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Ask a Jew: What do the different sects of Judaism disagree about?

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By Neal Schindler

What do the different sects of Judaism disagree about?

Holy cow. What don’t they disagree about?

Sarcasm aside, there are a lot of differences between the branches of Judaism. In the U.S., the major denominations are Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Smaller branches include Reconstructionism, in which I was raised, and Jewish Renewal, as well as secular Judaism, represented by organizations such as Workmen’s Circle. I don’t have time for a comprehensive list of differences between these Jewish movements, but here are a few I’m familiar with:

In Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, you’re Jewish by birth if, and only if, your mother is Jewish. In these traditions, if only your father is Jewish, you must convert to Judaism to be recognized as Jewish. In contrast, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism (as well as other progressive movements) recognize someone as Jewish no matter which parent is Jewish.

  1. Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism broadly support LGBTQ identity. According to the Union for Reform Judaism’s website, “Reform Judaism has a long and proud history of working for the full inclusion of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) people in Jewish life and for their full civil rights.” Similarly, Reconstructionist Judaism pledges “an unwavering commitment to forming inclusive communities, welcoming to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Jews,” according to the Jewish Reconstructionist Communities website. While individual opinions may vary, of course, Orthodox Judaism generally does not embrace LGBTQ identity. Conservative Judaism, despite its name, is relatively progressive on this issue. In 2012, the movement stated that same-sex marriages have “the same sense of holiness and joy as that expressed in heterosexual marriages.” Conservative congregations may even have rabbis who openly identify as gay or lesbian.
  2. Women and men are essentially equal in Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Judaism. Orthodox Judaism, on the other hand, prescribes different roles for men and women, not unlike Christian complementarianism. However, as Moment magazine columnist Naomi Ragen noted several years ago, “Orthodox Jewry is asserting its will to foster more gender equality in ritual and greater tolerance for diversity of opinion and practice.” I knew of a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Seattle whose members agreed to have one Shabbat service per month during which women could chant Torah from the bimah — an honor only men receive in traditional Judaism. The few congregants who objected to this simply skipped that service each month. Problem solved!
  3. Reform and Reconstructionist Jews tend not to focus on the legalistic aspect of Judaism as much as some Conservative and nearly all Orthodox Jews. Adhering to halakha, Jewish law, may be much less important to a Reconstructionist or Reform Jew than living out Jewish values such as tikkun olam (repairing the world) and gemilut hasadim (lovingkindness), as well as welcoming the stranger (e.g., support for immigrants and refugees) and treating others as one would like to be treated. In other words, progressive Jews may hew closely to values that Judaism shares with other faith and moral traditions. The role that halakha plays in Conservative Jews’ lives varies significantly between communities and individual families. Orthodox Jews generally follow halakha in many ways, the best known of which are observing Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) and kashrut (Jewish dietary laws related to sourcing, preparing, and eating food). Orthodox Judaism also emphasizes modesty (tzniut) and abstinence from sex before marriage (another parallel with conservative Christianity).
  4. The majority of Reform and Reconstructionist Jews do not see the Torah as literally written by God. Instead, as the website Judaism 101 notes in its article on movements of Judaism, they generally believe “that the Bible was written by separate sources and redacted together.” Conservative Jews, meanwhile, tend to think “the truths found in Jewish scriptures and other Jewish writings come from G-d, but were transmitted by humans and contain a human component.” Orthodox Judaism, as you might expect, teaches “that the Torah is true, that it has come down to us intact and unchanged.”

Judaism 101 observes that “there is a great deal of variation among Conservative synagogues. Some are indistinguishable from Reform, except that they use more Hebrew; others are practically Orthodox, except that men and women sit together.” In a sense, the Conservative movement contains the most diversity of theological thought and practice in all of American Judaism. However, to understand a specific community’s approach to Judaism, one must attend services and other events and get to know its congregants and leaders.

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