Different Kinds of Jews, Part II: 2,000 Years of Arguing

So as with Part I, I have to begin with a disclaimer: I am a modern Orthodox American-Israeli Jew, and this entry, as well as the rest of the blog, reflects that perspective. So if you ask a differently affiliated Jew to define his or her community or other groups or subgroups, you may get different answers.

As before, there are many groups that will not be mentioned because this is a vast topic that could (and does) fill several books, and I’m sticking to the ones that are most prominent and well-known. I thereby apologize in advance to any member of any group or denomination that is not properly addressed in the categories that follow–and invite you to mention it in the comments, and to write us a guest letter to tell us about your community.

A reminder for those who haven’t read part I: this is technically from the archives; an expanded/reworked e-mail I sent to Josep about a year ago.


Dear Josep,

In Part I we addressed Jewish cultural identity and the subcultures within Judaism. But more well-known than the division between Ashkenazim, Sephardim, etc., is the division between Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and other denominations of Judaism. In this entry we will discuss how these movements came to be and how they differ from one another. We will also discuss Hassidism and its influence on Jewish practice and thought.

Religious Denominations/Levels of Religiosity

So this is where I get myself in trouble. 😛

The first thing to understand about the idea of “level of religiosity” is that it’s a fairly modern phenomenon. Up until the 19th century, there was no need to define a “religious” Jew because everyone was religious, and someone who abandoned the traditional practices of Judaism pretty much abandoned the faith and the community altogether. It was only at the time of the “enlightenment” in the 1800’s that Reform Judaism came about that the concept of a “secular Jew” came into existence.

That said, throughout history there were disputes between Jews on how to properly observe the Torah. (All together now: “Two Jews, three opinions…”) In the time of Jesus, for example, Judaism was split into two major sects: the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who each had different ideas about how to observe the Torah. Mainstream Orthodox Judaism is basically descended from the tradition of the Pharisees. There is speculation that the Karaites, a movement that emerged around the 8th century, are the “ideological descendants” of the Sadducees. Karaite Judaism rejects rabbinic Judaism and the idea of the “Oral Torah” altogether, and believe that the written Torah must be observed literally. (Of course, the reason we have an Oral Torah is to interpret the many vague and difficult concepts in the Torah, so the Karaites developed their own tradition on how to interpret it.) There is still a small community of Karaite Jews, most of them in Israel.

Another thing that’s important to understand is that the most well-known “denominations”–Reform and Conservative–are mostly American today. Reform Judaism began in Germany, but its center shifted to the USA as the Jewish population in the US grew and the one in Europe shrunk due to emigration and the Holocaust. In Israel, the breakdown is a lot fuzzier, because as a general rule, Sephardim and Mizraḥim tend to be less stuck on self-definition (and more traditional). I’ll get to the Israeli definitions of religious level soon.

Orthodox Judaism

This is a general term for mainstream traditional Judaism: Jews who observe Jewish law as interpreted by the mainstream rabbinic authorities throughout history. The term “orthodox” was borrowed from Christianity by the Reform movement, and I don’t particularly like to use it to describe myself. I prefer to describe myself as an “observant Jew”, meaning, I observe the commandments. But many people don’t know what this means, so when speaking to people who aren’t familiar with that term I usually use “Orthodox”.

Within this category you will find the ḥaredim, the “ultra-Orthodox”, as well as “modern Orthodox”. In Israel, “modern Orthodox” is mostly interchangeable with “Zionist religious” (or “national religious”–dati leumi), because ḥaredim tend to be non-Zionist. Eitan and I consider ourselves dati leumi (see below under “Religiosity in Israel”).

Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism came about in the 19th century, when science became the new religion of Western society. Reformers saw the Torah and the observance of traditional Jewish law as outdated and superstitious. Basically, Reform Jews don’t see the Torah as being binding in any way, and many of them don’t believe that the Torah was given by God. If you ask a Reform Jew what he or she thinks the Torah is, you might get a wide variety of answers, but most would probably agree that it is a collection of wisdom (man-made, and perhaps “Divinely inspired”) that they feel has value–only some of which is still applicable today. Many Reform Jews take ideas from the Torah (and the body of rabbinic teachings that they mostly reject) and apply them to modern Western values. A favorite is “tikkun olam”, “fixing the world” which is actually a fairly vague, mystical concept from Kabbalah, but is often applied to mean that man has responsibility to improve the world and make it a better place through social and environmental activism.

