THE DIVISIONS OF JUDAISM
The term Judaism is often regarded as monolithic entity among non-Jews, as if all Jews were the same. In fact there are divisions in realm of Judaism just as there are denominations within Christianity, though not as many. In our time, there are three major branches of Judaism in the World (Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform) as well as some smaller groups that many Jews would argue are not Jewish at all. In this article, we will present a brief description of these groups in the interest of familiarizing our readers with their general characteristics and history. This discussion will pertain to the 3 million Jews (1980 figures) who are associated with synagogues in America.
Orthodox Jews are those who adhere most strictly to the halakhah (Jewish law) of traditional Judaism. They generally shun values and practices of other cultures.
Orthodox Judaism is characterized by:
Observance of the Sabbath. They do not work or trade on the Sabbath nor do they travel other than by walking, and walking only within strict limits.
Observance of kashrus (dietary laws).
Physical separation between men and women during prayer, known as mehitzah.
Services conducted entirely, or almost entirely, in Hebrew.
Wearing of a Kippah (skullcap) or other head covering by men and modest clothing for women.
Observance by married couples of a period of sexual abstinence during and for about twelve days after a woman's period), followed by the woman's immersion in the mikveh (ritual bath). This is known as the Laws of niddah.
Emphasis on day school (parochial) education.
Earlier marriages and larger families than other Jews.
The majority of Orthodox rabbis and religious scholars oppose birth control devices and abortion-except when the mother's life is endangered-on halakhic grounds.
Orthodox synagogues comprise about 15% of all synagogues in the USA (1980 figures). One sometimes hears the term orthoprax to describe some of these people because they attend Orthodox Synagogues but do not strictly follow the lifestyle in their personal practice or ideology. On the other hand, because the Orthodox tend to live in relatively close-knit communities to provide for their religious needs, synagogue affiliation is not as necessary for providing Jewish social contacts as it is in the other branches of Judaism. Consequently, many observant Jews do not formally "belong" to any synagogue. Instead they attend the services of a variety of shuls (synagogues).
In 1654, twenty-three Sephardic (Spanish) Jews from Holland landed in New York City in 1654, the majority of Jews were Sephardic, which literally means Spanish. However, they are Jews whose ancestors may have come from the countries bordering the Mediterranean. Primarily merchants, they built synagogues and established Jewish institutions in five cities (Newport, Rhode Island; New York, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Charleston, South Carolina; and Savannah, Georgia) by the time of the American Revolution. These Jews were almost entirely Orthodox.
Between 1820 and 1870 there was a large influx of Ashkenazi (German) Jews from eastern European countries. Almost all of them were Reform or unaffiliated. The influence of Orthodoxy in America declined considerably. But the balance shifted back again in 1871 when a large influx of Eastern European Jews from Rumania and Russia. Then the Russian pogroms of 1881 brought a new surge of Jewish immigration into America. By 1921 over two million had arrived. While many of the immigrant Jews were socialists or otherwise nonreligious, the overwhelming majority of those who were observant were Orthodox.
Most of them lived in large cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, and Cleveland. Orthodox Jews constitute far more urban presence, especially in New York, than the non-Orthodox Jews. They established the same kind of support services (shtieblach-small storefront or apartment synagogues-kosher butchers, yeshivot-religious high schools) that they had known in the "Old Country." In 1890 they created the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations (UOJC) as the movement's "umbrella" organization. It was the last of the three major groups to create it's own rabbinical training institute: the Rabbi Isaac Elkanan Seminary, founded in 1896, which became the core of Yeshiva University (Y.U.). In this century, Orthodox affiliation and practice has declined considerably. As the immigrants, their children, and grandchildren became integrated into American life and moved up the social scale, they tended to move away from Orthodoxy. However, a half-million or so refugees and Holocaust survivors, many of whom were Orthodox, entered this country between 1933 and 1951. This new wave of Orthodox immigrants, including a number of major rabbis and scholars, gave American Orthodoxy a new vitality. There was rapid growth in the number of yeshivot and day schools.
The post-World War II years also saw the establishment of a number of ultra- Orthodox groups in New York City, including the Breuer Congregation (from Frankfurt) and the Lubavitch (from Russia) and Satmar (from Rumania) Hasidim. Orthodoxy turned increasingly to the "right" in terms of religious practice and intra- Jewish relations. Orthodox leaders refused to participate in interdenominational bodies. Although the number of Orthodox Jews remained relatively small, it was clear that Orthodoxy had tremendous vitality and adaptability.
The Orthodox movement has had a number of charismatic rabbis, scholars, and teachers, such as Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the Lubavitcher rebbe (spiritual and communal leader) and J. B. Soloveitchik, the Rav, generally considered the outstanding Talmudist of this generation.
