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Half a century ago, Judaism could be described as comprised of three main branches: Orthodox (traditional), Reform (liberal, in Europe also known as Liberal or Progressive), and Conservative (a middle-ground branch; known as Masorti outside North America). Hassidic Judaism is something that we have all become more familiar with throughout the years as well. Although the big three are still very much with us, there is today a broader spectrum to Judaism. For example, some may describe themselves as “Conservadox” bridging Conservative and Orthodox Judaism. While each branch of Judaism has its own more or less “official” take on the Jewish faith, simply attending a particular synagogue doesn’t necessarily mean a person believes or even understands those official beliefs.

Until the late 18th century, there was only one kind of Judaism. What is now called “Orthodox” Judaism was normative and did not need to be distinguished as a branch until other, less traditional, varieties of Judaism began to develop. “Traditional Judaism is often called Orthodox, but we might recall that until the Reform movement began, there was no need to give a special name to traditional Judaism, because all Jews were traditional in belief and practice.” (Molloy, 2013). Orthodox Judaism emphasizes living according to the Torah (the Law of Moses). According to Orthodox Judaism, Moses not only received the Written Law (the text of the Torah as found in the Hebrew Bible) at Sinai, but there he also received the Oral Law (its correct interpretation). The Oral Law is called so because it is believed to have been handed down verbally, first from Moses, and then to every generation until it was finally put in writing. In a traditional Orthodox synagogue, the services are completely led by men (Dale, 2015).

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Reform Judaism is the product of modernity. Reform was birthed in 19th-century Germany. “Reform Judaism began in Germany out of a desire of some Jews to leave ghetto life completely and enter the mainstream of European culture.” (Molloy, 2013). Reform Jews tend to view many traditional Jewish beliefs and ceremonial observances as outdated and/or mere superstition. Some beliefs have been adapted to a more modern mindset. For example, the idea of the Messiah as an individual leader, chosen by God, was replaced by the notion of a messianic age inaugurated by human effort. As Reform Judaism developed, it became less radical than in its original iteration. Reform Jews tend to embrace whatever aspects of Judaism they find comfortable. The individual has the right to live according to his or her own convictions. As a result, the daily lifestyle of many Reform Jews may be almost indistinguishable from that of non-Jews.

The two, Orthodox Judaism and Reform Judaism, have very distinct beliefs and features. One of the main areas of difference is in the interpretation of the sacred texts. Followers of Orthodox Judaism strictly believe in the Messiah, a life and understanding of the rabbinical teachings and the sacred texts. On the other hand, followers of Reform Judaism have a conceptual approach to the rabbinical teachings and the sacred writings. Another difference that can be noticed between Orthodox Judaism and Reform Judaism is in the status of women. In Reform Judaism, there is no separation of men and women in worship services. In Reform Judaism, both men and women can sit together and perform prayers. But in Orthodox Judaism, they are not allowed to sit together while praying. This is because the Orthodox Jews believe that women are not clean during menstruation. So even if women are not having a menstrual period, they are not allowed to sit together with men. Another thing is that the Orthodox Jews believe that women distract men’s focus during worship. In Reform Judaism, women are allowed to perform duties as rabbis, educators, and cantors. On the contrary, these roles of educators, rabbis, and cantors are restricted to men only in Orthodox Judaism. It should also be noted that Reform Judaism only has short services when compared to Orthodox Judaism.

Both Orthodox and Reform Jews have a deep-rooted attachment to God, Israel, and the Torah, though they interpret these things in different ways. Both use basically the same Hebrew prayers, though the wording of some of them varies, and both are deeply committed to the principle of Tikkun Olam, or making the world a better place.

References:

Dale, G. (2015). Music and the Negotiation of Orthodox Jewish Gender Roles in Partnership Minyanim. Contemporary Jewry, 35(1), 35–53. https://doi-org.chamberlainuniversity.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s12397-015-9135-4 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

Molloy, M. (2013). Experiencing the world’s religions (6th Ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Higher Education

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