General Forms of Judaism

Just like most world religions, Judaism has many denominations (sects, kinds, forms, or movements). For purposes of presentation, we classify these forms of Judaism into three historical groups. The first are the Ancient Forms (or the Hellenistic Sects, for they flourished during and after the war with the Greeks), consisting of the forms of Judaism practiced by the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots. The second are the Medieval Forms, consisting of Karaite Judaism, Rabbinical Judaism, Hasidism, and Mitnagdism. And the third are the Modern Forms, of which the major ones are the Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative forms of Judaism (minor ones include the Reconstructionist and Messianic forms of Judaism).

Ancient Denominations

After the war with the Seleucid Greeks for about 25 years, the Jews were divided into four groups: the Essenes, Sadducees, Pharisees, and Zealots (see Molloy 2010, 312-313; Matthews 2010, 251-52; Urubshurow 2009, 111-112). The Essenes were ascetics (living in the mountains, isolating themselves from the world) who engaged in mysticism and devoted themselves to strict discipline. They were said to be the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in 1947 near the Dead Sea. Among others, their beliefs included the coming of the Messiah, whom they were eagerly awaiting.

The Sadducees consisted of the priests and the aristocrats of Jewish society. They were conservative when it came to religious matters, but they were liberal when it came to social matters, adopting the ways of Greek culture. They only accepted the Written Torah (they did not believe that the Oral Torah came from God), and their religious life revolved around the Temple. They rejected popular belief in angels, the apocalypse, and the resurrection of the body in the afterlife.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed that both the Written Torah and Oral Torah came from God, and they were open to the interpretations of the rabbis of these sacred writings. Their religious life centered on the study of the Torah.

The Zealots appeared after Rome conquered Judea. They were nationalists who waged war against the Romans to defend Judea, and they would rather commit suicide than be taken as prisoners by the Romans.

After the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, only the form of Judaism practiced by the Pharisees survived and this became the common form of Judaism for many centuries. There were only some minor differences in practices and customs between the Ashkenazic Jews, the Jews residing in Eastern Europe, and the Sephardic Jews, the Jews residing in Spain and the Middle East. Moses Maimonides, the author of the thirteen Principles of Faith, was the most notable Sephardic Jew.

Medieval Denomination

The Medieval Forms of Judaism consisted of Karaite Judaism, Rabbinical Judaism, Hasidism, and Mitnagdism (see De Lang 2000,67-71; Molloy 2010, 314-15; Matthews 2010, 252-58). During the ninth century, a distinction between Karaite Judaism and Rabbanical Judaism arose. The Karaites, followers of Karaite Judaism, revived the position of the Sadducees. They did not accept the Oral Torah for they believed that the teachings of the rabbis, which formed part of the Oral Torah, were subject to human errors. For them, only the Written Torah came from God. In contrast, the Rabbanites maintained the position of the Pharisees, who believed that both the Written and Oral Torah came from God, and that the interpretations and teachings of the rabbis were inspired by God. It was Rabbinical Judaism, the kind practiced by the Rabbanites, that became the dominant form of Judaism.

Hasidism, also called Chasidism, developed in Europe around the 1700s as a reaction to the formalistic ritualism of Rabbinical Judaism and its emphasis on the study of the Torah to get closer to God. It sought to develop a personal spiritual life in terms of experiencing the mystical presence of God in everything. It believed that God is present in everything (the belief called panentheism, see Chapter 1) and that we need to experience God in everything we do. The Hasidic movement was founded by Israel ben Eliezer (c. 1700-1760), a mystic and faith healer. He believed that devout practice and obedience to the laws of the Torah and Talmud should be accompanied by a direct personal experience of God who is present everywhere. Chasidism encountered opposition from tradition-minded Jews whose practice of Judaism was called Mitnagdism (meaning “opponents”). At first, the disputes between followers of Chasidism and Mitnagdism were heated but later on they were relatively unified in opposing liberal forms of Judaism.

Modern Denominations

Nowadays, there are many Jews living in the United States. It is even said that there are at present more Jews living in the United States than in Israel. While in Israel the only accepted form of Judaism is what is called Orthodox, in the United States there are three major movements: the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements (De Lang 2000, 72-83; Molloy 2010, 330-35; Matthews 2010, 259-61). Minor movements include Reconstructionist Judaism and Messianic Judaism.

Reform Judaism, also known as Liberal Judaism or Progressive Judaism, seeks to modernize and make Judaism and its traditions compatible with the surrounding culture. Some of the reforms that it introduces are the use of the vernacular language of the country (thus abandoning the use of Hebrew in religious ceremonies), equal role of women in religious activities (women can participate in all forms of rituals), ordination of women as rabbis, participation of Jews in the cultural and political activities of the country in which they find themselves, interfaith marriage, and consideration of LGBT issues. Reform Judaism began in Germany and later on became dominant in America. In 1854, Rabbi Isaac Mayer came to America from Germany and introduced radical reforms in the practice of Judaism. For instance, he advocated the abandonment of dietary restrictions and other practices such as covering the head during synagogue services.

Orthodox Judaism was a reaction to Reform Judaism. It insisted on the old ways.The German-Hungarian rabbi Moses Sofer (1762-1839), a strong proponent of Orthodox Judaism, once taught that “anything new is forbidden by the Torah.” Orthodox Judaism is characterized by its maintenance of the traditional forms of worship in the Hebrew language, and of the traditional observances prescribed by the Torah, such as men and women sitting separately in Orthodox synagogues and women not participating in some of the rituals.

Conservative Judaism is basically a middle-ground position between Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism. While it preserves Jewish tradition, it is also open to the modern historical scholarship in analyzing the Written Torah and Oral Torah. Conservative Judaism was founded by Solomon Schecter in the mid-nineteenth century as a response to Reform Judaism. Schecter found Reform Judaism extremely liberal, so he made Conservative Judaism a blend of Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism. For instance, while Conservative Judaism preserves the use of Hebrew in religious ceremonies and other traditions, it gives women equal rights to participate in all religious activities and even become rabbis.

Reconstructionist Judaism developed from Conservative Judaism and from the ideas of Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983). Reconstructionist Judaism does not see Judaism as a religion whose doctrines and laws are fixed and binding for all generations. It sees Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. Thus it rejects any beliefs that confer a fixed, absolute, or unchanging status to the Jewish religious practices and beliefs. Such beliefs include the beliefs that God chose the Jews as his people and that God once and for all gave all his laws to Moses. The Reconstructionists, however, may still engage in certain usual Jewish religious practices, but only because they see these practices as cultural activities of the Jewish people that are still applicable to the present generation. For them, Judaism needs to be reconstructed to be relevant to the times.

Another notable form of Judaism is what is called Messianic Judaism, which believes that Jesus Christ is the Messiah that the Jews have been waiting for while adhering to the usual Jewish religious practices like the Sabbath and others.