generally, Reform Judaism has no concept of personal life after death. Many say a person lives on in their accomplishments, through their descendants, or in the minds of others.
LIFESTYLE Observe the weekly Sabbath in traditional ways; “keep kosher,” that is, eat only kosher food; observe all the holidays of the Jewish calendar and life cycle events.Often closer to Orthodox than to Reform, but updated and adapted to modern life.Varies according to individual choice. Most do not keep kosher; some have some kind of Friday night (Sabbath eve) rituals/meals. Passover and Hanukkah remain two of the most popular holidays for Reform Jews.
SYNAGOGUE WORSHIP The synagogue is a house of prayer; study and social aspects are incidental. All prayers are recited in Hebrew. Men and women sit separately. The leaders face the same direction as the congregation.The synagogue is viewed as the basic institution of Jewish life. Alterations listed under Reform are found to a lesser degree in Conservative worship.The synagogue is known as a “Temple.” The service has been modernized and abbreviated. English as well as Hebrew is used. Men and women sit together. Reform temples use choirs and organs in their worship services.
SCHOOLS OR SEMINARIES IN THE U.S. Yeshiva University (New York City).Jewish Theological Seminary of America (New York City); University of Judaism (Los Angeles).Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (campuses in Cincinnati , New York , Los Angeles).
TO GO DEEPER Arnie Singer, The Outsider’s Guide to Orthodox Judaism (Soul Encounter Publishing, 2008)Neil Gillman, Conservative Judaism: The New Century (Behrman House, 1993) Dana Evan Kaplan, American Reform Judaism (Rutgers University Press, 2003)

* Source: Pew Research Center 2013 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).

This was adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article published February 1, 1990.