It is true that the major movements, or denominations, that characterize organized Jewish religious life in the West today are creations of the modern era. But it is also true that throughout Jewish history, there have been different factions and different interpretations of the law.
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During the Second Temple era, three distinct groups – the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes – had varied understandings of the law and also constituted different social classes. And when the Hasidic movement emerged in Eastern Europe in the 18th century, its emphasis on religious “experience” over textual study, and individual communities’ allegiance to charismatic rebbes, created significant tension with the dominant traditional rabbinical leadership.
The classic joke about the Jewish castaway on a desert island captures a well-known tendency of Jews to dwell on their differences. When the shipwrecked man is finally rescued, he shows his savior around the island, and points out two different synagogues he’s built for himself. “This one is the one I go to,” he says, pointing at one of the shuls. “And that, that’s the one I don’t go to.”
Yet the Jews have managed to avoid the kind of schisms that led to a decisive split, never creating what would be in effect a new religion. (Possible exceptions to this were the Samaritans and the Karaites, but both groups emerged before the existence of rabbinical Judaism as we know it today.)
Divine inspiration, human interpretation
The Jewish movements known Reform, Conservatism and Orthodoxy, which are – in that order - the largest organized groups in the United States and to a lesser extent outside it, came into existence among Ashkenazi Jews in Central Europe in the early 19th century. (Sephardi Jews, the descendants of those exiled from Iberia beginning in 1492 and of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, have for the most part remained traditional in observance and not been drawn to these modern movements.)
The Reform and Conservative movements developed out of the Enlightenment and the Jewish Emancipation. The first was the intellectual upheaval revolution that led to the scientific revolution and to the concepts of tolerance and human rights; the latter saw the Jews of individual states being granted civil rights like other citizens. Together, these developments allowed Jews to leave their ghettos, acquire secular education and, at least to some extent, integrate into Christian society. Inevitably, many of these same Jews began to subject their tradition and texts to a critical approach, while the opportunity to join secular society led some to adjust their dress and their lifestyle so as to fit in.
Reform Judaism was the most radical development. It rejected the idea of the Torah (meaning, Jewish law in general) being divinely written, but rather saw it as being composed by a variety of different sources over time. It also rejected the binding nature of halakha (religious law), and dispensed with those practices that did not seem to embody ethical values and teachings. In its most provocative forms, Reform has had synagogues that celebrated the Sabbath on Sunday - so that members would have Saturday free for work or other pursuits - and that served pork products and shellfish at official functions.
Today, Reform is the largest denomination in the United States, and internationally, under the rubric of Progressive Judaism, it claims some 1.7 million members. In recent years, many Reform synagogues have moved back toward tradition, but the ideology remains the same. The movement is egalitarian, in many countries sanctifies same-sex unions, and it gives members the maximum freedom to decide on their own level of observance.
Probably the most significant innovation of American Reform Judaism was the decision, in 1983, to recognize patrilineal lineage in additional to matrilineal. This means that the movement accepts as Jewish anyone with either a Jewish mother or father. Since this contradicts Jewish religious law, which also forbids intermarriage, it runs the risk of creating a class of people who define themselves as Jewish but who are not seen as such by the majority of the world’s Jews.
Conservative Judaism was a reaction to Reform. Although it agreed that Scripture and other essential texts were drafted by humans, it saw them as being divinely inspired, with their principles and laws coming from God. Consequently, it also saw Jews as being bound by religious law, even as it suggested that the law had always been subject to - and should continue as such into the present – human interpretation and adaptation to cultural circumstances.
On the practical level, there is often a gap between the observance level of Conservative rank-and-file and the nominally binding religious rulings of their leadership.
In the United States, about one-quarter of all Jews define themselves as Conservative Jews, and internationally, Masorti Judaism (as it usually referred to outside the U.S.) has some 900 synagogues affiliated with it. Generally, it is egalitarian in its approach to both rights and religious obligations, is opposed to intermarriage, and believes in traditional Sabbath observance.
What we know today as Modern Orthodoxy was also a 19th-century German development, a practical realization of the vision of the Haskalah, a Jewish version of the Enlightenment pioneered by Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) that called on Jews to acquire a secular education, speak the local language, and also to apply rational methods to Torah study. Mendelssohn felt this liberal approach to daily life could be reconciled with continued adherence to Torah, both the written law (the Pentateuch) and the oral law (the Talmud and related rabbinical texts), which were still seen as coming directly from God and as fixed.
Although still far smaller than Reform and Conservative in the United States, Orthodoxy is growing rapidly in numbers everywhere. This is partly because the Orthodox have high birth rates and low rates of intermarriage. A recent poll showed 61 percent of Jewish children in the New York area belonging to Orthodox families (this includes all forms of Orthodoxy, not just Modern Orthodox).
In Israel, and in most other countries, Orthodoxy is generally the default version of Judaism for those who are not secular. But, even among Orthodox, there are variations in observance, as well as in extent of integration into general society.
Haredi (also called ultra-Orthodox) Judaism rejects the possibility of such integration, and its adherents, especially in Israel, wear distinctive dress and live in segregated neighborhoods, something almost necessitated by their strict levels of observance. Their ideal, particularly for males, is a life of full-time study, but outside of Israel most Haredi men also work.
There are many other streams of the Jewish religion, including Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal. The statistics regarding synagogue membership, particularly in the U.S., only tell a small part of the story. What is clear is that Orthodoxy has found the most reliable formula for passing Jewish identity on through the generations, and that it is on the upswing internationally.