Movements of Judaism:

"I must point out to you that splitting Judaism into 'Orthodox, conservative and reform' is a purely artificial division, for all Jews share one and the same Torah given by the One and same G-d. While there are more observant Jews and less observant ones, to tack on a label does not change the reality that we are all one."

- The Rebbe from Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson


In North America today, the four main branches of Judaism are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. Within these denominations themselves, however, there is a great degree of variation in practice and observance. 

Movements Before the 20th Century

All Jewish movements that exist today are derived from one movement, identified in the Christian scriptures as the Pharisees.  At the dawn of Christianity, there were several different competing schools of thought:  the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots.  The Pharisaic school of thought is the only one that survived the destruction of the Temple.  The Pharisees believed that G-d gave the Jews both a written Torah and an oral Torah, both of which were equally binding and both of which were open to reinterpretation by the rabbis, people with sufficient education to make such decisions.  The Pharisees were devoted to study of the Torah and education for all.  Today, this school of thought is known as Rabbinical Judaism.

From the time of the destruction of the Temple until the middle of the 1700s, there was no large-scale organized difference of opinion within Judaism.  Judaism was Judaism, and it was basically Orthodox Judaism.  There were some differences in practices and customs between the Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe and the Sephardic Jews of Spain and the Middle East, but these differences were not significant.

In the 1700s, the first of the modern movements developed in Eastern Europe.  This movement, known as Chasidism, was founded by Israel ben Eliezer, more commonly known as the Baal Shem Tov or the Besht.  Before Chasidism, Judaism emphasized education as the way to get closer to G-d.  Chasidism emphasized other, more personal experiences and mysticism as alternative routes to G-d.  Chasidism was considered a radical movement at the time it was founded.  There was strong opposition from those who held to the pre-existing view of Judaism.  Those who opposed Chasidism became known as mitnagdim (opponents).  Today, the Chasidim and the mitnagdim are relatively unified in their opposition to the liberal modern movements.

Movements in 20th Century United States

There are three major movements in the U.S.  today:  Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox.

Orthodoxy is actually made up of several different groups.  It includes the modern Orthodox, who have largely integrated into modern society while maintaining observance of halakhah (Jewish Law), the Chasidim, who live separately and dress distinctively (commonly referred to in the media as the "ultra-Orthodox"), and the Yeshivish Orthodox, who are neither Chasidic nor modern.  The Orthodox movements are all very similar in belief, and the differences are difficult for anyone who is not Orthodox to understand.  They all believe that G-d gave Moses the whole Torah at Mount Sinai.  The "whole Torah" includes both the Written Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and the Oral Torah, an oral tradition interpreting and explaining the Written Torah.  They believe that the Torah is true, that it has come down to us intact and unchanged.  They believe that the Torah contains 613 mitzvot binding upon Jews but not upon non-Jews.

Reform Judaism does not believe that the Torah was written by G-d.  The movement accepts the theory that the Bible was written by separate sources and redacted together.  Reform Jews do not believe in observance of commandments.  Many non-observant, nominal, and/or agnostic Jews identify themselves as Reform.

Conservative Judaism grew out of the tension between Orthodoxy and Reform.  Conservative Judaism generally accepts the binding nature of halakhah, but believes that the Law should change and adapt, absorbing aspects of the predominant culture.

Last updated on: 10/20/2019
Join our email list