Movements of Judaism
Movements are sects or denominations of Judaism
The oldest movements were Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots
Medieval movements included Karaites and Rabbinical Judaism
Rabbinical Judaism split into Chasidic, Orthodox, Reform and Conservative in the US today
Other countries have similar movements differently named
The different sects or denominations of Judaism are generally referred to as
movements. The differences between Jewish movements today are not so much a
matter of theology, but more a matter of how literally they take the
scriptures, how much they think biblical requirements can be changed, and
whether those requirements are mandatory. I've been told that the differences
between Jewish movements are not as great as the differences between Christian
denominations, but I'm not sure if that's true: I once heard a Protestant
minister trying to explain to Jews the difference between Protestant
denominations, and the first distinction he thought of was the country of
origin of the adherents.
In general, when I speak of "movements" in this site, I am referring to
movements in the United States in the 20th century, but in
fact there have been organized differences of opinion for more than 2000 years.
Movements in Ancient Times
Perhaps the oldest records we have of a formal difference of religious opinion
among Jews dates back to the time of the Maccabean revolt, which is the basis
for the story of Chanukkah. At that time, the
land of Israel was under the relatively
benevolent control of Greece, and was deeply influenced by Greek culture.
Hellenizing Jews were opposed by a religious traditionalist group known as the
Chasideans (no direct relation to the modern movement known as Chasidism). As
the Seleucid Greeks began to oppress the Jews, war broke out and the
Jewish people united in their opposition to the
The war continued for 25 years, and the Jewish people remained united in
purpose. But after the war ended, the Jewish people became divided into three
groups: the Essenes, the Sadducees (Tzedukim in Hebrew) and the Pharisees.
The Essenes were an ascetic and mystical group devoted to strict discipline.
They lived in isolation from the world. The Dead Sea Scrolls are believed to be
the product of an Essene sect. Some scholars believe that early Christianity
was influenced by the mystical and hermetical teachings of the Essenes.
The Sadducees evolved out of the Hellenistic elements of Judaism. The movement
was made up of the priests and the aristocrats of
Jewish society. They were religiously conservative but socially liberal. The
Sadducees believed in a strict, narrow and unchanging interpretation of the
written Torah, and they did not believe in
oral Torah. The
Temple and its
sacrificial services were at the center of
their worship. Socially, they adopted the ways of the neighboring Greek
The Pharisees believed that G-d gave the Jews both a
written Torah and an oral Torah, both of which were equally binding and both of
which were open to interpretation by the rabbis,
people with sufficient education to make such decisions. The Pharisees were
devoted to study of the Torah and education for
After Judea was conquered by Rome and tensions with Rome began to mount, a
fourth group appeared: the Zealots. The Zealots were basically a nationalistic
movement, not a religious one. They favored war against Rome, and believed that
death was preferable to being under Roman control. They would commit suicide
rather than be taken prisoner. The most famous example of the Zealots was the
defenders of Masada, who held the mountain fortress against the Roman Tenth
Legion for months and ultimately committed suicide rather than surrender.
The Pharisaic school of thought is the only one that survived the destruction
of the Temple. The Zealots were killed off during
the war with Rome. The Sadducees could not survive without the Temple, which
was the center of their religion. The Essenes, who were never very numerous,
were apparently killed off by the Romans (they were easily recognizable in
their isolated communities). Some think that the Essenes may have been absorbed
into Christianity, which as I said shares some of their mystical teachings.
For many centuries after the destruction of the Temple, there was no
large-scale, organized difference of opinion within Judaism. Judaism was
Judaism, and it was basically the same as what we now know as Orthodox Judaism.
There were some differences in practices and
customs between the Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe and the Sephardic
Jews of Spain and the Middle East, but these differences were not significant.
See Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews.
Karaites and Rabbinical Judaism
During the 9th century C.E., a number of sects arose that denied the existence
of oral Torah. These sects came to be known as
Karaites (literally, People of the Scripture), and they were distinguished from
the Rabbanites or Rabbinical Judaism.
