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Judaism is a major world religion, but like all religions, it has its denominations. In this lesson, we’ll explore the major denominations of Judaism and see how they differ.


What does it mean to be Jewish? This question can actually be answered in a variety of ways. There are Jewish cultures. Jews make up a major ethnic category.

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There are even Jewish foods which are quite tasty. However, most of this revolves around one extraordinary shared aspect of life – religion. Judaism is one of the world’s dominant religions, based on the monotheistic belief in a single God.

The Jewish holy book, called the Torah, contains the traditional laws of the Jewish people as well as the foundation for their history and system of belief.

Rabbinic Judaism

Like all religions, Judaism has changed over time and means different things to different people. So, there are a few major denominations within the greater Jewish religion. Today, most of the major denominations are descended from the Rabbinic traditions, which claim that God gave Moses the written Torah as well as an oral explanation of the laws. In Rabbinic Judaism, orally transmitted laws are considered to be divine, and rabbis are given a large degree of respect in interpreting them. This is different than other ancient branches, which only held written law as sacred. However, since the 6th century C.

E., Rabbinic Judaism was the standard and is the foundation for most modern denominations.

Orthodox Judaism

Now let’s get to know our modern denominations a little better.

While Judaism does not divide into strict denominations as clearly as the Christian religion does, there are three main branches of the religion. Let’s start with Orthodox Judaism, which is the branch most followed in Israel itself. Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah contains over 600 laws given to Moses by God, which must be obeyed. They include dietary restrictions (known as the Kosher diet), the need for circumcision, and the traditional Hebrew interpretation of the Sabbath being on Saturday, not Sunday as in Christianity. Orthodox Jews also believe in the prophecy that the Temple of Jerusalem, destroyed twice in their history, will be rebuilt a third time and usher in an era of peace and a return of all Jewish traditions, including animal sacrifice. Many Orthodox prayers are specifically focused on the rebuilding of the Temple.

Orthodox Jews take the laws of the Torah very seriously, but most believe in integrating them with the pressures and demands of modern society.However, some ascribe to Ultra Orthodox Judaism, which does not permit integration into modern society. One of the most influential sects within this group are the Hasidic Jews, who focus heavily on the love of God and joy of creation. This sect was developed in the 18th century by Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer and is now one of the most popular Ultra Orthodox groups in the world.

Reform Judaism

Around the time Hasidic Judaism was being developed, the Jewish faith was under a lot of persecution in Europe.

To cope with these stresses, several members of the church formed a new denomination, now called Reform Judaism. Reform Judaism was meant to make Judaism more adaptable, letting European Jews maintain their faith while still assimilating into European society and ideally stopping persecution against them. So, what does this actually look like?Reform Judaism is, like Orthodox Judaism, focused on the law but interprets the nature of the law differently. While Orthodox Jews see all laws as being given to Moses by God, Reform Judaism claims that many laws are actually products of human minds and human leaders. The Torah, therefore, serves as a very important moral standard, but is not unimpeachable. It’s more of a living document: it can be changed and adapted, letting Jews change with the times, but is still a very important and sacred text.

Conservative Judaism

The last of the major denominations of Judaism is Conservative Judaism. Conservative Judaism is something of a cross between Orthodox and Reform denominations and appeared in the 19th and 20th centuries. Conservative Jews believe that the Torah does represent the divine word of God but was transcribed and interpreted by humans. So, they tend to treat the law of the Torah more seriously than Reform Jews but still believe that the law should be adaptable. Conservative Judaism is the largest denomination in the United States, where it has allowed American Jews to incorporate American cultural values into the Jewish faith. For example, in American Conservative Judaism, women may be rabbis.

Other Movements

The Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative branches are the main denominations of Judaism today, but there are some other noteworthy movements that can be found across the globe. Messianic Judaism, for example, is the only branch of Judaism that recognizes Jesus Christ as the Messiah, just as Christians do. However, while Christians do not follow the laws of the Torah, Messianic Jews do, as a sign of respect for God. This sect is also notable, because traditionally, conversion into it was not widely encouraged, even though non-Jews may be welcomed into the synagogue. Really, all Judaism practices a degree of caution against unrestricted conversion, thanks in part to the focus on Judaism as an ethnic category.Messianic Judaism is just one example of a non-strictly denomination Jewish sect.

And there are others, but it does demonstrate the strong association between religion, culture, ethnicity, and tradition that defines all of Judaism. It’s more than just a religion – it’s who you are.

Lesson Summary

Judaism is a monotheistic world religion that worships a single God and observes the holy book called the Torah. As with many religions, there are denominations within it.

  • Orthodox Judaism sees the Torah as the divine word of God and strictly follows its laws. This denomination also includes several Ultra Orthodox branches which not only obey the laws but see them as largely incompatible with modern society.
  • Reform Judaism emerged in the 18th century and argued that many laws of the Torah are the product of human leaders and are not divine.

    In this denomination, the laws are highly adaptable.

  • Conservative Judaism presents a middle ground, in which most laws are divine but are still adaptable.

In all denominations, Judaism is never just about religion, however. It is a single aspect of a more holistic identity that includes various cultural, ethnic, and historic facets. As it turns out, religion is only one part of what it means to be Jewish.

Learning Outcomes

Watch this video in order to achieve these goals:

  • Define Judaism and Torah
  • Describe the differences in the major denominations of Judaism
  • Determine how some Jewish denominations bend somewhat to address the cultures of the countries Jews may live in

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