American Jews today identify themselves as Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist. These four movements in modern American Judaism are different in many aspects, but one must remember that even though there are differences in the different beliefs of the Jewish movements, that all Jews share a common bond of a history and a destiny. They are one people. These four movements are not considered denominations, but are differing philosophies. Many Jewish religious observances and practices cannot be easily put into a single particular movement because within each movement there is a wide diversity in custom, practice, and observance. These movements range from traditional to liberal and those in between.
Orthodox Judaism considers itself the authentic bearer of the religious Jewish tradition and believes highly in the preservation of tradition. It is also the oldest form of Judaism. In the United States it is estimated that today approximately 21% of Jews identify themselves as Orthodox (United Jewish Communities, 2003). The essential principle of Orthodox Judaism is Torah min Hashamayim, which mens that the Torah and all its commentaries and interpretations are divinely revealed (Einstein& Kukoff, 1989, p. 151). According to Orthodox Judaism because all the laws and traditions of Judaism are of direct and divine origin, they must be followed by all Jews.
This strict observance of laws and traditions is the main foundation that Orthodox Judaism is based on and contains many rules that dictate the life of an Orthodox Jew. The most basic of these rules is the insistence of living a mitzvah centered life. Mitzvah means the 613 commandments that Jews are obligated to observe (Rich, 2003). Orthodox Jews see these 613 commandments as commandments directly given from God and are seen as binding both ritually and ethically. Therefore, any infraction or failure to observe any of these commandments are considered a sin and that the Torah, not personal belief or conscience, is the judge of action (Einstein & Kukoff, 1989, p. 152). The other basic belief of the Orthodox movement is that God gave Moses the whole Torah at Mount Sinai, including the Written Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and the Oral Torah (the oral tradition interpreting and explaining the Written Torah). They believe that the Torah is true and that it has came down to modern times intact and unchanged (Rich, 2003).
Many of the mitzvahs center on strict laws governing almost every aspect of daily life. These include at the most basic the strict dietary laws known as the Kashrut, which dictates food that cannot be consumed and very strict laws on the proper way to slaughter animals (Rich). This type of food is often called kosher. One of the most important mitzvah's that Orthodox Jews follows is their very strict and traditional observance of the Sabbath. They devote the Sabbath to a day of prayer, study, rest, and visiting with friend and family (Rich). On the Sabbath there are also strict rules on what may not be done on this day, which includes any form of work, even something as simply as turning on a light switch (Einstein & Kukoff). One can see from these rules that Orthodox Judaism is very traditional in its views and practices and that often these views and practices would come into conflict with many aspects of our modern world.
Orthodox Judaism also, follows very strict rules on how services are conducted in the synagogues. The Orthodox service is always conducted entirely in Hebrew, there is no type of musical instruments, and the men and women must sit apart (Einstein & Kukoff). Here is where one sees the very obvious separation of the sexes in Orthodox Judaism, not only are women and men not allowed to pray together, but no woman can be a rabbi, counted in the minyan (the number of adult Jews needed to recite certain prayers), or to lead any type of worship (Rich).
In other words the synagogue if the domain of men and women are regulated to secondary or unimportant roles in the conducting of services and observances inside the religion itself.
One of the main problems facing Orthodox Judaism today is the increasing resistance within the Jewish community to its emphasis on the authoritative nature of the mitzvahs and other Jewish laws. This is often seen as running counter to the view that most Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, have toward ones own freedom to decide what is correct for an individual (Hertzberg, 1973, p. 156). This strictness that is seen inside of Orthodox Judaism has it seems became a deterrent that keeps people from remaining in this movement or converting to it. This point is further supported by the Orthodox position that theirs is the only legitimate approach to Judaism and that all other movements are deviations from the authentic Torah true Orthodox Judaism (Einstein & Kukoff, 1989, p. 153).
Reform Judaism is the most liberal movement in Judaism. It was the first of the modern interpretations of Judaism to emerge in response to the changing political and cultural environment of the modernizing world. The basic beliefs and views of Reform Judaism vary from place to place and have undergone constant change over the course of its existence. Basic to Reform is the assertation of the legitimacy of change in Judaism (Hertzberg, 1973, p. 142). It is estimated that today in the United States that there are approximately 39% of Jews that identify themselves as Reform (United Jewish Communities, 2003).
The key element of Reform Judaism as it developed was the normalization of Jewish life and the breaking down of barriers between Jews and non-Jews, including the abolition of laws and customs that stood in the way of this process, and the bringing up to date the ideals of the mitzvahs and other religious teachings to embrace modern principles of life (De Lange, 2000, p. 77). Reform Judaism became the prevalent Jewish movement in the United States because it easily embraced the individualism and initiative that are encouraged in America and because in the beginning of the Jewish Movement in the United States there was a lack of strong rabbinic authority that emphasized traditional Orthodox observances (De Lange, 2000, p. 77).
Reform Judaism does not believe that every word in the Torah and in its commentaries came directly from God. Rather, the Torah is seen as a record of the encounter between the Jewish people and God and is viewed as containing the word of God rather than being the word of God (Einstein & Kukoff, 1989, p. 154). This belief allows Reform Judaism to emphasize more of a person's right and belief than that of the religions since it doesn't believe in observance of the mitzvah and places an emphasis on ethical teachings not rituals (Rich. 2003). One sees here the basic difference in the ideology between Orthodox and Reform movements in their view of the Torah and the emphasis on the mitzvah. Orthodox in their traditional ideology cling to the ways of the past, while Reform braces modernity and the way of the future.
