The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Jewish denominations

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Jewish denominations:

Over time, the Jewish community has become divided into a number of religious denominations, also called "branches" or "movements". Each denomination has a different understanding of what principles of belief a Jew should hold, and how one should live as a Jew.


Denominations of Judaism

  • Reform Judaism (outside of the USA also known as Progressive Judaism) originally formed in Germany as a reaction to traditional Judaism, stresses integration with society and a personal interpretation of the Torah.
  • Karaite Judaism A small sect of Jews, living mostly in Israel, which accepts only the written Tanakh.

Hasidic Judaism

Hasidic Judaism was founded by Israel ben Eliezer (1700-1760), also known as the Ba'al Shem Tov, or the Besht. His disciples attracted many followers; they themselves established numerous Hasidic sects across Europe. Hasidic Judaism eventually became the way of life for many Jews in Europe; it came to the United States during the large waves of Jewish emigration in the 1880s.

Early on, there was a serious schism between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic Jews. European Jews who rejected the Hasidic movement were dubbed by the Hasidim as mitnagdim (lit. "opponents"). Some of the reasons for the rejection of Hasidic Judaism were the overwhelming exuberance of Hasidic worship; their untraditional ascriptions of infallibility and alleged miracle-working to their leaders, and the concern that it might become a messianic sect. Since then all the sects of Hasidic Judaism have been subsumed into mainstream Orthodox Judaism, particularly Haredi Judaism. See the articles on Hasidic Judaism and Mitnagdim for more detailed information.

Development of modern denominations in response to the Enlightenment

In the late 18th century Europe, and then the rest of the world, was swept by a group of intellectual, social and political movements that taken together were referred to as the Enlightenment. These movements promoted scientific thinking, free thought, and allowed people to question previously unshaken religious dogmas. The emancipation of the Jews in many European communities, and the Haskalah movement started by Moses Mendelssohn, brought the Enlightnment to the Jewish community.

Some Jews felt that Enlightenment values, especially the incorporation of secular subjects into Jewish education, as well increased integration with the outside world, would bring much to Judaism. Others, however, noted that this same era allowed Jews, for the first time, the ability to easily assimilate into Christian society; this was a powerful attraction for many Jews, since only by becoming a Christian (at least nominally) would one be certain to have equal rights and civil liberties. Further, historical study of the development of the religion might call into question some previously held dogmas about Judaism; if a few beliefs were found to be incorrect, where would one draw the line? In response to the challenges of integrating Jewish life with Enlightenment values, German Jews in the early 1800s began to develop the concept of Reform Judaism, adapting Jewish practice to the new conditions of a increasingly urbanized and secular community. Reform Judaism quickly spread throughout Europe, eventually reaching America with the formation of the American Reform Movement and Hebrew Union College in 1870.

At the same time, more traditional Judaism continued as a seires of loosely linked communities known as Orthodox Judaism. This loose differentiation did not hold for long. The various groups in Orthodox Judaism had differing approaches to Jewish law, however, and developed into a number of different groups, which today can be loosely grouped into Modern Orthodox Judaism and Haredi Judaism.

The Reform movement splintered in the late 19th century, however, as some Jews felt that its changes were too radical, but that the strictures of more Orthodox Judaism were too inflexible. Thus, third school of thought developed which held that Jewish law and tradition was not static, but rather had always developed in response to changing conditions. This approach, Positive-Historical Judaism, held that Jews should accept Jewish law as normative (i.e. binding) yet must also be open to developing the law in the same fashion that it had developed in the past. This school of thought gave birth to the communities now known as Masorti Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and Traditional Judaism.

In recent years, smaller splinter movements have developed: Reconstructionist Judaism and Humanistic Judaism. In terms of their spectrum of beliefs and practices, Reconstructionist Judaism now overlaps with Reform Judaism, and Humanistic Judaism is now identical to secular humanism. (See also: Alternative Judaism)

Non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism recognize Orthodox Judaism as a valid and legitimate form of Judaism, despite theological differences. Most of Orthodox Judaism, however, does not recognize any form of Judaism as authentic except for itself; many Orthodox Jews view non-Orthodox forms of Judaism practice as non-Jewish (though this does not mean that they view the practitioners of other branches of Judaism as non-Jewish, see Who is a Jew?).

The issue of Zionism was once heavily divisive in the Jewish community. Secular non-Zionists believed that Jews should integrate into the countries in which they lived, rather than moving to Israel; religious non-Zionists believed that the return to Israel could only happen with the coming of the Messiah, and that attempting to re-establish Israel earlier was disobeying God's plan. After the painful events of the twentieth century, such as World War II and the Holocaust, secular anti-Zionism has largely disappeared; however some Hasidim are still opposed to Zionism on religious grounds. One specific example is the Neturei Karta.

See also

Jewish views of religious pluralism


  • Emergence of Jewish Denominations

Last updated: 02-07-2005 15:56:39
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55