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Home: Religion: Judaism: Jewish Denonminations.




Judaism, Jewish Denonminations

In the last two centuries the Jewish community has divided into a number of Jewish denominations; each has a greatly different understanding of what principles of belief a Jew should hold, and how one should live as a Jew. Click here for more on Jewish denominational history.

Jewish Denominations

Most of Orthodox Judaism holds to one particular form of Jewish theology, based on Maimonides' 13 principles of Jewish faith. Orthodox Jews hold that these principles are unchanging and mandatory; non-Orthodox forms of Judaism hold that these principles have evolved over time, and thus allow for more leeway in what individual adherents believe.

Diaspora Judaism

Diaspora Judaism in modern times is commonly divided into the following denominations:

  • Orthodox Judaism (includes Hasidic Judaism, Haredi (or Ultra-Orthodox) Judaism and Modern Orthodox Judaism) - this denomination holds that the Torah was written by God and Moses, and that the original laws within it are binding and unchanging. While Orthodox Judaism is in many senses what Judaism has been since the Middle Ages, its formation as a movement was a direct response to the formation of Reform Judaism.
  • Reform Judaism (outside of the USA also known as Progressive Judaism, and in the U.K. as Liberal Judaism) originally formed in Germany as a reaction to traditional Judaism, stresses integration with society and a personal interpretation of the Torah. The original intent was to keep Jews "in the fold" who might otherwise leave the religion and community. Conservative Judaism. Outside of the USA it is known as Masorti (Hebrew for "Traditional") Judaism. "Masorti" is its official title in the State of Israel as well, although most Israelis use the word in a more general sense (see below).
  • In the philosophy of this movement, the Torah, while unchanging, is subject to interpretation. Reconstructionist Judaism started as a stream of philosophy by a rabbi within Conservative Judaism, and later became an independent movement.
Many religious Jews do not look at one's denomination as a valid way of designating Jews; instead, if they label Jews it is on a graduated spectrum of religious observance. According to most Orthodox Jews, Jewish people who do not keep the laws of Shabbat and Yom Tov (the holidays), Kashrut, and family purity (taharat ha-mishpacha), to at least a minimal level, would be considered non-religious or frei (from Yiddish; free of the yoke of the Torah). Any Jew who keeps at least those laws would be considered frum (Yiddish--observant and religious), but their level of frumkeit (religiosity) would depend on whether they keep other laws, how careful they are about the details, and possibly on how many stringencies they take upon themselves to keep.

Jewish identity in modern Israel

Even though all of the Diaspora denominations exist in Israel, Israelis tend to classify Jewish identity in ways that are strikingly different than diaspora Jewry. Most Jewish Israelis classify themselves as "secular" (hiloni) or as "traditional" (masorti). "Secular" is more popular among Israeli families of western (European) origin, whose Jewish identity may be a very powerful force in their lives, but who see it as largely independent of traditional religious belief and practice. This portion of the population largely ignores organized religious life, be it of the official Israeli rabbinate (Orthodox) or of the liberal movements common to diaspora Judaism (Reform, Conservative).

The term "traditional" (masorti) is most common among Israeli families of "eastern" origin (i.e. Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa). This term, as commonly used, has nothing to do with the official "Masorti" (Conservative) movement in the State of Israel. There is a great deal of ambiguity in the ways "secular" and "traditional" are used in Israel. They often overlap, and they cover an extremely wide range in terms of ideology and religious observance.

The term "Orthodox" (Ortodoxi) is unpopular in Israeli discourse (among both "secular" and "religious" alike). Nevertheless, the spectrum covered by "Orthodox" in the diaspora exists in Israel, again with some important variations. The "Orthodox" spectrum in Israel is a far greater percentage of the Jewish population in Israel than in the diaspora, though how much greater is hotly debated. Various ways of measuring this percentage, each with its pros and cons, include the proportion of religiously observant Knesset members, the proportion of Jewish children enrolled in religious schools, and statistical studies on "identity".

What would be called "Orthodox" in the diaspora includes what is commonly called dati (religious) or haredi (ultra-Orthodox) in Israel. The former term includes what is called "Religious Zionism" or the "National Religious" community, as well as what has become known over the past decade or so as haredi-leumi (nationalist haredi), which combines a largely haredi lifestyle with nationist ideology.

Haredi applies to a populace that can be roughly divided into three separate groups along both ethnic and ideological lines: (1) "Lithuanian" (non-hasidic) haredim of Ashkenazic origin; (2) Hasidic haredim of Ashkenazic origin; and (3) Sephardic haredim. The third group is the largest, and has been the most politically active since the early 1990s.


Unlike the above denominations, which were ideological reactions that resulted from the exposure of traditional rabbinic Judaism to the radical changes of modern times, Karaite Judaism did not begin as a modern Jewish movement. The followers of Karaism believe they are the remnants of the non-Rabbinic Jewish sects of the Second Temple period, such as the Saducees, though others contend they are a sect started in the 8th and 9th centuries. The Karaites, or "Scripturalists," accept only the Hebrew bible and what they view as the Peshat/"Plain or Simple Meaning", and do not accept non-biblical writings as authoritative. Some European Karaites do not see themselves as part of the Jewish community, while most do.

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