With the ideology that Reform Judaism has to change in order to survive and to meet new situations it has often eliminated or greatly altered many of the basic traditions of Orthodox Judaism. Some of these innovations include the use of music in Sabbath services, the elimination of Hebrew as the only language used during services, the lessening of the need to follow the Kashrut and allowing work on the Sabbath (Einstein & Kukoff, 1989, p. 153). The most obvious innovation is the view of women by the Reform movement. They allow both men and women to sit together during services, have counted women toward minyan, and have ordained women as rabbis (Einstein & Kukoff). There is a much greater level of equality of the sexes in Reform Judaism than has ever existed in Orthodox Judaism and this has allowed for the advancement of women in this movement of Judaism.
One of the main problems facing Reform Judaism is the problem of what is to be the basis of religious authority in a religious movement that is so liberal and has no guide for religious observances (Hertzberg, 1973, p. 146). One sees that then that Reform Judaism's own basis of liberalism at times leaves its own wanting more. This need for more has caused some members of Reform Judaism to look for other answers and paths for their religious needs.
Conservative Judaism grew out of the tension between Orthodox and Reform movements. It maintains that the truths found in the Torah and other Jewish scriptures and writings come from God, but were transmitted by humans and thus, contain a human component (Rich, 2003). Conservative Judaism was able to accept change of the modern world in that they viewed the entire history of Judaism as a succession of creative responses to new challenges, but traditional forms and views of Judaism are valid and that changes in practice were to be made only with great reluctance (Hertzberg). It is estimated that in the United States today approximately 33% of Jews are Conservative (United Jewish Communities, 2003).
In this middle way that became Conservative Judaism there came to be some basic views in that the individual was free to reject aspects of Jewish tradition, but that Jewish law is binding and divinely inspired (Einstein & Kukoff, 1989, p. 155). Because of this view traditional Sabbath services are held and most standards of the Kashrut are observed. On the issue of women and their role in the church the Conservative movement allows this to be a decision that each individual synagogue has the right to make (Einstein & Kukoff). This observance of traditional aspects and the ability to allow observance of or the possibility for such liberal ideals as women as rabbis shows the middle roadness of Conservative Judaism. It is neither Orthodox nor Reform, but is some of each or all of each for different aspects and observances.
The problem that is found with Conservative Judaism is the very fact that it does take the middle of the road approach to the ideologies of both Orthodox and Reform movements. The Conservative movement has always prided itself for maintaining unity amid ideological conflict, but to continue such unity in the face of greater diversity and modernization if the problem facing Conservative Judaism (Hertzberg, 1973, p. 150). One sees that the problem for Conservative Judaism is actually the foundation that it is based on and that this capacity for maintaining a balance of unity will become harder as the world becomes more modern.
Reconstructionist Judaism is an outgrowth from Conservative Judaism and is the newest movement in Judaism. It stresses that Judaism is more than a religion that it is an evolving religious civilization that combines traditions, laws, customs, languages, literature, music, and art to form what is called Judaism (De Lange, 2000, p. 155). It is estimated that in the United States today that only 3% of Jews follow this form of Judaism (United Jewish Community, 2003).
Many of the viewpoints of Reconstructionist Judaism are based on the belief that Judaism is an evolving religious civilization. They do not believe in a personified deity that is active in history and they do not believe that God chose the Jewish people (Rich, 2003). From this one would assume that Reconstructionist's do not observe mitzvahs or follow the teachings of the Torah. But this would be wrong because they do observe these teachings not because they are binding law from God, but because to do so is a valuable cultural observance (Rich). Since there is no belief in a supernatural God the Torah is not seen as a revealed truth, rather it is seen as a reflection of the Jews' search for God (De Lange, 2000, p.156). One sees that Reconstructionist Judaism has a very different view about the need for observances and why these observances need to be done. This is the fundamental difference between it and the other movements in Judaism.
Reconstructionist Judaism is very similar to Reform Judaism in that it gives full equality to women in all aspects of religious life and was the movement that developed Bat Mitzvah ceremonies for girls (Einstein & Kukoff, 1989, p.156). This very liberal view of women that Reconstructionist Judaism has would seem to lend it to having a large appeal in our modern world, but that has not been the case and it has not become a large movement. The lack of the Reconstructionist movement to grow into a major force inside of Judaism is possibly caused by its often close resemblance to Conservative Judaism in that to some extent it is between Orthodox and Reform. But at the same time it goes even further to the left in liberalism than Reform does and its lack of a cohesive idealism prevents Reconstructionist Judaism from growing (Hertzberg, 1973, p. 152).
American Judaism today is both diverse and traditional in its views. There is a strong traditional viewpoint to be found in the Orthodox movement, but at the same time one can find strong liberal viewpoints in the Reform movement that account for the modern world that we live in today. Between these viewpoints we find the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements that attempt to take a middle of the road approach to Judaism. It does seem that at times the religious movements overlap or are so far apart at other times in their ideologies that there is disunity inside of Judaism itself. But, different views and movements are found in all religions and Judaism is no different. It is the very existence of different ideologies that the different movements in Judaism expresses that allows for the continued vitality and life of American Judaism.