The Three Branches of Judaism Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform

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The Three Branches of Judaism”

Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform

Today Judaism is divided into three major movements: the Orthodox, which follows the Torah and Mishna very closely; the Conservative, which ; and the Reform


Orthodox Judaism is a relatively small movement, making up about 10 per cent of those Jews who affiliate. Orthodox Jews accept the halachah but, unlike Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews do not believe that the halachah itself can evolve. Orthodoxy accepts the idea that the 613 mitzvot in the Torah are binding on all Jews. They believe that God literally gave the Torah to Moses and therefore its rules are divine and must be obeyed. Because of this, the Orthodox are the most traditional of Jewish groups. There often is a barrier between men and women at services. There are no Orthodox women rabbis. In practice, Orthodox Jews tend to observe Jewish law on such matters as keeping the Sabbath and keeping kosher.

The Orthodox requirements for conversion are the same as those of Conservative Judaism. The crucial difference is that Orthodox rabbis generally do not recognize conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis. This fact has caused considerable friction within the Jewish community, and it is important for potential converts to be aware of the problem. The difficulty arises in limited cases. Here is an example: a born Gentile mother was converted by a non-Orthodox rabbi and is married to a Jewish man. Their children, raised as Jews, considered by their community to be Jews, are not considered Jewish by Orthodox rabbis. (The children of Jewish mothers are considered Jewish). Therefore, if that child wanted to marry someone Orthodox, an Orthodox rabbi would refuse to perform the marriage without an Orthodox conversion. A related problem may also arise if the convert or children of a born Gentile mother wishes to immigrate to Israel. The nature of this problem rests on Israeli law at the time of the immigration. Currently, Orthodox Judaism is the only officially recognized movement in Israel for a variety of activities, such as marriage. Orthodox rabbis will not perform or attend an intermarriage.

There are many different Orthodox organizations, with very different practical approaches. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations is a major one.

The oldest form would be the Orthodox branch which began in 1312 B.C.E. when the Orthodox sages began the tradition of passing down the history of G-d from generation to generation at the time Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai in Egypt. (picture of Mount Sinai) Scholars believe that the Talmud was the first written account of the history of God. At the time of Jesus, the Sadducees and the Karaites did not believe the oral account of history was factual.

Reform Jews make up what is probably the largest group of American Jews who are affiliated, about 45 per cent of American Jews. Reform Jews do not accept the binding nature of Jewish law, focusing instead on the moral autonomy of individuals to decide which laws are religiously meaningful for them. In general, Reform Judaism is a liberal religious movement whose adherents often support liberal social causes. Generally, the Reform service has less Hebrew than the Orthodox or Conservative services. The Reform movement is often thought, sometimes by its own members, to be the most lenient when it comes to religious practices. For example, keeping kosher is not required. However, there is some movement in contemporary Reform back toward embracing some of the traditional practices.

Reform Judaism, like Reconstructionism, believes that children of a Jewish father and Gentile mother are Jewish if the child is brought up as Jewish and publicly identifies as a Jew through various religious acts. That is, for Reform Jews, such a child need not convert in order to be Jewish. This idea, called patrilineality, is opposed by the Conservative and Orthodox movements which do not recognize those children as Jewish. They follow the matrilineal principle that a person is Jewish if that person's mother is Jewish or if that person converts to Judaism. The potential for problems here is obvious.

Reform Jews have the largest number of converts and the largest number of intermarried families of all the movements. The movement has formed an effective outreach program for intermarried families.

The reform branch of Judaism is thought to have started with Moses Mendelssohn, a Jewish German philosopher who lived in the 1700s. He is known as the father of the Jewish enlightenment, Haskalah. Mendelssohn never said in public that he didn’t believe in the oral traditions of the Orthodox Jews. Four of his six children converted to Christianity. One of his students, David Friedlander, was not allowed to become part of the Lutheran Church and started to reform his own Jewish religion.
At a rabbinical conference in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1837, Abraham Geiger said publicly what Mendelssohn and Friedlander had not said:
The Talmud must go, the Bible, that collection of mostly so beautiful and exalted human books, as a divine work must also go.”

What Mendelssohn hesitated to say publicly about Mesorah, Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), the most influential of Reform’s second generation, boldly proclaimed. In 1837, Geiger called the first Reform rabbinical conference in Wiesbaden, Germany, and declared8] With this declaration, Reform became the first known group in more than 3,100 years of Jewish history to deny the Torah’s divine origin.[9] The Reform rejected the Mesorah.

