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Ask a Jew: Why are there different sects of Judaism?

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What questions do you have about Judaism? Submit them online, or fill out the form below.

By Neal Schindler

Ask a Jew: Why are there different sects of Judaism? How did these changes come to pass?

SPO_Ask-a-Jew-ad_042114In asking your question, you stated: “I feel any movement is a break off [sic] from the original and an opposing [sic] the original.” You also asked: “where did they find this” — and by “this” I assume you mean “justification for various denominations” — “in Torah?”

These are excellent questions. Another question seems to underlie the ones you asked, and that is: “Who is a Jew?” This has become quite a controversial matter over the years. For example, Reform Judaism recognizes patrilineal descent (you’re Jewish if your mother or father is or was), whereas Conservative and Orthodox Judaism acknowledge only matrilineal descent. Reform Judaism recognizes LGBT identity and same-sex marriage as valid; Conservative communities vary in their levels of acceptance, and Orthodox Judaism mirrors conservative Christianity in its rejection of LGBT identity and same-sex relationships from a theological point of view. Just as there isn’t a monolithic Christian response to any social, moral, or religious issue, Judaism contains multitudes — of viewpoints, opinions, and theological perspectives.

As I so often do, I turned to the website Judaism 101 to expand my knowledge and answer your question. When most people think of movements, denominations, or branches of Judaism, 20th-century American Judaism is what they have in mind, whether they realize it or not. However, Jews have disagreed about how to be Jewish at least as far back as the 2nd century BCE. Before the Maccabean revolt, Jews were fairly content in Greece, but some assimilated more than others. Hellenizing Jews and the more traditionalist Chasideans didn’t see eye to eye until the Greek government became genuinely oppressive. This common threat united the Jews until after the 25-year war. Subsequently, Essenes (mystical ascetics), Sadducees (former Hellenists), and Pharisees (you’ve probably heard of them) comprised the new divisions of Judaism.

Not too much later, another common threat brought Jews of all stripes together once again. The Romans’ destruction of the Second Temple was a galvanizing, albeit tragic, event. According to Judaism 101: “For many centuries after the destruction of the Temple, there was no large-scale, organized difference of opinion within Judaism. Judaism was Judaism, and it was basically the same as what we now know as Orthodox Judaism.”

I think this is what you’re talking about when you refer to “the original” from which, indeed, numerous denominations have broken off. Of course, between the fall of the Temple and the 20th century, some movements did arise in Judaism, such as Chasidism in the 18th century. However, these branches didn’t make it too far from the tree: They were still what we would consider very traditionalist by today’s standards. It took America, that proverbial melting pot, to create the full and varied menu of religio-cultural options we see today.

Jewish Virtual Library, another very helpful site, notes that Reform Judaism was born in Europe around the time of the French Revolution, when being Jewish became less of a civic liability. Judaism was no longer grounds for total disenfranchisement, which made assimilation an actual possibility for European Jews. Eventually, the tide turned again, as it always seemed to, and Jews were no longer considered citizens of the countries they inhabited. As a result, some Jews converted to Christianity to ensure their safety.

Two schools of thought arose regarding how Jewish institutions should respond to Jews’ re-marginalization and the subsequent wave of conversion. According to JVL, “Many rabbis believed the way to address this was to force Jews to keep away from Christians and give up public schools and universities.” When that didn’t work, a man named Leopold Zunz came up with a very different idea.

Zunz had in mind a movement that would make Judaism more accessible to the average Jew. Music and use of the local language during services, as well as a focus on Jewish history and achievements, could make Judaism less arcane and more relevant to Jews of all stripes. Rabbi Abraham Geiger ran with this idea. His research revealed that, during the course of Jewish history, there were many periods when “old practices were changed and new ones introduced, resulting in a Jewish life that was quite different from that lived 4,000 or even 2,000 years before. He noticed these changes often made it easier for Jews to live in accordance with Judaism.” As someone who has long traveled in liberal Jewish circles, I can attest to the fact that progressive Jewish movements allow many people to participate in Judaism who otherwise might not.

The Judaism of today is a geographical, philosophical, and theological diaspora. Traditionalism, which characterizes Spokane’s Chabad community, exists alongside Conservative Judaism, as practiced at Temple Beth Shalom, as well as the Reform movement, to which our Congregation Emanu-El belongs. Smaller movements include Reconstructionist Judaism, Renewal, Meditative Judaism, and independent Jewish communities (such as Seattle’s Kavana Cooperative) that more or less defy labels.

Through my admittedly progressive lens, this grand assortment feels representative of the infinite variety we find in humans’ minds, hearts, and souls. It is impossible to discover literal justification for a modern movement in a millennia-old text. However, as Rabbi Geiger learned, Judaism has never been static, at least not for long. There’s no reason to believe it will become so now.

About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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