Variants Within Judaism
Adapted from: http://www.ijs.org.au/Variants-within-Judaism/default.aspx
The three major variants, or streams, of Judaism are Orthodox
Judaism, Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism (often called
“Liberal” or “Progressive’).
In general, the Jewish communities are united but pluralistic,
including groups and sub-groups from all of the major streams.
In the United States the majority of Jews are affiliated with
Orthodox Judaism is not administered by any central authority.
Synagogues are established by groups of Jews who raise their
own funds and construct their own buildings. The congregation
usually elects a voluntary board of management, which employs
(and occasionally dismisses) rabbis and other officials.
The result is that each synagogue may represent a distinctive
ideological or cultural variety of Orthodoxy and therefore
attracts congregants who share that particular approach or
Some Orthodox synagogues serve particular suburban areas;
others reflect the traditions of the places of origin of their
congregants. Some are connected with the religious Zionist
movement and a number are simply gatherings of like-minded
people for prayer in houses or rooms.
The long black coats, flowing beards and picturesque hats seen
in news films of Jerusalem and in some streets of New York
represent various minority groups within Orthodox Judaism.
The variations in dress are the uniforms of particular religious
movements, and some originate in eighteenth century Eastern
Europe. Some, but not all, of these movements are Chassidic.
Chassidism is characterised by a search for ecstasy in
prayer, an interest in medieval mysticism and an emphasis on the
possible imminence of a Messianic era. The Chassidim represent
a very small but very active minority within Orthodox
The following article about Chassidim was adapted by Anne
Segal from Rabbi Raymond Apple's book, “The Jews.”
Since the second World War the Chassidim – adherents of what
has been called the greatest revivalist movement in Jewish
history – have become a visible part of the Jewish scene. The
actual numbers of Chassidim are small. Even among strictly
Orthodox Jewish groups, the Chassidim are in a minority. But
they are probably the most colourful and distinctive, and
their influence has greatly strengthened Jewish learning and
observance since the war.
The Chassidim movement goes back to Eastern Europe in the
middle of the eighteenth century, when Jews were living in
conditions of difficulty and despair. Among them arose a man
called the Baal Shem Tov, born in 1700, whose stories and
sayings, cherished by his followers, emphasised joy in life,
love of fellow-man, sincerity in word and deed and ecstasy at
being in the presence of God.
Chassidism was a way of infusing joy and hope into life, and
became popular among the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe,
though it aroused opposition amongst other groups who felt it
stressed the heart at the expense of the mind. Gradually the
two points of view became more or less reconciled, the
Chassidim increasingly turned to study, and today piety and
learning go together in the movement.
In the Nazi Holocaust, the Chassidic centres of Eastern Europe
were destroyed, but some of the Rebbes (Chassidic leaders) and
their followers survived and re-established their tradition in
Conservative Judaism fosters the practice of traditional
Judaism while embracing modernity. Developed during the
twentieth century in the United States, it comes midway
between Orthodoxy and Reform, intellectually liberal in
matters of belief, but conservative in matters of religious
It attempts to “combine a positive attitude to
modern culture, acceptance of critical secular scholarship
regarding Judaism’s sacred texts, and also commitment to
Jewish observance.” Conservative study of the holy texts is
embedded in the belief that Judaism is constantly evolving to
meet the contemporary needs of the Jewish people.
The Conservative service follows the traditional liturgy, and
it is mainly in Hebrew and similar to Orthodox services.
However, men and women sit together and women participate
fully in the synagogue services, prayers and rituals.
The movement believes that God's will is made known to
humanity through revelation. The revelation at Sinai was the
clearest and most public of such Divine revelations, but
revelation also took place through the Prophets, and can, in a
more subtle form, happen even today.
In 1960 the Rabbinical Assembly of America agreed to modify
Orthodox halacha (Jewish law)to permit the use of electrical
appliances on the Sabbath and drive to synagogue by car. In
1985 it permitted the ordination of women rabbis.
A new element entered the Jewish world in the early nineteenth
century, a movement which is variously described as
Progressive, Reform or Liberal Judaism.