Shortly after Geiger organized German Reform, his American counterpart, Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900) launched the movement in the New World. In an 1850 debate at the Charleston synagogue, he declared that he didn’t believe in a personal messiah or in bodily resurrection[10], both of which were pillars of the Jewish oral tradition.[11] In 1857, Wise published a new prayerbook which omitted the traditional prayers for a return to Zion, the rebuilding of the Temple, etc., paving the way for Reform’s official declaration of anti-Zionism in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885.[12] Wise went on to found the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College; and at their first graduation ceremony in 1883, Wise served “Little Neck Clams, Fillet de Boef, Salade de Shrimps, Grenouiles (frogs legs) a la Creme, and Ice Cream.”[13]

In mid-November, 1885, Dr. Kaufman Kohler convened the Pittsburgh conference of Reform leaders, hoping to formally establish official Reform positions on a range of subjects. Kohler attempted to set the conference’s tone and direction with statements like, “We consider their [the Holy scripture’s] composition, their arrangements and their entire contents as the work of men, betraying in their conceptions of the world shortcomings of their age;”[14] and “We must discard the idea as altogether foreign to us, that marriage with a Gentile is not legal.”[15]  In his opening statement to the conference, Kohler told the assembly:

I do not for a moment hesitate to say it right here and in the face of the entire Jewish world that… circumcision is a barbarous cruelty which disfigures and disgraces our ancestral heirloom and our holy mission as priests among mankind. The rite is a national remnant of savage African life… Nor should children born of intermarriage be viewed any longer exclusively by the primitive national standard which determines the racial character of the child only by the blood of the mother… I can no longer accept the fanciful and twisted syllogisms of Talmudic law as binding for us… I think, if anywhere, here we ought to have the courage to emancipate ourselves from the thralldom of Rabbinical legality.[16]

With few modifications, the conference unanimously adopted Dr. Kohler’s proposed Pittsburg Platform. The Reform movement thus accepted “as binding only the moral laws” of Judaism, rejecting, “all such as not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” The Platform swept away Jewish dietary laws because “they fail to impress the modern Jew.” Kohler was then selected to be President of the Hebrew Union College, and a year later he declared, “There is no justification whatsoever for… the most precious time of the student to be spent upon Halakhic discussions… [and] the inane discussions that fill so many pages of the Babylonian Gemarah.”[17] Under Kohler, the HUC preparatory department required no Talmud study, although students were asked to take courses in New Testament and Koran.[18] Kohler referred to Reform Jewry as “We who are no longer bound to the Shulhan Aruk.” [19] Within Reform circles, the Mesorah was then not only lost; it was anathema.

By 1972, Reform had drifted to the extreme. A survey commissioned that year by the Central Conference of American [Reform] Rabbis, reported that “Only one in ten [Reform] rabbis states that he believes in G-d ‘in the more or less traditional Jewish sense.’”[20] The remaining ninety-percent classified their faith with terms like: “Agnostic;” “Atheist;” “Bahai in spirit, Judaic in practice;” “Polydoxist;” “Religious Existentialist;” and “Theological Humanist.”[21] During the 1990 Central Conference of American [Reform] Rabbis’ debate on the ordination of professed homosexuals, an HUC professor reminded the committee that Leviticus 18 calls homosexual acts an abomination; but a member of the majority easily disposed of his objection, saying, “It’s pretty late in the day for scripture to be invoked in CCAR debates.”[22] The same year, about 25 percent of Reform leaders under age 40 had married gentiles.[23] By 1991, the overall intermarriage rate among Reform Jews had topped 60 percent.[24]

Conservative Judaism is, along with Reform Judaism, one of the largest of the groups. Conservative Jews make up about 40-45% of those Jews who affiliate. Conservative Judaism accepts the notion that Jewish law (halakhah) is binding upon Jews. That is, that Conservative Jews have an obligation to obey all the teachings (mitzvot, which is also translated as commandments) of Judaism. Thus, for example, Conservative Jews emphasize the laws of keeping the Sabbath and keeping kosher. Conservative Jews believe that Jewish law, by its very nature, is capable of evolution as humans learn more about interpreting the Torah (the first five Books of the Hebrew Bible). Therefore, Conservative Jews have changed some of the earlier interpretations. For example, men and women worship together in Conservative synagogues, people may ride in a car on the Sabbath to attend services, and women can be ordained as rabbis.

