In a strict sense, Judaism is one. After all, all Jewish communities are based on the same liturgical basis, the same rites, the same sacred books and the same precepts of the Mosaic Law. However, due to the cultural differences produced during the long period we call Diaspora, Judaism divided into branches. Although they are not sects, they have deep theological differences, so difficult to reconcile. In this post, I will talk about the main branches of current Judaism (I will not talk about Pharisees, Sadducees nor Essenes here …) so that you learn a little more about our ancient religious tradition.
The Haredim, also known as ‘ultra-orthodox’ or ‘those who fear God,’ are orthodox Jews whose religious practice is especially devout. The Haredim affirm that the Torah given on Mount Sinai by God, with their respective laws, constitutes the instruction manual of the world. In other words, the Torah is the code that allows, in fundamental terms, the harmonic behavior of the whole creation and its Creator, and its regulations, laws, and principles will lead each individual to unite with God to enjoy infinite delight, which is the ultimate goal of humankind.
However, although other Orthodox Jewish groups (whether Hasidic or modern Orthodox Jews) accept this claim, there are differences among all groups regarding the social behavior in non-legal areas: that is, in the individual sphere and the collective perspective on reality, which is not ruled by the holy Torah. The Haredim live on the fringes of the lay societies surrounding them, including other Jewish communities, because they try to put the biblical precepts into practice in a non-hostile environment. Today, they have a strong presence in the US, Argentina, and Israel, where they have their own neighborhoods, their political parties, their shops and their schools. The Haredim have their own newspapers, the most important of which is called Hamodia, written in Yiddish.
Orthodox Judaism is one of the most popular branches of the current Jewish world, along with reformist Judaism and conservative Jews, even though its community is not the biggest worldwide. It is known by a strict adherence to the Halacha. It lacks a central doctrinal authority, and it allows some variations in its practice. It affirms that the Shabbat and all the 613 precepts of the Torah were given by God Himself to Moses over three thousand years ago on Mount Sinai. They believe that Moses taught these laws to all the Israelite people that, as a single entity, agreed to fulfill them before knowing what they consist of, with a unique disposition of indivisible entity.
Orthodox Judaism is the only branch officially recognized by the State of Israel, although it is practiced only by a minority. One who has converted to Judaism by other rules, different from the Halacha is not accepted as a Jew in this branch. Therefore, orthodox rabbis are the only people who can officially celebrate a marriage in Israel (and will not marry a Jew with a non-Jew.)
Read also: The magnificence of the community, by Yosef Meystel
Reformist Judaism is one of the major branches of the Jewish religion in numbers. It’s also known as ‘Rabbinical Judaism.’ Its origins are mainly Ashkenazi, along with Orthodox Judaism and Conservative or Masorti Judaism. From all the Jewish branches, Reformism is actually the one of greater antiquity. Reformist Judaism (also called ‘progressive’) defends the individual autonomy when it comes to the interpretation of religious precepts.
The majority of the Reformist communities are grouped in the World Union for Progressive Judaism, founded in London in 1926, whose soothes are located in Jerusalem. The WUPJ groups are about one million and a half people in forty countries. In 2006, the ordination of three rabbis in Germany emerged from the liberal-inspired Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam. They were the first rabbis ordinated since the Nazi period.
Karaite Judaism is a conservative religious branch. Its name it’s derived from the Hebrew word Qara’it (‘readers’.) They are also known as B’nai Mikrah, which means ‘children of the Scripture.’ They consider that the Tanaj (the Old Testament for non-Jews) is the only written highest authority, in opposition to the B’nai Mishnah (‘children of tradition.’)
Karaites assume that the whole Hebrew Scriptures are sacred, but not the oral traditions, unlike the Reformists.
This is the most recent branch. It involves a deep individualistic perspective and a complex set of progressive morals and values. It is actually the smallest of the current Jewish branches: its origins are the late sixties in the US, by the Rabbis Mordechai Kaplan and Ira Eisenstein. Most part of its active members lives in North America.
Reconstructionists read the Torah through the glasses of social progressivism. They believe that the nature of Judaism is evolution, even though they consider that all the aspects of Jewish culture are important (language, traditions, history, and doctrine.) They have huge differences with Haredim (especially with Hasidic Jews.)
I hope you have learned a little more today!
Recommended: How did diaspora affect Judaism?
* Featured Image courtesy of Robert Couse-Baker at Flickr.com