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Understanding Judaism

Movements of Judaism

The different sects or denominations of Judaism are generally referred to as movements. There are basically 4 major ones in the world today: Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox. Orthodox, and sometimes Conservative are described as "traditional" movements. Reform, Reconstructionist, and sometimes Conservative are described as "liberal" or "modern" movements. These distinctions apply primarily to Ashkenazic Jews, not to Sephardic Jews.

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 Jewish law, Chasidic Jews, 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 G-d 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 commandments binding upon Jews but not upon non-Jews.

In most of the world, Orthodox Judaism is pretty much the only Judaism. The other movements are largely an American phenomenon, though they also exist in Israel due to immigration.

Reform Judaism does not believe that the Torah was written by G-d. 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.

Conservative Judaism grew out of the tension between Orthodoxy and Reform. It began, basically, when a Reform organization threw a dinner serving shrimp. Some more traditional rabbis were offended (shrimp is not kosher; it's like serving pork) and walked out, forming their own movement. Conservative Judaism generally accepts the binding nature of Jewish Law, but believes that the law should change and adapt. Some Conservative synagogues are more liberal than others. Some are Reform with some Hebrew; others are Orthodox with mixed seating.

Reconstructionist Judaism is theoretically an outgrowth of Conservative, but it's sort of out in left field. It's a very new, very small movement. It doesn't believe in a supernatural G-d (whatever that means). Reconstructionists observe the Law if they choose to, not because it is a binding Law from G-d, 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.

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 basically incomprehensible to liberal Jews (because traditional services are primarily, if not exclusively, in Hebrew), too long, and too conservative. I have been to services in Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox synagogues, and I 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.

This and other information can be found at: Jewish Resources on Yahoo