Originally called "historical Judaism," the Conservative movement represents a middle path between the strict traditionalism of Orthodox and the rationalist modernism of Reform Judaism. It sees itself as rooted in the halakhah and Jewish values, while also responding to the life situation of contemporary Jews. Conservative Judaism is characterized by:
Observance of most halakhah, with some concessions to modern American life (e.g. no Orthodox, but many Conservative Jews drive to the synagogue on the Sabbath).
Mixed seating in the synagogue and the counting of women in determining a minyan (prayer quorum of ten aduits).
Limited or nonobservance of kashrut. (Only a minority of Conservative Jews keep kosher both in and out of their homes).
It is in some ways the most heterogeneous of the three main denominations; it includes both a "right wing," which closely resembles "mainline" Orthodoxy. and a "left wing," which resembles Reform Judaism. Some refer to themselves as "Conservadox". This has made it the most popular of the three major denominations with approximately forty percent of affiliated Jews.
Conservative Judaism is the only one of the three major branches that is of American origin. Its founding may be dated to 1886, with the establishment of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) by a group led by Rabbis Sabato Morais and Marcus Jastrow of Philadelphia and Henry Pereira Mendes of New York. This group was responding to what it felt were the rationalist, antihalakhic excesses of the Reform movement. The three rabbis were shocked at the now-infamous 1883 banquet honoring the first graduating class of the Hebrew Union College (Reform rabbinical seminary). At this banquet, shrimp and other treif (nonkosher) foods were served, precipitating an angry walkout by a number of rabbis present and ultimately the decision to found an alternative seminary.
Slow to start, it had attracted only three full-time teachers and twenty-one students by 1900. In addition, six of the eleven congregations that helped found JTS returned to the Reform fold.
Around the turn of the century, Cyrus Adler, its first president, Solomon Schechter, a scholar in Semitics and rabbinics, along with the generous support of financier Jacob Schiff, turned it a dynamic Jewish movement. Schechter brought to JTS a number of first-rate teachers and scholars, including Mordecai Kaplan, Louis Ginzburg and Alexander Marx.
JTS played a pioneering role in reviving interest in Palestine and Hebrew culture. Unlike both Orthodoxy and Reform Judaism, the new movement was not opposed to Zionist aspirations. And in 1912 the faculty of JTS's new Teacher's Institute voted to teach only in Hebrew.
By 1920 a growing number of congregations were calling themselves Conservative and affiliating with the new United Synagogue of America, the "umbrella" organization of Conservative synagogues founded in 1913. The movement drew largely upon first and especially second generation American Jews who had grown up Orthodox and were now becoming somewhat less observant. They were attracted by the family seating, English sermon, bat mitvah (a girl's equivalent to the bar mitzvah, an innovation introduced by Kaplan), late Friday evening services, and other features of the average Conservative shul.
By 1950 nearly one-half of America's affiliated Jews were conservative. For the most part, the movement remained traditional, making no changes on such issues as the observance of kashrut, musaf (the "additional" service that looks to the restoration of the Temple and the sacrificial service) in the Sabbath and festival services, and the laws of gittin (documents formalizing a divorce; according to halakhah a get can be issued only by the husband). In practice, however, the Conservative laity tended to be less observant than the "official" Conservative institutional interpretation of halakhah would sanction.
In the postwar period the Law Committee voted in favor of two striking reinterpretations of halakhah: In 1950 it ruled that it is permissible for an individual to drive to Sabbath services if that is the only reasonable means the worshipper has of attending services, and in 1973 it decreed that women should be counted in determining a minyan. Since traditionalist interpretations of the halakhah had previously forbidden all mechanized travel on the Sabbath and had counted only men in determining a minyan, both these decisions were sharply denounced by Orthodox leaders.
During the 1960's and 1970's the Conservative movement remained the largest. It also served as the main source of some of the most interesting developments in Jewish life. In the late 1960's a number of JTS graduates and other individuals raised in the Conservative movement played the leading roles in the new havurah movement. (Havurot are independent or synagogue-based communities with approx- imately fifteen to thirty members who meet regularly for prayer, study, fellowship, and social action.) Some of these same individuals led the protest at the 1969 General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations that successfully appealed for more communal support for education, and later contributed to the popular Jewish Catalog.
The Reform movement, called "Liberal" in other countries, has reinterpreted the tradition, dropping certain laws and practices in response to the conditions and values of modern life. Reform Judaism is generally characterized by:
A far larger part of the service being in English than is the case among Orthodox and Conservative Jews.
Non observance of the second day of the three major Jewish festivals (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot).
nonobservance of the laws of kashrus.
