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Who is a Jew?

Our Movements
Part Four

By Shlomo Phillips © 12.29.2010 (last updated 11.13, 2014)

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Choosing the best movement for you

Jewish denominations are generally known as movements. The principle Rabbinic Jewish Movements are as follows:

Orthodox Judaism: This is the traditional Judaism that arose following the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in 70 CE. In response to the challenges posed by the Reform Movement (see below) circa 1860 CE, traditional Judaism came to be known as Orthodox Judaism to differentiate itself from the then emerging sects/movements. Its beliefs and structure date to shortly after Masada (71-73 CE). The Orthodox Jewish Union began as a reaction to the 19th century Humanism that was spreading among the Jewish people (known as Haskalah: Enlightenment) at that time. The Orthodox rabbinate sought to codify what traditional or orthodox (small o) Jews should believe and do according to the accepted traditional standards. There is no question that Orthodox Judaism is closest to the traditional model. In Israel this Jewish movement wields the greatest authority by far in all areas of society. While the Orthodox wield less direct authority in other countries, their rulings and laws (halacha) remain vitally important everywhere. All things being equal, this is the preferred movement to convert through, both for the Jewish education it provides and for the widest degree of acceptance of ones conversion.

Many Orthodox regulations are based on Talmudic rulings and have no direct biblical basis (which does not nullify them since Talmud Torah exists to elucidate the true understandings and applications of Torah). Orthodox Jews believe that Judaism and its application must be progressive and yet under the strict determinations of each generation's rabbinic elders and authorities. For this reason the present Orthodox rabbinate wield more Halachic authority in some ways than even the Shulchan Aruch (i.e. Yosef Karo's 1563 Code of Jewish Law). Present day rabbis are responsible for determining how their generation can best meet the demands of global Tikun. This is one reason why the idea of 'post rabbinic Judaism' as meant by many egalitarian minded Jewish sects is regarded as wholly unaccepted by many Jews from all movements. Without empowered rabbis rabbinic Judaism would be a rudderless ship.

The Orthodox movement includes groups like the Orthodox Union, the Chassidim (such as Chabad, the Breslovers, Satmar, etc), Dati Leumi: National Religious, and other Tradition-based groups. Orthodox Judaism only accepts its own converts as authentically Jewish because non-Orthodox conversions do not meet the halachic (legal) standards. Even then not all Orthodox Jews accept conversions though other Orthodox groups. Currently the legitimacy of Modern and Open Orthodoxy is being challenged by some Haredim (i.e. so-called Ultra-Orthodox Jews) largely because these Orthodox are open to dialogue with the non-Orthodox.

Consolidating all (Orthodox) conversions through the office of the Jerusalem chief rabbinates is making Orthodox conversion extremely difficult, costly and time consuming, however it is also preserving the continuity of traditional Jewish beliefs, practices, and values. As always there are pros and cons. These requirements are also preventing many sincere people from converting to Judaism. Due in part to current exclusionary policies and requirements the majority of converts today enter through the non-Orthodox movements. As a result Judaism is becoming ever more fragmented and less traditional. Most Haredim converts (i.e. those who convert into Ultra Orthodox Judaism) have to undergo several conversions over a period of a decade or longer before finally being accepted as Jewish by their chosen sect. The vast majority of converts to Judaism therefore are not accepted as authentically Jewish by the Orthodox Movement. Conversion through the Orthodox Movement is by far the most difficult, time intensive and expensive way to convert. There are however significant advantages to it depending on ones situation. When considering conversion this is something to seriously think about.

According to the Council of Jewish Federations 10% of American Jews identify as Orthodox, including 22% of those who belong to a synagogue. In Israel it is estimated that no more than 30% are technically Orthodox. Only Orthodoxy is officially recognized by the Israeli government, although for the purpose of aliyah (immigration) non-Orthodox conversions are currently being accepted as valid. This is subject to change.

To understand how Orthodox Jews view the other movements see my study here.

