What are the major similarities and differences in the different sects (movements) of Judaism?

First of all, let me identify these groups which are really called “movements” in Judaism today, each with their own national organization, rabbinic seminary or training, and related organizations ( eg, youth groups, summer camps, men’s clubs, sisterhoods,etc.)

They are :

  • Orthodox
  • Conservative
  •  Reform
  • Reconstructionist
  • Renewal
  • Humanist

These groups were created, beginning with the Reform movement and ending with the Renewal movement, in response to changes in the social environment since the French Revolution to our modern times.

What all Jewish movements have in common is:

  • a belief in One God ( or for the humanists “The God in Human Beings”)
  • acceptance of the laws of the Torah(the Jewish Bible) as a guide for how to live one’s life on earth
  • recognition and support for Israel as the ancient and modern homeland of the Jewish people
  •  belief that the Messiah or the Messianic times will eventually come
  • All groups observe the major Jewish holidays
  •  share the values of education, prayer, and social action( “repairing the world”)
  • have rituals for Jewish lifecycle moments
  •  study and transmit Jewish history from one generation to another

Where we differ has mainly to do with the prayer services and related customs, and how the authority of the Torah is viewed:

a) The Orthodox movement views the Torah as having been Divinely given to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai as recorded in the Jewish Bible, and that the Oral Law ( the commentaries and explanations by the Rabbis written later in the Talmud) was also given then by God. Therefore, one is to observe what is written there without making changes in order to preserve Judaism. Prayer services in Orthodox congregations will be entirely in Hebrew, with everyone praying individually but led by one person who will say the opening or closing words of a prayer in order to let the others know what prayer they should be on; men wear prayer shawls(tallit) and head coverings(kippah or yarmulke) and on weekdays wear phylacteries ( tefillin); women sit in a separate section usually separated by a wall or in an upstairs balcony since their presence is thought to be a distraction for men. Only men are involved in saying blessings or reading from the Torah.

b) The Reform movement views the Torah as having been Divinely inspired but written over the generations by men; the Talmud is entirely written by humans and is a kind of legal history of Jewish law; therefore, we can choose what is still relevant to our times from this heritage of Jewish law. Prayer services in Reform congregations will mainly be in English or the language of the country, will have some Hebrew prayers, will be led by a trained cantor who may do most of the prayers as a solo, often accompanied by an organ, guitar or other musical instruments, and a choir. A rabbi will usually give a sermon. Men and women sit together and it is optional to wear a prayer shawl or a headcovering, though this has become more the practice today.Women and men are called up when there is a Bar Mitzvah to say the blessings over the Torah.

c) The Conservative movement views the Torah as having been Divinely given at Mt. Sinai and through Divine inspiration to our Sages over several centuries. According to both the Torah and the Talmud, the Torah laws are meant to be liveable – not so difficult that they can not be applied; therefore, as time and circumstances change, so the application of the laws must evolve, especially when the majority of the people are observing them in an adapted form. Thus the essence of the Torah laws stays constant, the intentions are carefully examined, but new ways of applying these laws evolve. Prayer services in a Conservative congregation use mostly Hebrew, but also include some English, with much group singing as led by a trained cantor, and there will usually be a sermon by a rabbi and remarks about the Torah reading on the Sabbath and holidays. Some Conservative congregations do allow for musical instruments, and some have choirs. Men and women sit together and all men have head coverings and prayer shawls; some women wear head coverings and a few may wear prayer shawls,too. Women and men are called up for saying the blessings over the Torah, and in some places, women also help to chant the Torah reading.

d) The Reconstructionist movement sees Judaism as a civilization which is reconstructed in every generation. They view the Torah as a historical, legal and ethical guide which may have been Divinely inspired, but was mostly the work of humans over the centuries. Prayer services are about 50% in Hebrew and 50% in English. It is optional to wear a prayer shawl, but most do wear a head covering; men and women sit together. There is often a congregational discussion instead of a sermon, led by either a rabbi or an educated member. There is usually no cantor, but there is much congregational singing, often accompanied by musical instruments. The Torah portion may be read from either a scroll or a book, in Hebrew or English.

e) The Renewal movement sees modern-day Judaism as in need of spiritual renewal, to reawaken a spiritual connection to God and to our heritage. They view the Torah as having been Divinely given both at Mt. Sinai and in an ongoing process, which still has us newly understanding the Torah today and in every generation. Prayer services in a Renewal congregation can vary widely, but most include group singing and chanting led by either a rabbi or educated leader, meditation, sharing of thoughts, feelings, and spiritual experiences, study of a Jewish text often related to a theme, some Hebrew prayers which are sung and may be accompanied by musical instruments, and there are also other inspirational readings and poetry. Men and women sit together, most wear head coverings, some wear prayer shawls, often sit in a large circle.

f) The Humanist movement views the Torah as the product of human genius, and posits that God is found in every human being, but is not a supernatural force that is outside of human beings. Prayer services in a Humanist congregation are mostly in English with perhaps a line or two of a Hebrew prayer, and there is often some singing, a sermon given by a rabbi, and sometimes discussions. Most do not wear prayer shawls or head coverings. Jewish holidays are observed as historical events with ethical messages.

-Rabbi Dorit Edut