In practice, many Conservative Jews are lax about observing all the religious laws, or obey them only in part. In general, there is a considerable amount of Hebrew in the synagogue services. Conservative Judaism is often seen, perhaps unfairly, as the middle ground between Orthodoxy on its right and Reform and Reconstructionism on its left.

Conservative rabbis will not perform or attend an intermarriage, that is a marriage between someone born Jewish and an unconverted Gentile. A marriage between a born Jew and a born Gentile who has converted to Judaism is a Jewish marriage and not an intermarriage, so a Conservative rabbi will perform such a marriage. Conservative rabbis require a male convert to undergo a circumcision or a ceremony of drawing a drop of blood if a circumcision has already been performed, immersion in a ritual bath, and appearance before a religious court. Women converts must also be immersed in a ritual bath and appear before a religious court. (See the section "The Conversion Process" for further details). Conservative rabbis generally recognize the conversions performed by other rabbis as long as these ritualistic requirements have been met.

There is not one on-line site for the whole of Conservative Judaism. Like other movements, Conservative Judaism is made up of various organizations. These include, for example, the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism which is the association of Conservative congregations. The major rabbinical seminary for the movement is the Jewish Theological Seminary.

A debate had long raged among Reform activists over the pace at which Judaism should evolve. While Abraham Geiger felt reformers should actively lead the community away from outdated beliefs and practices, his colleague Zacharias Frankel, whom many cite as the Conservative movement’s intellectual ancestor, felt that progressive leadership would build resentment and stimulate rebellion, and that therefore “the reformer’s task was simply to confirm the abandonment of those ideas and practices which the community had already set aside.”[25] Thus Frankel wrote:[26]

The means [of transformation] must be grasped with such care, thought through with such discretion, created always with such awareness of the moment in time, that the goal will be reached unnoticed, that the forward progress will seem inconsequential to the average eye.

This in-house debate continued through the period of the Hebrew Union College banquet and publication of the Pittsburgh Platform.  Reform’s accelerating leaps away from Jewish tradition jarred those who preferred Frankel’s more subtle approach, and these conservatives branched off to form a new movement – Conservative Judaism. In 1886, they founded the “Jewish Theological Seminary of America,” named for Frankel’s Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau.[27] An article printed in the new institution’s magazine declared that JTS would steer a course between “stupid Orthodoxy and insane Reform.”[28]

As a branch off of Reform, the new Conservative group possessed no more affinity for the Mesorah than their parent movement. Solomon Schechter (1849-1915), who took over JTS in 1902, violated the Sabbath publicly[29] and wrote that “the three r’s” stood for “rotten ranting rabbis.”[30] Conservative historians say that Schechter’s successor, Cyrus Adler (1863-1940) “shared the anticlerical bias.”[31]

Reform scholars laud the next head of the Conservative seminary, Louis Finkelstein (1895-1991), for creating “a new willingness on the [Jewish Theological] Seminary’s part to apply [secular] critical method to the study of Humash.”[32] Under Finkelstein’s guidance, JTS organized an essay competition in 1959 on the theme “The Traditions in Genesis 1:1-25:17 – Resemblances to, Dependencies Upon, and Contrasts With Traditions of Other Peoples;”[33] and by 1970 Finkelstein had introduced an advanced Bible seminar whose course description promised “an analysis of the various sources of the Pentateuch.”[34] Finkelstein’s progressive approach to the Pentateuch had instant practical consequences: Despite the Biblical prohibition on lighting fires on the Sabbath[35], the Rabbinical Assembly issued a paper permitting driving automobiles to Sabbath services.[36] Just as its Reform ancestor had, Conservative “Judaism” was unraveling.

Finkelstein’s wife entirely repudiated her faith and dropped all Jewish observances.[37] Finkelstein’s own attitude toward halakha might best be illustrated by his approach to the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh (saving human lives) during World War II. In the period beginning in 1938, when many young German Jews applied to JTS to get visas to America, Finkelstein refused to issue letters of acceptance.[38] According to the Seminary history, published recently by JTS itself:[39]

The plight of ordinary Jews in Eastern Europe did not occupy Finkelstein’s attention… There is no doubt that Seminary leaders, faculty and students knew of Nazi atrocities against the Jews during World War II. As a member of the American Jewish Committee and the Joint Distribution Committee, Finkelstein regularly received reports about Nazi atrocities… Although moved by the plight of European Jewry, he nevertheless neither responded to direct appeals to participate in protest actions on their behalf nor involved the Seminary in any public activity about the Holocaust.

