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The Three Branches of Judaism

    If you want to bring the gospel to your Jewish friends, it is important that you have some understanding of modern Judaism, its tenets and modes of worship. Your Jewish friends will appreciate your awareness of the many distinctive, and you will find your knowledge of the correct terminology helpful in any religious discussion.

    The three divisions mentioned in this chart are not denominations. They are more like associations, with classifications according to cultural and doctrinal formulas. Within each branch you will find adherents with varying degrees of observance. Many Jewish people formulate their own informal version of Judaism, and do not fit strictly into any one of these categories. Nevertheless, the information in the chart below should be helpful in most witnessing situations.

History Orthodoxy dates back to the days of the Talmud (2nd to 5th Centuries). It was the only form of Jewish practice prior to the 18th century and the emergence of reform Judaism. Orthodoxy today seeks to preserve classical or traditional Judaism.Conservative Judaism emerged in 19th century Germany as a reaction to the extreme assimilationist tendencies of reform Judaism. It tried to be a middle ground, attempting to maintain basic traditions with adopting to modern life.Reform Judaism emerged following the emancipation from ghetto life in the late 18th century. It sought to modernize Judaism and thus stem the tide of assimilation threatening German Jewry.
Other TermsTraditional or Torah JudaismHistorical JudaismLiberal or Progressive Judaism
Samson Raphael Hirsch
Moses Sofer
Bernard Revel
Solomon Schechter
Louis Ginzberg
Zachariah Frankel
Isaac Lesser
Moses Mendelsohn
Isaac Mayer Wise
Abraham Geiger
Samuel Holdheim
U.S. Membership (*about 10% Jews not affiliated--1% other)820,250 (14%)*2,340,000 (40%)*2,050,000 (35%)*
View of ScriptureTorah is truth, and man must have faith in its essential, revealed character. A true Jew believes in revelation and the divine origin of the oral and written Torah.The Bible is the word of God and man. It is not inspired in the traditional sense, but rather dynamically inspired. Revelation is an ongoing process in the evolutionary sense.Revelation is a continuous process. Torah is a human document preserving the history, culture, legends, and hope of a people. It is valuable for deriving moral and ethical insights.
View of GodGod is spirit rather than form. He is a personal God: omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal and compassionate.The concept of God is non-dogmatic and flexible. There is less atheism in Conservative Judaism than in Reform, but most often God is considered impersonal and ineffable.Reform Judaism allows a varied interpretation of the “God concept” with wide latitude for naturalists, mystics, supernaturalisms or religious humanists. It holds that “the truth is that we do not know the truth.”
View of ManMan is morally neutral, with good and evil inclinations. He can overcome his evil bent and be perfected by his own efforts in observance of the law.This group tends toward the Reform vies, though it is not as likely to espouse humanism. Perfectibility can come through enlightenment. Man is “in partnership” with God.Man’s nature is basically good. Through education, encouragement and evolution he can actualize the potential already existing within him. Mankind may be God.
View of SinOrthodox Jews do not believe in “original sin.” Rather one commits sin by breaking the commandments of the Law.Conservative Jews do not believe in a sin nature. The individual can sin in moral or social actions.Reform Jews do not believe in “original sin.” Sin is reinterpreted as the ills of society.
View of SalvationRepentance (belief in God’s mercy), prayer, and obedience to the Law are necessary for salvation.Conservative Jews tend toward the reform view, but include the necessity of maintaining Jewish identity.Salvation is obtained through the betterment of self and society.
View of the tradition of the LawThe law is the essence of Judaism. It is authoritative and gives structure and meaning to life. The life of total dedication to Halakhah leads to a nearness to God.Adaptation to contemporary situations is inevitable. The demands of morality are absolute. The specific laws are relative.The law is an evolving, ever-dynamic religious code that adapts to every age. They maintain, “If religious observances clash with the just demands of civilized society, then they must be dropped.”
View of MessiahThe Messiah is a personal, superhuman being who is not divine. He will restore the Jewish kingdom and extend his righteous rule over the earth. He will execute judgment and right all wrongs.Conservative Jews hold much the same view as the Reform.Instead of belief in Messiah as a person or divine being, they favor the concept of a Utopian age toward which mankind is progressing.
View of Life After DeathThere will be a physical resurrection. The righteous will exist forever with God in the Garden of Eden. The unrighteous will suffer, but disagreement exists over their ultimate destiny.Conservative Jews tend toward the Reform view, but are less influenced by Eastern thought.Generally, Reform Judaism has no concept of personal life after death. They say a person lives on in the accomplishments or in the minds of others. There is some influence of Eastern thought, where souls merge into one great impersonal life force.
Distinctives in Synagogue WorshipThe synagogue is a house of prayer; study and social aspects are incidental. All prayers are recited in Hebrew. Men and women sit separately. The officiants face the same direction as the congregants.The synagogue is viewed as the basic institution of Jewish life. Alterations listed under Reform are found to a lesser degree in Conservative worship.The synagogue is known as a “temple.” the service has been modernized and abbreviated. English, as will as Hebrew, is used. Men and women sit together. Reform temples use choirs and organs in their worship services.
OrganizationsUnion of Orthodox Jewish Congregations in America (1898); National Council of Young Israel (1912); Rabbinical Council of America, Inc. (1923, reorg. 1936); Yavneh, National Religious Jewish Students Associates. (1960).Rabbinical Assembly (1900); United Synagogue of America (1913).Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1873); Central Conference of American Rabbis (1889).
Schools or Seminaries in U.S.Yeshiva University (New York City).Jewish Theological seminary of America (New York City); University of Judaism (Los Angeles).Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion (campuses in Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles).
Periodicals“Jewish Life”; “Jewish Forum”; “tradition”; “intercom”“Conservative Judaism”“Journal of Reformed Judaism”
Books to ReadA. Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud (1932); S. Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1936).Conservative Judaism (1945); Mordecai Waxman (editor), Tradition and Change (1958); Robert Gordis, M. Sklare, Conservative Judaism (1956).S. B. Freehof, Reform Jewish Practice and its Rabbinic Background (1936); J. Wolf (editor), Rediscovering Judaism (1965).