Exploring denominations of Judaism

April 3, 2022


Natalie Finkelstein ('23)

There are three major denominations of Judaism.

Judaism traces its roots back to around 4,000 years ago, in the Middle East, with the Hebrew people. It began with Abraham and Sarah, the first two historically Jewish figures. At the time, there were no sects (denominations, in the Jewish faith) of Judaism. It was just a singular religion that all Jewish people practiced the same way: by simply following all 613 commandments of the Torah in their everyday life.

As previously stated, though denominations of Judaism did not exist at this time, modern Orthodox Jews practice most similar to the Jewish people of millennia ago. Orthodox Jewish people dedicate their lives to following the commandments of the Torah, which includes practicing a completely restful day on the Sabbath (Friday). Orthodox Jews can do no work on this day. Some other practices of the Orthodox denomination include separating women and men during services as well as dressing modestly.

As time changed, so did the desires of many Jewish people. They no longer wanted to practice exactly as traditional Judaism was always practiced, unlike modern Orthodox Jews. The Enlightenment occurred across Europe, by which Jewish people were subsequently influenced, and the three predominant denominations eventually emerged.

In 1810, Rabbi Abraham Geiger, a German-Jewish scholar, promoted making changes in Jewish society that would simultaneously allow Judaism to continue existing and help Jewish people fit into modern society. Eventually, this led to the creation of the Reform Judaism movement.

Reform Judaism still connects tradition to modern times by upholding the core values of the Torah. Reformed Jewish people are still expected to attend synagogue as regularly as possible, light candles for Shabbat, and pray daily. However, how a Reformed individual goes about practicing their religion is slightly more relaxed, and, of course, individualized. Many Reform Jews work on Fridays or don’t completely keep kosher. Reformed Jewish services also are different from Orthodox services in that they run for a shorter time; combine men and women; use the vernacular, including choral singing; and allow female cantors and rabbis on the bimah.

Conservative Judaism stemmed directly from the creation of Reform Judaism to uphold more traditional values of Orthodox Judaism whilst modernizing Jewish practices. Conservative Jews are expected to follow the Torah relatively literally, keep kosher, and wear the kippah. Services are primarily spoken in Hebrew and have a longer run-time. However, women and men sit together in these services. Conservative Jewish people also often don’t take a completely restful Sabbath.

Reconstructionism and Secular Humanistic Judaism are other smaller, more liberal forms of Judaism.

Despite their differences, at the core of all these denominations is the law of the Torah, the basis of Judaism. Undoubtedly, it always will be.

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