New Testament Bible Class

Understanding Jewish Denominations

Understanding Jewish Denominations


Orthodox, Conservative, Reform: Many of us grew up mentally placing one of these labels on every Jew we knew. But they scarcely reflect the rich diversity of Jewish life today.


Sephardim & Ashkenazim
The various streams of Judaism should not be confused with the terms “Ashkenazic” and “Sephardic,” which refer to the part of the world from which one’s ancestors hailed. While Sephardim and Ashkenazim share the basic tenets of Jewish belief, practices may differ considerably in terms of worship, ritual and minhagim (customs).

Sephardim are descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who spread to North Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the New World after the expulsion of Jews in 1492. The Sephardic vernacular is called Ladino, a blend of Hebrew, Spanish, Turkish and other languages. Modern Hebrew uses Sephardic pronunciation.

Originally a biblical term, “Ashkenaz” came to refer first to German lands, then was applied more loosely to refer to European Jews and their culture. Yiddish, a blend of Hebrew and German, is the traditional Askhenazic vernacular. Most Orthodox congregations retain the Ashkenazic pronunciation of Hebrew.

Conservative Judaism evolved primarily in the United States, in reaction to the Reform movement (see below). The Conservative movement holds that the Torah and Talmud are of divine origin, and thus Halacha must be followed. However, Conservatives also believe that revelation continues to take place as each generation of Jews discovers and responds to God’s word. Thus, after careful study, changes to Halacha may be made in response to historical development. The Conservative movement holds central the observance of kashrut and Shabbat.

National organizations: Rabbinical Assembly, Jewish Theological Seminary, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, United Synagogue Youth.

Orthodox Judaism is a generic term of fairly recent origin describing many different groups that share certain traditional principles and practices. Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah represents the exact words of God, as given to Moses, on behalf of the Jewish people, on Mount Sinai. To understand what God’s mitzvot (commandments) require of us across time, rabbinic authorities turn to Halacha (the collected body of Jewish law) to interpret the correct way, or path, of observance. Three cornerstones of Orthodox practice are observing Shabbat, keeping kosher and following the laws of mikvah (family purity).

There is no single, centralized Orthodox seminary, rabbinic association or authorized “platform,” either in the Diaspora or Israel. Some of the major subgroups within Orthodoxy are:

Chasidism: Founded in the 18th century by Ukrainian-born Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Ba’al Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), Chasidism emphasizes the joyful, intuitive experience of the divine.
Major groups today:
Belzer, Bianer, Bobov, Bostoner, Breslov, Gerer, Lubavitch (Chabad), Munkacz, Puppa, Rimnitz, Satmar and Vizhnitz. These groups differ philosophically and in their attitudes toward Zionism.

Modern/Centrist: The Modern/Centrist accepts some aspects of secular culture and education and generally has a Zionist orientation.
National organizations: National Council for Young Israel, Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), Union for Orthodox Congregations (OU), National Conference of Synagogue Youth.

Mitnagdim: The Mitnagdim developed as a reaction against Chasidism, creating “Lithuanian-style” yeshivot with a focus on Torah study.

Reconstructionist Judaism, originally an offshoot of the Conservative movement, is grounded in the thought of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who defined Judaism as “an evolving, religious civilization.” Kaplan defined the Torah “as the people’s search for God,” and defined God as a force or presence throughout the universe that acts through us, rather than upon us. He emphasized that Jewish prayers and rituals are “reconstructed” in an evolving historical and social context.

Reconstructionists were at the forefront of incorporating egalitarian and democratic practices into all aspects of synagogue life.

National organizations: Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.

Reform Judaism began in 19th-century Germany, as Jews responded to the Enlightenment. Reform Judaism holds that the written and oral laws are divinely inspired, but humanly written; therefore observance is a matter of informed individual choice. The Reform movement places greater emphasis on ethical and moral behavior and social action than on ritual. Whereas “Classical Reform” eliminated much of Jewish tradition and Hebrew liturgy, the “Modern Reform” of the last 60 years has ushered in a return of some traditional practices.

National organizations: Union for Reform Judaism, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, Central Conference of American Rabbis, National Federation of Temple Youth.

Jewish Renewal is a transdenominational movement grounded in Judaism’s prophetic and mystical traditions and carries forward Judaism’s perpetual process of renewal. Jewish Renewal seeks to bring creativity, relevance, joy and an all-embracing awareness to spiritual practice, as a path to healing hearts and finding balance and wholeness.

National organization: ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Secular/Humanistic Judaism’s nontheistic philosophy views Judaism as the historical experience and culture of the Jewish people. Founded in the 1960s, the movement believes in the power of human effort and responsibility and the natural origin of all experiences. Its liturgy eschews God-language. Secular/Humanist Jews observe holidays and some rituals.

National organization: Society for Humanistic Judaism.

Traditional Judaism, sometimes referred to as “Conservadox,” is another American offshoot of Conservatism which shares the Orthodox perspective on Torah and Halacha, but is somewhat more lenient in interpretation. Traditional Judaism supports free and open inquiry across all fields of knowledge in order to deepen understanding of God’s laws.

National organization: Union for Traditional Judaism.


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