The JTS document states, “There is no evidence that the Seminary tried to raise money in order to rescue German Jews by admitting them as students.”[40] Indeed, money was not the obstacle: In 1938 Finkelstein found all the funds necessary to launch the Seminary’s Institute for Interdenominational Studies, which “brought together Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clergy and scholars for courses on the various religious traditions,”[41] and “during the war Finkelstein sought to expand the Institute, raising money from Littauer, the Warburgs, and other Seminary contributors, and obtaining a $20,000 grant from the New York Foundation.”[42] Finkelstein succeeded in opening branches of the Institute in Chicago (1944) and Boston (1945).[43] In 1943, when asked why he was diverting critical resources to interfaith dialogue while European Jewry was being exterminated, Finkelstein explained that the Interfaith Institute “has evoked such high praise in many quarters, and has done such effective work, that I am sure all of us agree it must be kept open and expanded at all costs.”[44] When the Holocaust ended, Finkelstein’s interest in international affairs was suddenly kindled. Citing a letter he wrote to the New York Times on 11 August 1945, the Seminary history boasts that “Finkelstein’s concern for brotherhood and democracy prompted him to extend sympathy also to the Germans, and he urged the Allied occupation forces to treat them benignly.”[45]

Gerson Cohen (1924-1991), Finkelstein’s successor, spent most of his career fighting for the ordination of women rabbis. Cohen was initially opposed to such a radical departure from tradition[46]; but when a JTS-commissioned survey found that synagogue members favored women’s ordination, Cohen did an immediate about-face.[47] Cohen was initially stymied by the opposition of the entire JTS Talmud staff; but he dealt with this problem by creating an independent commission to decide the issue and awarding only one (of fourteen) commission seats to a JTS Talmud staff member.[48] Half the commission seats were given to laypeople.[49] Cohen confided to friends that he would “try to ram the commission’s report down the Faculty’s throats.”[50] HUC’s Ellenson and Bycel observe that “The [Jewish Theological] Seminary – in deciding to ordain women as rabbis – broke dramatically with whatever remnant remained of its Orthodox roots.”[51]

Ismar Schorsch, JTS’ current Chancellor, admitted in 1986 that all of the Conservative clergy’s ties to the past, to the Mesorah, have been broken: “There is almost no common denominator between the profession of the modern [Conservative] rabbi… and the religious leadership of the Middle Ages.”[52] David Lieber, once President-Emeritus of the JTS branch in Los Angeles and President of the international association of Conservative rabbis, offers these (by now trite) confessions: “I do not believe in the literal divine authorship of the Torah,”[53] and “I do not believe the law and its details to be of divine origin.”[54] JTS Professor of Jewish Philosophy Neil Gillman describes the movement’s position more eloquently: “The biblical account of revelation is classic myth… Torah then represents the canonical statement of our myth.”[55]

And, again, disconnection from the Mesorah has practical consequences. At the 1980 convention of Conservative rabbis, Harold Kushner, one of the movements most influential leaders, offered these sober observations:[56]

Is the Conservative movement halakhic? Not “Should it be halakhic?,” not “Would the world be better, would my job be easier, more gratifying if it were?” But “Is it?” And the answer is that it obviously is not. Conservative Judaism is not halakhic because Conservative Jews are not halakhic, and increasingly even Conservative rabbis are not halakhic.

Although it often takes time, lack of Mesorah eventually corrupts observance; and lax observance stimulates spiraling assimilation. In the Conservative movement today we see the beginnings of the spiritual and demographic unraveling that rips apart any Jewish movement disconnected from Mesorah: One study found that four percent of Conservative Jews rediscover Orthodoxy each year, 13 percent move into Reform, and 35 percent drop all Jewish affiliation; another found that 37 percent intermarry.[57]

Conservative Offshoots

The Conservative movement splintered twice, spinning off the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Seminary in 1968 and the Institute for Traditional Judaism in 1985. Reconstructionists, led by JTS professor Mordechai Kaplan, broke off to the left, jettisoning belief in the supernatural altogether.[58] The Institute for Traditional Judaism, led by JTS professor David Weiss Halivni, broke off to the right, arguing that G-d had given something to Moses at Sinai, but that that original revelation had been corrupted and lost during the Babylonian exile.[59] According to Weiss Halivni, the Torah represents only a sixth-century B.C.E. manmade guess as to the original material’s form and content. According to both groups, we do not possess a G-d given Torah, let alone a Divine oral tradition explaining the Pentateuch.