Full equality of women in religious life. (women rabbis and cantors).
Prominence in social action and ecumenical activities.
Comprising approximately thirty-five percent of affiliated Jews, the Reform movement was born in Germany about 1810 when congregations in Seesen, Hamburg, and Berlin instituted fundamental changes in traditional Jewish practices and beliefs. Among the most important: mixed seating, the use of German in services, limiting the observance of festivals and Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) to one day, the use of a cantor and/or choir during services. Reform Jews also rejected the idea of the messianic restoration of all Jews to Palestine and with it, the reinstitution of the sacrificial cult.
A large number of German Jews settled in America in the middle nineteenth century bringing the Reform movement with them . It became the dominant belief system of American Jews. While traditional Jews were concentrated in New York, Reform Judaism was truly a nationwide phenomenon. In the 1840's and 1850's, major Reform congregations were established in such cities as Baltimore, New York City, Chicago, Albany, Cincinnati, and San Francisco.
While Orthodox Jews actively battled against Reform tendencies in Germany, the Reform movement in this country was helped from the lack of a central religious authority, the American tradition of religious and denominational pluralism, and the mobility of American life.
The movement also benefitted from the prodigious intellectual and organizational energies of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. Wise, who was born in Bohemia (Czecho- slovakia) came to the U.S. in 1846. In the next thirty-five years, Wise almost single handedly wrote and published Minhag America ("Religious Practices for America") in 1857, the first Jewish prayerbook edited for American worshippers and with an American context in mind. He founded in 1873 the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) and in 1889 the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). He established Hebrew Union College (HUC) in 1875 in Cincinnati, the Reform rabbinical seminary.
In the pre-Civil War period a number of Reform rabbis were active in abolitionist activities. One of them, David Einhorn of Baltimore was driven from the city by a mob in 1861.
Led by Einhom and Rabbis Samuel Holdheim, Bernard Felsenthal, and Kaufmann Kohler, the Reform movement also became increasingly radical in its religious orienta- tion. Many rituals and customs were dropped, and a few Reform congregations even held "Sabbath" services on Sunday. The platform adopted by a number of prominent Reform rabbis meeting in Pittsburgh in 1885; two of its most striking passages read:
"We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as sustain and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modem civilization."
"We consider ourselves no longer a nation but a religous community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state."
"Reform's unabashed Americanism became obvious. As Rabbi Gustave Posnasky of Charleston put it in 1846, "This country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our temple."
By 1880 over ninety percent of American synagogues were Reform. While the over- whelming majority of Eastem European Jews who began arriving in the tens of thousands the following year were Orthodox, Reform congregations consisted almost entirely of German Jews. Architecturally resembling Protestant cathedrals, many Reform synagogues were barely distinguishable in terms of the service as well. They had preachers in robes, pews with mixed seating, services entirely or largely in English, choirs, organs, and hymnals.
Religiously, although the Reform movement dropped or substantially modified many traditional prayers and rituals (as in the 1894 Union Prayer Book, the successor to Wise's Minhag America), there remained a "bottom line." Thus, while an increasing number of Reform Jews married non-Jews, the movement formally declared its opposition to intermarriage in 1909. And although it was denounced by some radicals as "archaic" and "barbarian," circumcision remained as central a rite for Reform as for other Jews.
As shown in the Pittsburgh Platform, the Reform movement was traditionally anti - Zionist. Usually the most removed from the immigrant experience, Reform Jews generally felt "at home" in America; they also believed that the Diaspora was necessary, perhaps even beneficial, in allowing Jews to be "a light unto the nations." And during a halfcentury (1897-1947) of growing popular anti-Semitism, they also feared the charge of "dual loyalty."
Following the 1917 Balfour Declaration (which stated British support for a "Jewish homeland in Palestine" and constituted the first great-power recognition of Zionist as- pirations), the Reform "mainstream" began to support Jewish settlements in Palestine, as well as such health, educational, and cultural institutions as the Hadassah Hospital, Hebrew University, and Israeli Philharmonic. Finally, meeting in Columbus, Ohio, in 1937, the movement effectively reversed the staunch anti-Zionism expressed fifty-two years earlier in Pittsburgh by affirming "the obligation of all Jewry to aid in building a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life."
Following the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Reform Jews became fully as active as other Jews on behalf of Israel. in 1978 the movement took the first step into full participation in Zionist affairs by establishing the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) as a party to compete in elections for the World Zionist Congress.
From the Progressive era to the New Deal, and from the Civil Rights movement to the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960's and early 1970's, Reform Jews have been particularly conspicuous in the area of social action. A more recent religious trend in Reform Judaism, however, has been a "return to tradition." seeking a sort of "Jewish modernism."
