How come Judaism is broken into several different branches?


What caused Judaism to break into branches? Are the branches even seen as a division? Does theology differ among them?


The questioner has “a Christian background" and, thus, is familiar with a religion made up of separate groups.

Christianity has long been divided into four main families, the so-called “Oriental Orthodox,” the Eastern Orthodox, Catholicism and Protestantism. A fifth family of new, independent churches in the developing world developed in the 20th Century.

Islam, too, suffered the big breach between Sunni and Shia believers in the first century that continues to be troublesome, and sometimes lethal, today.

By contrast, for much of its history Judaism was essentially one united faith, though naturally it encompassed various movements, tendencies, cultures and local variations.

That began to change with the modern emancipation and assimilation of Jews in Western Europe. A liberal form of the faith developed, especially in Germany, and flourished among 19th Century German immigrants in the United States. Worship was simplified, Hebrew was downplayed in favor of worship in common  languages with Protestant-style sermons, and age-old observances were eliminated or made matters of personal choice.

The resulting liberal branch or denomination eventually known as Reform Judaism centered on three North American institutions, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism) that 34 synagogues formed in 1873, Hebrew Union College to train rabbis (1875), and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1890).

Liberal U.S. rabbis issued the “Pittsburgh Platform” in 1885. It famously declared that only the Bible’s “moral laws” are binding any longer, while other commandments “are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization…. We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state…. Their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.” The platform also defined Judaism as a “progressive religion” in accord with “reason” whose adherents do not expect “a return to Palestine.” That last point was later curtailed.

Others felt that while some modernization was appropriate, the incipient Reform faction went too far. They established what emerged as the Conservative branch to uphold more of the tradition. Its central institutions are Jewish Theological Seminary (founded 1886), the Rabbinical Assembly (1901), and United Synagogue (1913). In recent times Reform has become more open to tradition while Conservatism has moved left. As recently as 1981, Reform taught against same-sex relationships but later changed. Now Conservatism has done the same and both groups ordain women rabbis. Some wonder aloud whether it makes sense to perpetuate the two separate denominations.

The Reconstructionist Community, which blends traditional and liberal concepts, emerged from Conservatism. Based in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, it has 110 U.S. congregations and considers itself Judaism’s fourth branch.

Meanwhile, what was simply Judaism in past centuries has become an identifiable denomination known as Orthodox Judaism. This is the smallest of the three major North American branches, yet is dynamic and expanding. Orthodoxy is the established faith in modern-day Israel and other nations, though Reform and Conservative Judaism actively seek equal status. It should be noted that Israeli Jews are divided into the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities, which differ in worship forms and countries of origin.

Continue reading "Why is Judaism broken into several different branches?" by Richard Ostling.

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