The Branches of Judaism

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The major denominations within Judaism range from the more traditional Orthodox to the more liberal Reform, a gradient often referred to as from "right" to "left." Although the 6 million Jews living in the United States reflect many shadings of observance within and between denominations, some of the characteristic differences are as follows:

  • Orthodox Judaism holds that both the written and the oral laws are fixed. Resisting modern pressures to modify their observance, Orthodox Jews adhere most strictly to traditional beliefs, ceremonies, and practices, such as daily worship, dietary laws, regular and intensive study of the Torah, and separation of men and women in synagogue. Approximately 7 percent of American Jews are Orthodox, and nearly all Orthodox families now send their children to Jewish day schools.
  • Conservative Judaism seeks to retain what adherents see as the essential elements of traditional Judaism but allows for the modernization of religious practices--such as holding egalitarian prayer services that both men and women can lead--though less radically than what Reform Judaism espouses. Although Conservative Jews believe changes in customs are inevitable, they also believe they should be made reluctantly. In 1985, Conservatives began ordaining women rabbis. Approximately 38 percent of American Jews are Conservative.
  • Reform Judaism, also called Liberal or Progressive Judaism, maintains that no one formulation of Jewish belief or codification of Jewish laws was meant to be eternal. In recent decades, however, there has been a tendency to return to a more traditionalist attitude. Approximately 40 percent of American Jews are Reform.

NOTE: Because many Jews do not consider themselves affiliated with any denomination or adhere to smaller movements, such as Reconstructionism, the percentages do not add up to 100.

SOURCES: Adapted from the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Junior Judaica, Council of Jewish Federations.

Vol. 17, Issue 27, Page 40

Published in Print: March 18, 1998, as The Branches of Judaism
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