movements within judaism


Spectrum of Jewish


Dr. Laurence Boxer

A simplified view of the spectrum

Least traditional






Most traditional

Orthodox, including


•Modern Orthodox


Prior to 18


Century …

... Jewish practice was largely what, today, we would call insular and Orthodox.

The world outside traditional religious practice offered little -

•Christianity was (almost) universally hostile, regarding Jews as Christ-killers & scapegoats.

•Christian culture was dominated by poverty, ignorance, illiteracy.

•Muslim-dominated societies had similar shortcomings.

Israel ben Eliezer

Baal Shem

Tov “BeSHT” (1698 – 1760)

Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Poland)

– founder of

Chassidism (today, regarded ultra-Orthodox, but revolutionary in 1700s)

Religious life stressed study of Torah, Talmud

– but intensive study impractical amidst poverty

BeSHT taught greater stress on love of nature; mysticism; joy in pleasures of life; piety & kindness

His change of emphasis became popular

Revolutionary teaching

– intermediary


as religious

Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman

– the Vilna




– “genius” – was outstanding Torah/Talmud scholar of era

Agreed w.


reforms needed, but not the radical reforms of Chassidism. Advocated, instead:

Simplification of prayers

Reforms in study and teaching methods

Secular knowledge (math, science)




Conflict between Chassidim &


Radical changes by Chassidim, particularly deemphasis on study &


as intermediary, regarded as heresy by Mitnagdim


(excommunication) & counterexcommunication

Eventual moderation of views toward each other, begrudging acceptance

Both sides recognized Western Enlightenment as greater threat to Judaism

Moses Mendelsohn


Scholar of Torah, Talmud, secular philosophy; translated Torah into

German, with commentary; author, educator, man of letters

Attracted attention of Berlin’s Christian intellectuals, particularly playwright Lessing. Promoted breakdown of social, intellectual barriers between Christians and Jews.

Promoted freedom of conscience (as opposed to community enforcement of religious law)

– a pillar of Reform philosophy.

Mendelsohn’s followers pioneered Reform Judaism, which gained greatest popularity in Western Europe and America.

Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise


•Founder, longtime head of Hebrew Union


–1 st

American rabbinical seminary


•Before 1880s, most American Jews from Western Europe, where Reform was gaining popularity

•Wise dreamt of religious unification of American Jewry; was a moderate reformer who could cooperate with more traditional Jews




– July, 1883

•Celebration of 1 st class of graduates of Hebrew

Union College

– Reform rabbinical seminary

•Multiple violations of


(laws of kosher food)

– Wise claimed innocence

•Accentuated break between moderate & radical reformers


Pittsburgh Platform - 1885

Meeting of American Reform rabbinical leadership

Radical views prevailed, including declarations

 rejecting much Torah legislation, including


; emphasizing ethics & prophetic ideals rejecting return to Israel rejecting belief in a personal Messiah, substituting belief in a Messianic age to be brought about by cultural progress

Reactions to Trefa Banquet &

Pittsburgh Platform

By 1880s, more Jewish immigrants from Eastern


– many receptive to moderate reform, but not the radical Reform reforms.

•1886 - moderate reformers established Jewish

Theological Seminary of America

– a pillar of

Conservative Judaism

•1888 – American Orthodox community was forming a movement, institutions

Solomon Schechter


•Born in Romania; educated in Vienna; scholar in Cambridge & London; head of

Jewish Theological Seminary 1902-1915

•Sought middle way between Eastern European Orthodoxy &

American radical Reform

•Stressed unity (“Catholic Israel”), tradition, scholarship

•Stature & appeals for unity exercised moderating influence on Reform leadership

•Founded United Synagogue of America (now, United

Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), 1912


– “fundamentalist” vs. “modern”

•Fundamentalist view:

Creation is 5763 years old.

Things that appear older were created that way, for Gd’s mysterious purposes.


Creation of Adam

Scriptural basis for opposing view:

Psalms 90, 4: For a thousand years in thy sight are

but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.

Hence, modern science does not conflict with Bible’s 6-“day”


Philosophical Differences:

Origins of Torah

Orthodox: Given by G-d to Moses at Sinai

Conservative, Reform: divinely inspired, but modified over centuries by scribal error, disagreements, etc.

Philosophical Differences:

Role of Torah

Orthodox, Conservative: legislation is binding. C more willing than O to reinterpret with respect to modern scholarship & new situations

Reform: ethical legislation remains relevant.

Individuals should study, then decide for themselves what ritual legislation is meaningful

Reconstructionist: Torah legislation is “folkways”

Philosophical Differences:

Land of Israel

Most members of all Jewish movements are


Some ultra-O are anti-Zionist, believing only the Messiah should restore Israel to the Jewish people

Some liberal (Reform,

Reconstructionist, secular/humanist)

Jews are anti-Zionist, believing

Judaism should be a religion and not a nationalist culture


American Jewish Historical Society, The “Trefa Banquet” and the End of a Dream:

Bentwich, Norman:

Solomon Schechter: A Biography

, Jewish Publication Society of

America, Philadelphia, 1938

Chabad-Lubavitch (Chassidic group):

Eban, Abba:

My People: The Story of the Jews

, Behrman House, NY, 1968

Grayzel, Solomon:

A History of the Jews

, Jewish Publication Society of America,

Philadelphia, 1947

Jewish Reconstructionist Federation:

Reform Judaism:

United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism:

Wiesel, Elie:

Souls on Fire

, Simon & Schuster, NY, 1982

Young Israel (Modern Orthodox group):