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What is the difference between orthodox, conservative and reform Judaism?

by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman


Library » Jewish Identity » Jewish "Labels" » Orthodox | Subscribe | What is RSS?


Reform and Conservative are relatively recent interpretations of Jewish tradition. Orthodox is the term the Reform movement used to describe those who refused to adapt their interpretation.

At first, there was just Torah. Jews were those who held to a tradition that their ancestors had witnessed an awesome revelation at Mount Sinai, something that changed the way they perceived the world and dealt with it. They had a written account, copiously preserved to the detail, as well as a vast oral tradition that explained that written document.

Occasionally, there were detractors who questioned the authority of the oral tradition and of the rabbis who made decisions based on Torah tradition. But the foundation of Judaism, unanimously for three thousand years, was that revelation and its implications.

With the rise of the middle class in Europe, many Jews felt a need to not look so distinct from their neighbors. In 19th century Germany, the Reform movement was born. Its leaders eventually disavowed belief in the divinity of the Torah. When in America, much of the leadership was aghast with the Reform movement’s rejection of the Kosher food laws, circumcision, cessation of work on Shabbat and many other precepts of Torah, they formed the Conservative movement. They called it that because their stated goal was to conserve certain rituals they felt were characteristic elements of Judaism, while at the same time allowing those reforms necessary to make it palatable to the Jew of their times.

All along, there were those stubborn Jews who refused to change. They adopted several strategies to meet the challenges of modernity: Some took an even stricter stance than before, others made adaptations that they felt did not affect the divinity of the Torah. Still others looked for deeper meaning in Torah, turning to the mystical or spiritual aspects. All these were lumped by the break-off movements of Reform and Conservative as "orthodox"—meaning, those who won’t turn from the straight path and adapt. To this day, many Jews refuse to be labelled with this term, preferring to describe themselves as "Torah observant" or simply "Shomer Shabbos."

Since the second world war, the Reform movement has made many major thrusts back towards tradition. In more recent years, they have re-embraced ritual and spirituality.

Has orthodoxy really been unbending? Better put, is there really such a thing as orthodox Judaism?

The best answer is that the Torah itself, being an eternal document, provides for change with built-in adaptability. Great leaders, such as Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (Chabad Chassidism), Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch (German Orthodoxy), Rabbi Yisroel Salanter (Mussar Movement) and Sarah Schneurer (Torah education for girls) were able to see those aspects of Torah that apply to a different era. They highlighted those areas and demonstrated their application, rather than making radical changes that challenge the foundations of Jewish faith.


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(pl: Shabbatot). Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Literally means "fit." Commonly used to describe foods which are permitted by Jewish dietary laws, but is also used to describe religious articles (such as a Torah scroll or Sukkah) which meet the requirements of Jewish law.
Chabad, an acronym for Wisdom, Knowledge, and Understanding, is the name of a Chassidic Group founded in the 1770s. Two of the most fundamental teachings of Chabad are the intellectual pursuit of understanding the divine and the willingness to help every Jew who has a spiritual or material need.
First Jewess, first of the four Jewish Matriarchs, wife of Abraham--the first Jew. Lived in Mesopotamia, and then Canaan, in the 19th century BCE.