Jewish Religious Movements

Jewish religious movements, sometimes called “denominations” or “branches“, include different groups which have developed among Jews from ancient times. Today, the main division is between the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements, with several smaller movements alongside them. This denominational structure is mainly present in the United States, while in Israel, the fault lines are between Haredi Judaism, Religious Zionism, Masortim (traditional) and Hiloni (secular) Jews.

The movements differ in their views on various issues. These issues include the level of observance, the methodology for interpreting and understanding Jewish law, biblical authorship, textual criticism, and the nature or role of the messiah (or messianic age). Across these movements, there are marked differences in liturgy, especially in the language in which services are conducted, with the more traditional movements emphasizing Hebrew. The sharpest theological division occurs between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews who adhere to other denominations, such that the non-Orthodox movements are sometimes referred to collectively as the “liberal denominations” or “progressive streams“.


Some Jews reject the term denomination as a label for different groups and ideologies within Judaism, arguing that the notion of denomination has a specifically Christian resonance that does not translate easily into the Jewish context. However, in recent years the American Jewish Year Book has adopted “denomination”, as have many scholars and theologians. Other commonly used terms are movementsbranchestrendsstreams, or even flavors of Judaism.

The Jewish denominations themselves reject characterization as sects. Sects are traditionally defined as religious subgroups that have broken off from the main body, and this separation usually becomes irreparable over time. Within Judaism, individuals and families often switch affiliation, and individuals are free to marry one another, although the major denominations disagree on who is a Jew. It is not unusual for clergy and Jewish educators trained in one of the liberal denominations to serve in another, and left with no choice, many small Jewish communities combine elements of several movements to achieve a viable level of membership.

Relationships between Jewish religious movements are varied; they are sometimes marked by interdenominational cooperation outside of the realm of halakha (Jewish law), and sometimes not. Some of the movements sometimes cooperate by uniting with one another in community federations and in campus organizations such as the Hillel Foundation. Jewish religious denominations are distinct from, but often linked to, Jewish ethnic divisions and Jewish political movements.

Judaism Sign

Judaism Sign

Judaism and Samaritanism

Main article: Samaritanism

The Samaritans regard themselves as direct descendants of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh in the northern Kingdom of Israel, which was conquered by Assyria in 722 BCE. Modern genetics has suggested some truth to both the claims of the Samaritans and of the Jews in account to the Talmud. Samaritan scripture preserves a version of the Pentateuch in slightly variant forms. The first historical references to the Samaritans date from the Babylonian Exile. According to the Talmud, Samaritans are to be treated as Jews in matters where their practice agrees with the mainstream but are otherwise to be treated as non-Jews. The Samaritans have dwindled to two communities of about 700 individuals. One such community is located in the Israeli city of Holon, while the other is located near Nablus on Mount Gerizim, in the West Bank.

Today, Samaritans need to officially go through formal conversion to Judaism in order to be considered Jewish. One example is Israeli TV personality Sofi Tsedaka who was brought up Samaritan and converted to Judaism at the age of 18.

Sects in the Second Temple period

Main article: Second Temple Judaism

Prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jews of the Roman province of Judaea were divided into several movements, sometimes warring among themselves: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and ultimately early Christians. Many historic sources such as Flavius Josephus, the New Testament and the recovered fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, attest to the divisions among Jews at this time. Rabbinical writings from later periods, including the Talmud, further attest these ancient schisms.

The main internal struggles during this era were between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, as well as the early Christians, and also the Essenes and Zealots. The Pharisees wanted to maintain the authority and traditions of classical Torah teachings and began the early teachings of the Mishna, maintaining the authority of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish court. According to Josephus, the Sadducees differed from the Pharisees on a number of doctrinal grounds, notably rejecting ideas of life after death. They appear to have dominated the aristocracy and the temple, but their influence over the wider Jewish population was limited. The Essenes preached an ascetic way of life. The Zealots advocated armed rebellion against any foreign power such as Rome. All were at violent logger-heads with each other, leading to the confusion and disunity that ended with the destruction of the Second Temple and the sacking of Jerusalem by Rome. The Jewish Christians were the original Jewish followers of Jesus. The radical interpretation of Moses’ Law by Jesus’ disciples and their belief he is the Son of God, along with the development of the New Testament, ensured that Christianity and Judaism would become distinctively different religions.