The Progressive concept originated with the emancipation of
the Jews of the various German states. Granted equal rights
and released from the ghettos to which they had been confined
for centuries, Jews sought full acceptance in the German
cultural milieu to which they had finally been admitted. Many
were influenced by the philosophy of the eighteenth century
European Liberal Judaism soon spread to North America where it
became more radical and less traditional. Many of the Jews
from central Europe who migrated to North America in the 1850s
were political liberals who were eager to cast off the shadows
of reactionary Europe. By the late 19th Century the “Science
of Judaism” (Wissenschaft des Judentums) reflected the
developing understanding of evolution, history and biblical
scholarship. Non-Orthodox rabbinical seminaries were founded
in both Europe and the United States. National rabbinical
associations were formed and changes to religious practice
Progressive Jews regard the “sacred heritage” of the Torah as
evolving and adapting over the centuries and continuing to do
so. However the Progressive movement has gradually modified
its original revolutionary stance, and now places somewhat
more emphasis on traditional observance. In its first platform
in 1885, for example, the American Reform movement emphasized
a distinction between the divinity of the “moral laws and
statutes” and laws of ritual observance which “no longer
impress us with the character of Divine institutions.”
The most recent Progressive Statement of Principles, madein
1999, on the other hand, calls for“ongoing study of the
mitzvot, the sacred obligations, and the fulfilment of those
that address us as individuals and as a community.” The 1999
Statement also emphasised the study of the Hebrew language and
the sacred texts, commitment to Israel, the full equality of
women and the acceptance of all regardless of sexual
The ideological distinctions between the Progressive and the Orthodox
are reflected in the form of temple service. The English language is
used for parts of the Progressive services, which often features a
mixed choir. Progressive services are adapted and shortened
and are conducted with somewhat more decorum than Orthodox
services, which often accommodate individual praying and occasional
conversation. Men and women sit together in the Progressive Temple,
both participate in all aspects of the service, and women rabbis may
Many Jews who would not describe themselves as religious
believers, still identify as part of the Jewish people.
Most such secular Jews accept Jewish values, ethics and
concerns as well as some rituals as part of their cultural
Many belong to synagogues or temples.
Mizrachi, Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews
The difference between Mizrachi, Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews
lies in the cultures developed in the countries in which they
have lived. Mizrachi Jews are those whose ancestors stayed in
the Middle East after the destruction of the First Jewish
Temple in 586 BCE. The Ashkenazi Jewish culture originated in
the Franco-German region in Western Europe and developed in
Eastern Europe and Russia. The formative experience of the
Sephardi Jews occurred in Spain and North Africa.
Due to their different historical experiences, there is a
variation in the customs and traditions of the three groups.
The Mizrachim and Sephardim have a similar distinctive
pronunciation of Hebrew, which was adopted in the modern
spoken language of Israel. They also have similar traditional
liturgical melodies and an order of the synagogue service
which differs slightly from the Ashkenazi service.
Variations in a Jewish Prayer
“Blessed are You the God of our forefathers, God of Abraham,
God of Isaac and God of Jacob, the great mighty God who
bestows beneficial kindness and creates all, who recalls the
kindness of the patriarchs and brings a redeemer to their
children’s children, for his Name’s sake, with love. O King,
Helper, Saviour and Shield, Blessed are You - the Shield of
“Praised are you, Lord our God and God of our Ancestors, God
of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, great, mighty, awesome,
exalted God who bestows loving kindness, Creator of all. You
remember the pious deeds of our ancestors and will send a
redeemer to their children's children because of Your loving
Note: In some Conservative congregations, the matriarchs
(Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel) are added as in the
“Blessed are You the God of our forefathers and mothers, God
of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God
of Rebecca, God of Leah and God of Rachel, the great mighty
God who bestows beneficial kindness and creates all, who
recalls the kindness of the patriarchs and matriarchs and
brings a redeemer to their children’s children, for God’s
Name’s sake, with love. O Ruler, Helper, Saviour and Shield,
Blessed are You - the Shield of Abraham and the helper of