What's the Difference?
Judaism is one of the oldest religions in the world. While adherents are bonded by certain core beliefs, there is also diversity within the faith. Differences between Jewish denominations or sects, which are more commonly known as "movements," reflect varying responses to changing times and cultures.
The historical Jewish movements (Pharisses, Sadduccees, and Essenes) were responses to the Roman rule of Israel, while the major modern movements (Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative) are responses to the modern, secular culture of Europe and America. Hasidism and Kabbalah are mystical approaches to the Jewish faith. Jewish mysticism emphasizes inward, spiritual experiences over intellectual and rational knowledge.
This article explores the major modern Jewish movements: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Hasidism, and Kabbalah.
Orthodox Judaism is the most traditional expression of modern Judaism. Orthodox Jews believe the entire Torah - including "Written," the the Pentateuch, and "Oral," the Talmud) was given to Moses by God at Sinai and remains authoritative for modern life in its entirety. According to a 1990 nationwide survey, 7 percent of American Jews are Orthodox. American and Canadian Orthodox Jews are organized under the Orthodox Union, which serves 1,000 synagogues in North America.
Reform Judaism is the most liberal expression of Judaism. In America, Reform Judaism is organized under the Union for Reform Judaism (known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations until 2003), whose mission is "to create and sustain vibrant Jewish congregations wherever Reform Jews live." About 1.5 million Jews in 900 synagogues are members of the Union for Reform Judaism. According to 1990 survey, 42 percent of American Jews regard themselves as Reform.
Conservative Judaism may be said to be a moderate position between Orthodox and Reform Judaism. It seeks to conserve the traditional elements of Judaism, while allowing for modernization to a less radical extent than Reform Judaism. The teachings of Zacharias Frankel (1801-75) form the foundation of Conservative Judaism.
Hasidic (or Chasidic) Judaism arose in 12th-century Germany as a mystical movement emphasizing asceticism and experience born out of love and humility before God. The austere religious life of these early Hasids ("pious ones") is documented in the Sefer Hasidim ("Book of the Pious"). The modern Hasidic movement was founded in Poland in the 18th century by Israel ben Eliezer, more commonly known as the Baal Shem Tov ("Master of the Good Name") or "the Besht" (an acronym for Baal Shem Tov).
The mystical form of Judaism is Kabbalah. Broadly speaking, Kabbalah refers to Jewish mysticism dating back to the time of the second Temple. For many years a carefully guarded oral tradition, it became systematized and dispersed in the Middle Ages. The kabbalistic viewpoint was expressed most importantly in the Yalkut Re'uveni by Reuben Hoeshke in 1660, but also made its way into prayer books, popular customs and ethics. The focus of the Kabbalah is the simultaneous transcendence and immanence of God, with the latter described in terms of the sefirot, or attributes of God.
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