Rabbinic Judaism

Main article: Rabbinic Judaism

Most streams of modern Judaism developed from the Pharisaic movement, which became known as Rabbinic Judaism (in Hebrew Yahadut Rabanit – יהדות רבנית) with the compilation of the Oral Torah into the Mishna. After the destruction of the Second Temple and the Bar Kokhba revolt the other movements disappeared from the historical record, yet the Sadducees probably kept on existing in a non-organized form for at least several more decades. A scholar named Rodkinson claimed about a century ago that the Sadducees ultimately changed their name and are those who are referred to as the Qara’im and Ba’alei Miqra in the Talmud.

Non-Rabbinic Judaism

Main articles: Karaite Judaism

The tradition of the Qara’im survives in Karaite Judaism, started in the early 9th century when non-Rabbinic sages like Benjamin Nahawandi and their followers took the rejection of the oral law by Anan ben David to the new level of seeking the plain meaning of the Tanakh’s text. Karaite Jews accept only the Tanakh as divinely inspired, not recognizing the authority that Rabbinites ascribe to basic Rabbinic works like the Talmud and the Midrashim.

Haymanot (Ge’ez: ሃይማኖት) is the branch of Judaism practiced by the Beta Israel, also known as Ethiopian Jews.

Haymanot in both Geʽez and Amharic means ‘religion’ or ‘faith’. Thus in modern Amharic, it is common to speak of the Christian haymanot, the Jewish haymanot or the Muslim haymanot. It is only in Israel that the term is associated with a particular religion.

Ethnic and cultural divisions

Main article: Jewish ethnic divisions

A wide array of Jewish communities have developed independently, distinguishable by their varying practices in matters that are not considered central ideas within Judaism, such as Maimonides’ list of the Jewish principles of faith.

Although there are numerous Jewish ethnic communities, there are several that are large enough to be considered “predominant”. Ashkenazi Jews communities compose about 75% of the world’s Jewish population. Sephardi Jews and Mizrahi Jews compose the greatest part of the rest, with about 20% of the world’s Jewish population. The remaining 5% of Jews are divided among a wide array of small groups (such as the Beta Israel group of Ethiopian Jews who follow the Haymanot branch of Judaism), some of which are nearing extinction as a result of assimilation and intermarriage into surrounding non-Jewish cultures or surrounding Jewish cultures.

The Enlightenment had a tremendous effect on Jewish identity and on ideas about the importance and role of Jewish observance. Due to the geographical distribution and the geopolitical entities affected by the Enlightenment, this philosophical revolution essentially affected only the Ashkenazi community; however, because of the predominance of the Ashkenazi community in Israeli politics and in Jewish leadership worldwide, the effects have been significant for all Jews.

Sephardic Judaism

Sephardic Judaism is the practice of Judaism as observed by the Sephardi (Spanish and Portuguese Jews), Maghrebi Jews and Mizrahi Jews, so far as it is peculiar to themselves and not shared with other Jewish groups such as the Ashkenazim (German Rite). Sephardic Judaism does not constitute a separate denomination within Judaism, but rather a separate cultural tradition.

Sephardim are primarily the descendants of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. They may be divided into the families that left in the Expulsion of 1492 and those that remained as crypto-Jews, Marranos and those who left in the following few centuries. In religious parlance, and by many in modern Israel, the term is used in a broader sense to include all Jews of Ottoman or other Asian or African backgrounds (Mizrahi Jews), whether or not they have any historic link to Spain, although some prefer to distinguish between Sephardim proper and Mizraḥi Jews.