The Final Portrait

Analysis complete, I stepped back to witness Orthodoxy flowing straight through history, reiterating in each generation its ancient claim to a Divine Torah and oral tradition. Reform branched off two centuries ago and immediately confessed that it possessed no Mesorah. Indeed, it intended to reform what it had received. Reform passed its lack of Mesorah to Conservative, who bequeathed the same to its left-wing and right-wing splinter groups.

Today, not only does Orthodoxy claim to possess the G-d-given solution, their demographic performance attests to it. Even in the midst of the worst assimilation in recorded Jewish history, today’s Orthodoxy produces the lowest intermarriage rate (2%) and boasts not only the highest day-school enrollment rate, but also the largest adult enrollment in rabbinical seminaries (over 10,000).[60]

Moreover, I saw that even Orthopraxy-without-Mesorah – Jewish learning and mitzvah observance conducted without intimate connections to the previous generation’s sages (Mendelssohn-style) – eventually decays, producing increasingly assimilated “movements,” until nothing is left physically and spiritually of Judaism and its carriers.

Today, I realized, there are only two groups: Orthodox who possess Mesorah, and everyone else who doesn’t.[61]

Finally, perhaps crucially, I permitted myself a personal immersion in the world of Mesorah. I entered the community of sages and detected what thousands before me found: a profound sincerity that even the leaders among the non-Orthodox admit they cannot replicate. HUC Professor of Jewish Religious Thought, Eugene Borowitz, thus offers this confession[62]:

When the Bible was G-d’s book and the Oral Torah had been given by G-d to Moses on Mount Sinai, there was no question why one should give them reverent attention. They were God’s own communications and, in a time when there no longer was prophecy, the best way one could be in touch with the Divine. When Reform Judaism insisted that the various books of the Torah tradition were largely human creations, that had the advantage of allowing unprecedented innovation. It also devalued the old texts and made them less sacred. A simple experience brought the point home to me tellingly. I was teaching a group together with… an Orthodox scholar. After reading a rabbinic passage to the group he put his book down on a desk, but so near the edge that it became unbalanced and fell off. He quickly retrieved it, kissed it, and put it more carefully on the desk, not stopping in the development of the theme he was presenting. Kissing books, particularly when they have fallen, is a nice old Jewish custom which reflects very much more than respect for authors and publishers. It is related to our belief that our books derive ultimately from G-d – that in loving G-d one loves G-d’s words, the Oral and Written Torah. I wonder if liberal Jews with their sense of the humanity of our sacred literature could ever come to such regard for Torah that – leaving aside their sense of propriety – they could ever think of kissing one of its volumes.

I cried the first time I saw a yeshiva daven ‑ ordinary, but sincere people pouring forth their hearts in whispered praise and pleas, the way their teachers and teachers’ teachers had for centuries. I was dumbfounded watching Orthodox businessmen arrive in the beis hamidrash at 5:00 AM to pore over the daf hayomi – a feat many non-Orthodox rabbis are incompetent to perform ‑ and touched when I found that they also returned after work each evening to prepare with their rebbe for the next morning’s class. I remember vividly the first time I accompanied Tomchei Shabbat ‑ an unlikely conspiracy of teenagers, young professionals, and elderly sages ‑ on their way to furtively deliver crates of challahs, grape juice and chicken to the community’s needy erev Shabbat; and I recall trembling when I discovered that such an organization exists (and has always existed) in Orthodox communities around the world. I will never forget the intense concern that filled my teacher’s bright eyes when, stroking his white beard, he read to me the Talmudic passage, “If a man masters the entire Bible and Talmud, but fails to make intimate connections with the previous generation’s sages, he forever remains an ignoramus.”[63] I will never forget how he held my hand and whispered, “You must always have a rebbe.” It was with this portrait before me that I returned to Orthodoxy, to Mesorah, and to a world of promise and awe – a world in which my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will touch Divinity and, with reverence and passion, lovingly kiss their sefarim.

RECONSTRUCTIONIST JUDAISM. Reconstructionist Jews are a small segment of American Jews, perhaps 3 per cent of those Jews who affiliate. However, Reconstructionism has made intellectual contributions to Jewish life that transcend its small numbers. Reconstructionists believe in a naturalistic approach to religion and conceive of Judaism not just as a religion but as an evolving religious civilization. They do not accept the binding nature of Jewish law and reject the notion of Jews as a chosen people. In general, Reconstructionism tends to be the most liberal of the Jewish movements in many areas. For further information, contact the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation
Tracing the Tree of Life
Movements in Judaism
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