The Karaites believed in strict interpretation of the literal text of the
scripture, without rabbinical interpretation. They believed that rabbinical law
was not part of an oral tradition that had been handed down from G-d, nor was
it inspired by G-d, but was an original work of the sages. As such, rabbinical
teachings are subject to the flaws of any document written by mere mortals.
The difference between Rabbanites and Karaites that is most commonly noted is
in regard to Shabbat: the Karaites noted that
the Bible specifically prohibits lighting a flame on Shabbat, so they kept
their houses dark on Shabbat. The Rabbanites, on the other hand, relied upon
rabbinical interpretation that allowed us to leave burning a flame that was
ignited before Shabbat. Karaites also prohibited sexual intercourse on Shabbat,
while Rabbanites considered Shabbat to be the best time for sexual intercourse.
The Karaites also follow a slightly different calendar than the Rabbanites.
According to the Karaites, this movement at one time attracted as much as 40%
of the Jewish people. Today, Karaites are a very
small minority, and most Rabbinical Jews do not even know that they exist. For
more information about the Karaites, see
The Karaite Korner.
Chasidim and Mitnagdim
In the 1700s, the first of the modern movements developed in Eastern Europe.
This movement, known as Chasidism, was founded by
Israel ben Eliezer, more commonly known as the
Baal Shem Tov or the Besht. Before Chasidism, Judaism emphasized education as
the way to get closer to G-d. Chasidism emphasized other, more personal
experiences and mysticism as alternative
routes to G-d.
Chasidism was considered a radical movement at the time it was founded. There
was strong opposition from those who held to the pre-existing view of Judaism.
Those who opposed Chasidism became known as mitnagdim (opponents), and disputes
between the Chasidim and the mitnagdim were often brutal. Today, the Chasidim
and the mitnagdim are relatively unified in their opposition to the liberal
modern movements. Orthodoxy and even the liberal movements of Judaism today
have been strongly influenced by Chasidic teachings.
Chasidic sects are organized around a spiritual leader called a Rebbe or a
tzaddik, a person who is considered to be more enlightened than other Jews. A
Chasid consults his Rebbe about all major life decisions.
Chasidism continues to be a vital movement throughout the world. The
Lubavitcher Chasidim are very vocal with a high media presence (see their
website, Chabad.org), but there are many
other active Chasidic sects today. For a simple, plain English introduction to
Chasidism written by a modern Breslover Chasid, check out this
FAQ on Hasidic Culture
Movements in the United States Today
Approximately 5 million of the world's 13 million Jews live in the United
States. There are basically three major movements in the U.S. today: Reform,
Conservative and Orthodox. Some people also include a fourth movement, the
Reconstructionist movement, although that movement is substantially smaller
than the other three. Orthodox and sometimes Conservative are described as
"traditional" movements. Reform, Reconstructionist, and sometimes Conservative
are described as "liberal" or "modern" movements.
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 halakhah (Jewish
Law), the Chasidim, who live separately and
dress distinctively (commonly, but erroneously, 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 mitzvot binding upon Jews but not
upon non-Jews. This web site is written primarily from the modern Orthodox
point of view. The 2000
National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) performed by the Council of Jewish
Federations found that 10% of American Jews identify themselves as Orthodox,
including 21% of those who belong to a synagogue.
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. The original, basic tenets of American
Reform Judaism were set down in the Pittsburgh Platform. Many non-observant,
nominal, and/or agnostic Jews will identify themselves as Reform when pressed
to specify simply because Reform is the most liberal movement, but that is not
really a fair reflection on the movement as a whole. There are plenty of Reform
Jews who are religious in a Reform way. The NJPS found that 35% of American
Jews identify themselves as Reform, including 39% of those who belong to a
synagogue. There are approximately 900 Reform
synagogues in the United States and Canada.
For more information about Reform Judaism, see
The Union for Reform Judaism.