Sephardic Judaism lacks movements such as “Orthodox”, “conservative”, or “reform”; level of halakhic observance is left to each person, but none dispute that contemporary definitions of “Orthodox” represents the level of observance of many Sephardim. Sephardic and Mizrachi Jewish synagogues are generally considered “Orthodox” by non-sephardic Jews, and are primarily run according to the Orthodox tradition, even though many of the congregants may not keep a level of observance on par with traditional Orthodox belief. For example, many congregants will drive to the synagogue on the Shabbat, in violation of halakha, while discreetly entering the synagogue so as not to offend more observant congregants.

Unlike the predominantly Ashkenazi Reform, and Reconstructionist denominations, Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews who are not observant generally believe that Orthodox Judaism’s interpretation and legislation of halakha is appropriate, and true to the original philosophy of Judaism. That being said, Sephardic and Mizrachi Rabbis tend to hold different, and generally more lenient, positions on halakha than their Ashkenazi counterparts, but since these positions are based on rulings of Talmudic scholars as well as well-documented traditions that can be linked back to well-known codifiers of Jewish law, Ashkenazi and Hasidic Rabbis do not believe that these positions are incorrect, but rather that they are the appropriate interpretation of halakha for Jews of Sephardic and Mizrachi descent.

Ashkenazi movements or denominations

Hasidic Judaism

Main article: Hasidic Judaism

Hasidic Judaism was founded by Israel ben Eliezer (1700–1760), also known as the Baal Shem Tov, who had previously called themselves Freylechn (“happy ones”) and now call themselves Hasidim (“pious ones”). His disciples attracted many followers among Ashkenazi Jews, and established numerous Hasidic groups across Europe. The Baal Shem Tov came at a time when the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe were reeling in bewilderment and disappointment engendered by the two notorious Jewish false messiahs, Sabbatai Zevi (1626–1676) and Jacob Frank (1726–1791), and their respective followers. Hasidic Judaism eventually became the way of life for many Jews in Eastern Europe.


In the late 18th century, there was a serious schism between Hasidic and non-Hasidic Jews. European Jews who rejected the Hasidic movement were dubbed Mitnagdim (“opponents”) by the followers of the Baal Shem Tov. Lithuania became the centre of this opposition. Some of the reasons for the rejection of Hasidic Judaism were the overwhelming exuberance of Hasidic worship, their untraditional ascriptions of infallibility and alleged miracle-working to their leaders, and the concern that it might become a messianic sect. Since then, all the groups of Hasidic Judaism have been subsumed theologically into mainstream Orthodox Judaism, particularly Haredi Judaism, although cultural differences persist.

Lithuanian Jews or Litvaks are Jews with roots in the present-day Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia, northeastern Suwałki and Białystok region of Poland and some border areas of Russia and Ukraine. The term is sometimes used to cover all Orthodox Jews who follow a “Lithuanian” (Ashkenazi, non-Hasidic) style of life and learning, whatever their ethnic background. The area where Lithuanian Jews lived is referred to in Yiddish as ליטע Lite, hence the Hebrew term Lita’im (לִיטָאִים‎).

Misnagdim (מתנגדים, “Opponents”; Sephardi pronunciation: Mitnagdim; singular misnaged/mitnaged) were the current among the Jews of Eastern Europe which resisted the rise of Hasidism in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Misnagdim were particularly concentrated in Lithuania, where Vilnius served as the bastion of the movement, but anti-Hasidic activity was undertaken by the establishment in many locales. The most severe clashes between the factions took place in the latter third of the 18th century; the failure to contain Hasidism led the Misngadim to develop distinct religious philosophies and communal institutions, which were not merely a perpetuation of the old status quo but often innovative. The most notable results of these efforts, pioneered by Chaim of Volozhin and continued by his disciples, were the modern, independent yeshiva and the Musar movement. Since the late 19th century, tensions with the Hasidim largely subsided, and the heirs of Misnagdim adopted the epithet “Litvaks”.