Reconstructionism is the small "fourth movement" of American Judaism. Founded in the twentieth century by the Conservative rabbi and philosopher Mordecai Kaplan, it emphasizes "Judaism as a civilization," and the integration of selected Jewish beliefs with the Jewish people's culture and folkways. Kaplan pioneered the idea of the Jewish center - a building or complex where Jews could pray, learn, express themselves artistically, socialize, and engage in recreational activities.
Kaplan rejected much of the theological baggage of traditional Judaism, including the doctrines of revelation and choseness. Rather, following Emile Durkheim's philosophy of religion, Kaplan believed that certain Jewish observances and customs reflected the Jewish peoples highest values and aspirations; they also served as unifying and sustaining forces throughout the generations. Kaplan called these ob- servances and customs sancta.
Kaplan was also a strong proponent of education and programming involving Hebrew and Israel although he rejected the Zionist beliefs in the "negation of the Diaspora" and the imperative of aliyah (emigration to Israel) for all Jews. (Kaplan himself. however, did make aliyah in 1963, at the age of eighty-two).
In their services and practices, Reconstructionist Jews are pretty much indistinguishable from most Conservative and Reform Jews, with two exceptions:
1. Approximately half of the Reconstructionist congregations either are or contain within them havurot.
2. Elimination of most key supernaturalist elements, such as references to divine revelation in history or to the resurrection of the dead. Adherents of Reconstructionism claim that it strikes the right note for the "religious Jewish agnostic"; critics charge that Reconstructionist services are as rationalist and nonspiritual as was the case with classical Reform.
The formal beginning of Reconstructionism as a movement can be traced to 1922, when Kaplan withdrew as the rabbi of the Orthodox Jewish Center in Manhattan, which he had helped found, and established a new synagogue for his followers: the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. During the 1930's, Kaplan's leftist political views appealed to many Conservative and Reform Jews. The 1935 Reconstructionist papers, for example, called for a "cooperative society, elimination of the profit system and public ownership of all natural resources and basic industries." Many Zionists were attracted by Kaplan's clear love of Hebrew culture. While assimilated second and third generation American Jews responded to passages such as this (from Kaplan's seminal Judaism as a Civilization): "Since the civilization that can satisfy the primary interest of the Jew must necessarily be the civilization of the country he lives in, the Jew in America must be first and foremost an American, and only secondarily a Jew."
In the post-Holocaust period Kaplan's thought fell under increasing criticism. In 1945 he was placed in herem (excommunicated) by the Aggudat ha-Rabbanirn (Association of Orthodox Rabbis, originally from Europe) and his Sabbath Prayer Book was denounced by two leading Conservative thinkers, Louis Ginzburg and Alexander Marx. His critics complained that Kaplan viewed halakhah as totally nonbinding and that he had "sold out" to contemporary values by arguing that Judaism must be brought "into harmony with the best ethical and social thought of the modern world."
What most hampered the growth of Reconstructionism, however, was Kaplan's failure to establish certain basic institutions to promote his thought. It was not until 1959 that a Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Fellowships was established. As Charles Liebman has written in the most comprehensive examination of Reconstructionism to date ( a long essay in the 1970 American Jewish Yearbook), "it has never been clear in the first place whether Reconstructionism is really a religious movement at all, as opposed to an intellectual one."
Following Kaplan's retirement, Ira Eisenstein, who had helped found and had edited the widely-read monthly The Reconstructionist, assumed the formal leadership of the movement's policy-setting Reconstructionist Foundation. In 1967 the Foundation finally established its own seminary and graduate school-the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. From the beginning, they welcomed women rabbinical students, the first Jewish institution to do so. It was also a Reconstructionist synagogue in Denver which, beginning in 1962, pioneered the creation of congregational havurot.
However, Reconstructionism has never "taken hold" among a critical mass of American Jews, although Reconstructionism is probably a dominant belief system of American Jews. Thus, despite the differences among the three major denominations over halakhah, the majority of American Jews seem more concerned with Jewish "peoplehood" concern over Israel's security, the fate of Soviet Jewry, or Jewish cooking than they do with questions of observance and faith. Institutionally, as well, the Jewish center movement has had a major impact on Jewish life, influencing and complementing the nature of the American synagogue.
Paradoxically, Reconstructionism as a movement may be a victim of its success as an intellectual current. Perhaps because most American Jews have internalized "Kaplanism" as a secular belief system, they have bypassed Reconstructionism as an option.
Bibliography: The Jewish Almanac, Bantum Books 1980
(c) Copyright 1999 by Wayne Simpson Distributed by Biblical Research Foundation 629 Lexington Road Sapulpa, OK 74066 Reproduction and distribution permitted providing this copyright notice appears on all copies.
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