The three branches of Judaism


When Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman accepts the Democratic Party's nomination for vice president tonight, it will raise questions for a public unfamiliar with Judaism: Not only is Lieberman a Jew, but he is an Orthodox Jew. But what does that mean?

Will his activities be severely limited on the Sabbath? What other restrictions does his faith impose, and will they stand in the way of his potential vice presidential duties? And how are the Orthodox different from the rest of the Jewish world?

Lieberman is a member of a people that traces its lineage back not just generations, but millennia. "Judaism" is not just the name of a religion. It encompasses a culture. Not all Jews are observant, and not all Jews practice their religion in the same way.

Here are brief descriptions of the three major branches of modern Judaism - Reform, Orthodox and Conservative - along with explanations of how they evolved and some of the practices they follow.


For most of the history of Judaism, there were no separate branches as we now understand them. They began to emerge only when the age-old traditions of Judaism collided with the modern European world, beginning in the 18th century.

What precipitated that collision was the Enlightenment - the intellectual, social and political movement that enthusiastically embraced the world of science and critical, rational thought. It was accompanied by political reform, beginning with the French Revolution and spreading to other countries in Europe, that granted civil rights to Jews. They were able to take part in the mainstream political and economic life of European society, and as a side effect some Jews became more assimilated into the culture around them.

With this greater freedom came a sense among some German Jews that their ancient religion was no longer adequate for the modern world. Initially led by lay people at the end of the 18th century, the Reform movement first emphasized liturgical changes: The service was shortened, the sermon and some of the prayers were changed from Hebrew to the vernacular, and choral singing was introduced with accompaniment of an organ.

These changes were possible because Reform Judaism sees God's revelation as continuing and evolutionary, to be re-interpreted by each successive generation as social conditions change. The Torah contains timeless truths, but those truths were written by human hands and must be critically interpreted. Above all, Reform Judaism believes in the autonomy of the individual, with each Jew deciding what practices or beliefs he will follow. This led Reform Jews to abandon many of the practices distinguishing other "observant" Jews: wearing a yarmulke, keeping the strict Sabbath prohibitions on work, observing the kosher dietary laws.


Orthodox Judaism, of which Lieberman is a member, is not a unified movement in the way that Reform or Conservative Judaism are. Rather, it is a designation for a number of movements whose members practice their religion in its most traditional form.

"Orthodox" Judaism didn't exist as a movement until the rise of Reform - before that, all religious Judaism was, in a sense, orthodox. Orthodoxy was organized in response to Reform's modernizing tendencies. In fact, the name "orthodox" was first used in 1795 - derisively - to describe a Judaism the reformers saw as backward, although those who held to traditional Judaism soon adopted the term as their standard.

Orthodox Jews believe the entire Torah, both written and oral, is the divinely inspired word of God and is therefore literally true. Any attempt to interpret or adapt that word of God to the changing circumstances of society is a watering down of the tradition received at Mount Sinai and must be rejected.

Orthodox Jews seek to adhere to the 613 commandments of Jewish Law, including those regarding the Sabbath, which begins at sundown Friday and concludes at sundown Saturday.

The Sabbath mandate for rest prohibits anything that can be interpreted as work, including driving a car, turning on lights or lighting a stove. But on the Sabbath the Orthodox may perform deeds thought necessary to save lives or that are essential to the public welfare. Thus, Lieberman has walked to the Senate to cast votes on issues he has felt are crucial. He does not, however, campaign or engage in what he considers political activity on the Sabbath.

While Orthodox agree on the core of their religious tradition, there are many differences in terms of their openness to modern, secular society, which is reflected in the way they dress and where they work and live.

Some prefer to remain within the Jewish world, shunning secular schools, universities and other institutions. Many Orthodox men dress in the black hats and suits and wear the long beards of their Eastern European forebears. Others, like Lieberman, prefer to move in the wider society, and dress accordingly.


Conservative Judaism also arose in response to Reform. In the United States, some rabbis who endorsed Reform's embrace of modern culture believed that the movement had gone too far. The final break came in 1885, when Reform rabbis meeting in Pittsburgh adopted a radical platform that included the rejection of kosher dietary laws.

The dissenting rabbis responded by forming their own theological school. Thus, Conservative Judaism began with the founding of a seminary in 1887 - the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Conservative Judaism lives in the tension-filled theological center between the liberalism of the Reform movement and the traditionalism of the Orthodox. The movement urges its members to keep kosher and observe Halakha, the law of the Torah. It encourages its men to wear a yarmulke. It discourages marriages to non-Jews, and its rabbis will not officiate at interfaith weddings. It retains a significant amount of Hebrew in its liturgy.

But Conservative Judaism also ordains female rabbis and cantors. It has made concessions to modern life not permitted by the Orthodox, such as allowing men and women to sit together during services and permitting its members to drive to Sabbath services. And it is wrestling with the question of whether to admit gay men and lesbians to its seminaries.

The Conservative and Reform movements took hold in the United States. According to 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, the latest available, 40 percent of religious Jews in the country said they were Conservative, 41.4 percent said they belonged to the Reform movement, and 6.8 percent said they were Orthodox.

Other movements

There are other, smaller movements in Judaism: Reconstructionism, which started as the liberal wing of Conservative Judaism, was the first to ordain women and homosexual rabbis. It is traditional when it comes to liturgy, which is mostly in Hebrew, and it encourages use of religious garb.

Secular Humanistic Judaism is part of a 150-year-old movement that offers a home to those who identify themselves as Jews primarily through culture, history and family; they celebrate many of the same rituals and holidays as observant Jews, but remove the religious language.

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