Post-Enlightenment movements

Perhaps the greatest divisions since the time of the division between the Sadducees and Pharisees two millennia ago are the divisions within the Ashkenazic community that have arisen in the past two centuries, ever since the Enlightenment and the Renaissance influenced Jews from northern and eastern Europe.

Late-18th-century Europe, and then the rest of the world, was swept by a group of intellectual, social and political movements that taken together were referred to as the Enlightenment. These movements promoted scientific thinking, free thought, and allowed people to question previously unshaken religious dogmas. The emancipation of the Jews in many European communities, and the Haskalah movement started by Moses Mendelssohn, brought the Enlightenment to the Jewish community.

In response to the challenges of integrating Jewish life with Enlightenment values, German Jews in the early 19th century began to develop the concept of Reform Judaism, adapting Jewish practice to the new conditions of an increasingly urbanized and secular community. Staunch opponents of the Reform movement became known as Orthodox Jews. Later, members of the Reform movement who felt that it was moving away from tradition too quickly formed the Conservative movement.

Orthodox Jews who were sympathetic to the Haskalah formed what became known as neo-Orthodox or modern Orthodox Jews. Orthodox Jews who opposed the Haskalah became known as Haredi Jews.

Over time, three large movements emerged:

  • Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Jews generally see themselves as practicing normative Judaism, rather than belonging to a particular movement. Within Orthodox Judaism, there is a spectrum of communities and practices, including Modern Orthodox Judaism, Haredi Judaism, and a variety of movements that have their origins in Hasidic Judaism.
  • Conservative Judaism, or Masorti Judaism. Originated in Germany in the 19th century, but became institutionalized in the United States. After the division between Reform and Orthodox Judaism, the Conservative movement tried to provide Jews seeking liberalization of Orthodox theology and practice with a more traditional and halakhically-based alternative to Reform Judaism. It has spread to Ashkenazi communities in Anglophone countries and Israel.
  • Reform Judaism, also known as Liberal or Progressive Judaism. Originally formed in Germany as a reaction to modernity, stresses integration with society and a personal interpretation of the Torah.


The particular forms which the denominations have taken on have been shaped by immigration of the Ashkenazi Jewish communities, once concentrated in eastern and central Europe, to western and mostly Anglophone countries (in particular, in North America). In the middle of the 20th century, the institutional division of North American Jewry between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements still reflected immigrant origins. Reform Jews at that time were predominantly of German or western European origin, while both Conservative and Orthodox Judaism came primarily from eastern European countries.

Israel and Zionism

See also: Haredim and Zionism

The issue of Zionism was once very divisive in the Jewish community. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish non-Zionists believed that the return to Israel could only happen with the coming of the Messiah, and that a political attempt to re-establish a Jewish state was contrary to God’s plan. Non-Zionists believed that Jews should integrate into the countries in which they lived, rather than moving to the Land of Israel. The original founders of Reform Judaism in Germany rejected traditional prayers for the restoration of Jerusalem. The view among Reform Jews that Judaism was strictly a religion, and that Jews should be loyal citizens of their host nations, led to a non-Zionist, and sometimes anti-Zionist, stance.

After events of the 20th century, most importantly the Holocaust and the establishment of the modern State of Israel, opposition to Zionism largely disappeared within Reform Judaism. Religious Zionists have embraced the Zionist movement as part of the divine plan to bring or speed up the messianic era, based on the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Among most religious non-Zionists, there is a de facto recognition of Israel, but as a secular state. The Edah HaChareidis in Jerusalem does not recognize the legitimacy of the state, and one small group, Neturei Karta, actively opposes the existence of Israel. Secular opposition to Zionism has continued among some Jewish political groups, and among some Jews active in leftist political movements.