Conservative Judaism grew out of the tension between Orthodoxy and Reform. It
was formally organized as the United Synagogue of
Conservative Judaism in by Dr. Solomon Schechter in 1913, although its
roots in the Jewish Theological Seminary of
America stretch back into the 1880s. Conservative Judaism maintains that
the truths found in Jewish scriptures and
other Jewish writings come from G-d, but were transmitted by humans and contain
a human component. Conservative Judaism generally accepts the binding nature of
halakhah, but believes that the Law should
change and adapt, absorbing aspects of the predominant culture while remaining
true to Judaism's values. In my experience, there is a great deal of variation
among Conservative synagogues. Some are
indistinguishable from Reform, except that they use more Hebrew; others are
practically Orthodox, except that men and women sit together. Some are very
traditional in substance, but not in form; others are traditional in form but
not in substance. This flexibility is deeply rooted in Conservative Judaism,
and can be found within their own Statement of Principles, Emet ve-Emunah. The
NJPS found that 26% of American Jews identify themselves as Conservative,
including 33% of those who belong to a synagogue. There are approximately 750
Conservative synagogues in the world today.
Reconstructionist Judaism is theoretically an outgrowth of
Conservative, but it doesn't fit neatly into the traditional/liberal,
observant/non-observant continuum that most people use to classify movements of
Judaism. Reconstructionists believe that Judaism is an "evolving religious
civilization." They do not believe in a personified deity that is active in
history, and they do not believe that G-d chose the
Jewish people. From this, you might assume that
Reconstructionism is to the left of Reform; yet Reconstructionism lays a much
greater stress on Jewish observance than Reform Judaism. Reconstructionists
observe the halakhah 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. Everyone I know
seems to have had a Reconstructionist rabbi at college or in a community
center, yet according to the NJPS, only about 2% of the Jews in America
identify themselves as Reconstructionist. Reconstructionist numbers are, in
fact, so small that the NJPS advises caution in interpreting the statistics.
There are about a hundred Reconstructionist synagogues world-wide. See the
homepage of the Jewish Reconstructionist
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 too long, too conservative, and often basically
incomprehensible to liberal Jews (because traditional services are primarily,
if not exclusively, in Hebrew). Some Orthodox will not attend liberal services
because of the mixed seating arrangements and because the liberal prayer book
cuts many required prayers.
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.
Movements in Israel Today
Approximately 5 million Jews live in Israel.
Orthodoxy is the only movement that is formally and legally recognized in
Israel. Until very recently, only Orthodox Jews could serve on religious
councils. The Orthodox rabbinate in Israel controls matters of personal status,
such as marriage,
The other American movements have some degree of presence in Israel, but for
the most part, Israelis do not formally identify themselves with a movement.
Most Israelis describe themselves more generally in terms of their degree of
observance, rather than in terms of membership in an organized movement.
More than half of all Israelis describe themselves as hiloni (secular). About
15-20 percent describe themselves as haredi (ultra-Orthodox) or dati
(Orthodox). The rest describe themselves as masorti (traditionally observant,
but not as dogmatic as the Orthodox). It is important to remember, however,
that the masorti and hiloni of Israel tend to be more observant than their
counterparts in America. For example, the hiloni of Israel often observe some
traditional practices in a limited way, such as lighting
Shabbat candles, limiting their activities on
Shabbat, or keeping kosher to some extent, all of
which are rare among American Reform Jews, and unheard of among American Jews
who describe themselves as secular. It has been said that most Israelis don't
belong to a synagogue, but the synagogue they don't belong to is Orthodox.
Movements in the United Kingdom Today
There are an estimated 350,000 Jews in the UK. Of those, approximately 20% are
Reform or Liberal, which are two separate movements. There is also a small but
active Conservative movement called the Masorti, which uses the same prayer
book as the Conservative movement in the United States. The Lubavitcher
Chasidim are also active and growing in the UK.
The liberal movements in the UK are generally more traditional than the Reform
movement in the United States. For example, the British Reform movement does
not accept patrilineal descent (although the Liberal movement does). See
Who Is a Jew.
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