Conservative or Masorti Judaism: A mixture of traditional and modern ideas, this movement leans toward tradition while embracing current social realities of the Diaspora. It is generally Torah based but typically less observant/demanding than the Orthodox. This movement began as a balance between the Orthodox and Reform movements (see below) in 1913. Their view of God is traditionally Jewish.

The Conservative Movement seeks to be the most practical of the Jewish movements by blending the 'letter' and 'spirit' of the Torah in a way that upholds Jewish Tradition and values while honoring the personal freedom and dignity HaShem has bestowed upon each of us. The current Conservative movement is largely embracing the move towards the unification of the non-Orthodox sects and hence embracing a more liberal understanding of Judaism. Many, not all, synagogues that define themselves as 'independent' are in practice Conservative.

The NJPS found that 26% of American Jews self-identify as Conservative, including 33% of those who belong to a synagogue. There are approximately 750 Conservative synagogues in the world today. Outside of the USA this movement is often known as Masorti Judaism.

Reform Judaism: Developed through the liberal, non-observant wing of Judaism that embraced European Haskalah ('the Enlightenment' assimilationist movement). Formally founded circa 1900 in reaction to and rejection of traditional (Orthodox) Judaism, which it tended to view as backward and superstitious. The Reform Movement hoped to modernized Judaism and to provide a home for Jews living within contemporary societies throughout the Diaspora. The founders of the Reform Movement did not agree with Haskalah completely, however they did reject the strictly defined Judaism of traditional (Orthodox) Halakhah (i.e. Jewish law). They sought to establish a Judaism that embraced the Western ideals of personal freedom in a way that would be meaningful for modern Jews, yet that was consistent with traditional spirit of Jewish ethics and morality, while rejecting what they regarded as the superstitions of past ages (such as the divine authorship of Torah, the objective reality of the Covenant, ritual practices like wearing kippot and tzitzit and so on).

The Reform Movement offers a mixture of traditional and modern ideas while leaning towards the modern in all cases. The findings of the Lenn Report in 1972 presents a rabbinate in transition. At that time a significant percentage of Reform rabbis were questioning the existence of God as historically conceived and other standard Jewish beliefs. At that point many Reform rabbis viewed God in ways that were very similar to current Reconstructionist rabbis (under the influence of Mordecai Menahem Kaplan: June 11, 1881 – November 8, 1983). Over the years however the Reform Movement has become somewhat more traditional in some of its views and today:

Reform Judaism believes in God. This belief has been demonstrated from the earliest days of the movement; specifically, the Pittsburgh Platform in 1885, which said, "We hold that Judaism presents the highest concept of the God-idea as taught in our holy Scriptures." It was reaffirmed in 1937 in the Columbus Platform: "The heart of Judaism and its chief contribution to religion is the doctrine of the One, living God, who rules the world through law and love." It was reaffirmed yet again in 1976: "The affirmation of God has always been essential to our people's will to survive" (Source of quote).
Reform synagogues today vary between being somewhat Torah observant and almost completely secular unitarian communities. Many Reform Jews continue to view HaShem more as a non-personal concept of goodness than as an individual "God of Israel," but again this seems to be gradually changing. They tend to regard the Torah and Talmud more as books of history and human wisdom than as divine revelations. Some within the Reform Movement are just as dogmatic in their views as their polar opposites among the Haredim.

The current Reform movement is largely embracing the move towards the unification of the non-Orthodox sects. There are approximately 900 Reform synagogues in the United States and Canada and many more elsewhere. This is currently numerically the largest Jewish movement.

Reconstructionist Judaism: Reconstructionist Judaism is a generally progressive, contemporary approach to Jewish life that integrates a respect for traditional Judaism with the insights and ideas of contemporary social, intellectual and spiritual life. It is a diverse movement with both impressive strengths and disturbing weaknesses in my opinion. For instance their siddur is at times moving and spiritually uplifting while at other times it so humanist as to make one doubt if there is any connection between their Judaism and Torah at all.