Pressures of assimilation

Main article: Jewish intermarriage

Among the most striking differences between the Jewish movements in the 21st century is their response to pressures of assimilation, such as intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews. Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis have been most accepting of intermarried couples, with some rabbis willing to officiate in mixed religious ceremonies, although most insist that children in such families be raised strictly Jewish. Conservative rabbis are not permitted to officiate in such marriages, but are supportive of couples when the non-Jewish partner wishes to convert to Judaism and raise children as Jewish.

20th-century movements

Additionally, a number of smaller groups have emerged:

  • Reconstructionist Judaism, a smaller progressive Jewish movement, found primarily in the United States. It began as a liberal movement within Conservative Judaism and formally separated in the 1940s.
  • Humanistic Judaism, a nontheistic movement that emphasizes Jewish culture and history as the sources of Jewish identity. Founded by Sherwin Wine, it is centered in North America but has spread to Europe, the Far East, Latin America, and Israel.
  • Neolog Judaism, a movement in the Kingdom of Hungary and in its territories ceded in 1920, which is similar to the more traditional branch of American Conservative Judaism
  • Jewish Renewal. Founded in the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Jewish Renewal tends to embrace the ecstatic worship style and mysticism of hasidism, while rejecting the halakhic rigor of Orthodox Judaism. Jewish Renewal congregations tend to be inclusive on the subject of who is a Jew. The Jewish Renewal movement lacks the formal institutional structure of the other liberal movements.
  • Jewish Science. Formed in the early 20th century by Alfred G. Moses and Morris Lichtenstein. Jewish Science was founded as a counterweight Jewish movement to Christian Science. Jewish Science sees God as a force or energy penetrating the reality of the Universe and emphasis is placed upon the role of affirmative prayer in personal healing and spiritual growth. The Society of Jewish Science in New York is the institutional arm of the movement regularly publishing The Interpreter, the movement’s primary literary publication.
  • Messianic Judaism. Made up of followers who seek to combine parts of Rabbinic Judaism with a belief in Jesus as the Messiah and other Christian beliefs. It is not regarded as Judaism by the major movements of Judaism, and is considered a form of Christianity.

Trans- and post-denominational Judaism

The very idea of Jewish denominationalism is contested by some Jews and Jewish non-denominational organizations, which consider themselves to be “trans-denominational” or “post-denominational”. A variety of new Jewish organizations are emerging that lack such affiliations:

  • Some Jewish day schools lack affiliation with any one movement;
  • There are several seminaries which are not controlled by a denomination.
    • The Academy for Jewish Religion, California, is a transdenominational academy based in Los Angeles. It draws faculty and leadership from all denominations of Judaism. It has programs for rabbis, cantors, chaplains, community leadership and Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). AJRCA is fully accredited.
    • The Academy for Jewish Religion, is a transdenominational academy in Yonkers, NY. AJR is a fully accredited program that trains rabbis and cantors and also offers Master’s Program in Jewish Studies.
    • The Hebrew College seminary, in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, near Boston.
    • The ALEPH Ordination Program (AOP), a non-denominational Jewish renewal seminary training rabbis, cantors, rabbinic pastors, and Jewish spiritual directors
  • The International Federation of Rabbis (IFR), a non-denominational rabbinical organization for rabbis of all movements and backgrounds

Organizations such as these believe that the formal divisions that have arisen among the “denominations” in contemporary Jewish history are unnecessarily divisive, as well as religiously and intellectually simplistic. According to Rachel Rosenthal, “the post-denominational Jew refuses to be labeled or categorized in a religion that thrives on stereotypes. He has seen what the institutional branches of Judaism have to offer and believes that a better Judaism can be created.” Such Jews might, out of necessity, affiliate with a synagogue associated with a particular movement, but their own personal Jewish ideology is often shaped by a variety of influences from more than one denomination.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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