Many Reconstructionist Jews view God more as an Omnipresent Force or Collective Consciousness than as an individual God (as an Other to humanity) in the traditional sense (but then, the same could be said of certain Orthodox mystics). Others view HaShem in a more traditional light. Torah is considered very important to many, but again there is debate about why and to what degree it is applicable and divinely inspired. Some consider Torah to be divinely inspired (not revelation) while most see it as an example of significant human wisdom and tradition from ancient largely outdated times.

Like many in the Reform Movement, many Reconstructionist Jews have what is best described as a universalist or unitarian view of religion and God. This view is in part based on Martin Buber's (February 8, 1878 – June 13, 1965) distinction between the I–Thou relationship and the I–It relationship. The uniqueness of the Covenant and the Jewish people is generally denied.

Many Reconstructions do not believe in a deity who is active in history, nor that the Jewish people are the Elect or Chosen of HaShem in any sense. This movement may be a good match for Atheists and Agnostics wishing to maintain a meaningful connection with their Jewish roots without being "religious." Much varies with the individual of course as this is a very diverse and loosely aligned sect. As with most Jews, specific beliefs tend to be down played. Much of Judaism is more concerned about what one does with ones beliefs than with the beliefs themselves.

This movement seeks to offer Jews (and non-Jews equally) a connection to Jewish culture without appearing "too religious" in traditional terms. The current Reconstructionist Movement is largely embracing the move towards the unification of the non-Orthodox movements.

Only about 2% of Jews in America identify as Reconstructionists however many of the "independent" groups are essentially Reconstructionist, and contemporary Jewish philosophers like Buber remain quite popular within and without the non-Orthodox world. It seems likely that at least one significant split will occur within this small movement due to its theological diversity. There are less than 100 Reconstructionist synagogues world-wide.

Independent Egalitarian Judaism: This is a growing 'non-movement' outside of Israel (especially). It is often house/synagogue (local congregation) driven and varies in its level of Torah observance, interpretation, etc. depending on local perspectives. One Shul and its Darshan Yeshiva is representative of this sort of approach to Judaism. This non-movement is drawing many previously non-practicing Jews back into the fold as well as many ex-Orthodox who are weary or wary of rabbinic strictness. It is also attracting a considerable number of interested non-Jews as it offers on-line conversion.

These loosely connected house/synagogues and chat rooms are largely embracing the move towards the unification of the non-Orthodox movement yet tend to remain independent of it. Among these groups one will find tremendous diversity. Depending on the qualifications of the leaders, converts through this non-movement will be accepted by some as Jews and rejected by others (always including the Orthodox). Check with your synagogue authorities about this before beginning a conversion process through one of these if you are interested in acceptance beyond the overseeing group.

"Those who say they are Jews but are not" -- So-called Messianic Judaism (Revelation 2:9, 3:9): This term is used so broadly that it lacks any concrete definition. There is no established Jesus-centric Messianic Movement within nor without Judaism that is endorsed by any Jewish organization. Nor is there any central authority nor agreement about what the term even means beyond the obvious inaccurate belief in Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah. Jews do not and will not accept Jesus (Y'shua, Yeshua, Yehoshua, etc) as Messiah because he did not meet the requirements spelled out in the Tanach.

Be clear that in none of its forms does Judaism, neither Rabbinic nor Karaite, accept the claims/beliefs of Messianic Judaism (so-called) or of Christianity at large. All forms of Judaism reject the belief that Jesus is the Messiah. Thus far the Messianic prophecies have not been fulfilled by anyone, hence the Messiah has not yet come. This is a fact of observation apparent to anyone who looks. For more on this see my study What the Messiah must accomplish. Those who wish to practice the religion of the historic Y'shua of Nazareth should study and embrace his actual teachings and religion: Judaism or the Noahide Path.

Go to: Part 1 -- Who Is A Jew?
Go to: Part 2 -- Our Roots
Go to: Part 3 -- Becoming Jewish
Go to: Part 5 -- Why Be Jewish? With Rabbi Meir Kahane (ZK"L)
Go to: Part 6 -- By the Numbers
As always, I invite you to Contact Me with questions or thoughts.

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Don't let the perfect defeat the good

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