Conservative Judaism

Conservative Judaism was a sort of counter-reaction to the Reform movement. Some Jews agreed with the Reform movement that Judaism needed some updating for the modern world, but did not want to reject the teachings of the Torah. So the Conservative movement started as sort of a middle ground between Orthodox and Reform. Conservative Jews do, for the most part, believe that the Torah is of Divine origin, but they believe that the Law is much more flexible than the Orthodox do–in that they don’t see the precedents of previous generations as being nearly as binding as the Orthodox see them. They believe halakha is meant to be adapted as much as possible to modern times and reinterpreted to suit progressive sensibilities. So they tend to be more egalitarian and liberal than the Orthodox–mixed seating in synagogue, female rabbis, gay marriage etc.–using their interpretation of halakha to find ways to permit things that Orthodox Judaism prohibits, for the sake of adapting to Western values. Practically speaking, however, in many Conservative congregations, the members of the community are not strict about observing the Conservative version of halakha, and there can be a huge gap between the level of observance of the rabbis and that of the congregants.

Now… you being a secular liberal who doesn’t have a solidified opinion on the source of the Torah or its historical accuracy, I’m sure the above two movements make a lot more sense to you than the Orthodox approach. So you may be asking yourself, “Daniella is a reasonably intelligent, rational, open-minded person; why wouldn’t she be on board, at least with the Conservative movement?”

So here’s my personal take on “adapting halakha for modern times”. I believe there is a reason God set up the halakhic system as we have observed it for thousands of years. While I identify with many of the “progressive” Western values, man-made values shift and change over time, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. I think the Torah is the expression of a value system that is eternal and Divine, and I believe that the Orthodox halakhic system is the most authentic way to interpret it in the way He wished. To me, adapting halakha to better suit Western values feels like taking a ring of the finest silver and coating it in stainless steel. It’s taking a Divine value system and stuffing it into a fickle man-made frame. I think serving God should be about adapting yourself to His system, not adapting His system to yourself. As I have mentioned many times, this isn’t always easy, and the system is not perfect. Modern Orthodox Jews often struggle to reconcile our strong belief in Torah and our identification with Western values when they seem at odds with each other. So I understand how others might feel differently about it. We live in confusing times, and God does not reveal Himself and His will the way He used to; we are meant to choose our path, and growing up with so many different voices that sound reasonable and good, it is hard to know which path is the right one. I believe the Orthodox halakhic system is the closest to God’s true will, so that’s the one I try to follow.

There are other, smaller American denominations, but I’m not going to get into those as I don’t know much about them. The above are the three major ones.

Religiosity in Israel

While Reform and Conservative communities do exist in Israel, for the most part they are extremely small and isolated, mostly of American or European immigrants. In most of Israeli society, it’s a spectrum of observance, more than a set of strictly defined groups, but it basically breaks down like this. Secular Jews (ḥiloni in Hebrew) don’t keep the commandments like kosher or Shabbat. The majority of Israelis are traditional Jews (masorti in Hebrew), who keep some of the customs/traditions, but not all. For instance, in a traditional Jewish family, they might make kiddush over wine and light Shabbat candles, but then go watch TV. Or they might eat strictly kosher but not keep Shabbat. It’s really a continuum. Religious Jews (dati in Hebrew) are observant Jews who keep all the commandments, and those generally divide up between modern Zionist (dati leumi), ultra-Orthodox Zionist (ḥaredi leumi), and ultra-Orthodox non-Zionist (ḥaredi). (Yes, there is such a thing as a non-Zionist Jew living in Israel. And their attitude towards the state is a serious political issue.) Datiim leumiim are also sometimes called “kipa sruga” (“crocheted kippah”) because they are the ones who wear colorful crocheted kippot, as opposed to the ḥaredim who wear black velvet and/or black hats. (…When you SMSed me to ask what color kipa to buy, I figured it was too complicated to explain the intricacies of these differences, and it didn’t really matter anyway. I was not surprised to see that you subconsciously chose to identify with the religious stream Eitan and I belong to. 😛 )

Needless to say, crocheting is a highly prized skill in our community. :P I can crochet, but making kippot bores me to death.
Needless to say, crocheting is a highly prized skill in our community. 😛 I can do it, but making kippot bores me to death.
Kippot” by Zero0000Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Ḥaredim keep a much stricter version of halakha than datiim leumiim, at least outwardly (modesty of dress, level of strictness about kashrut, separation between men and women in public, level of interaction with the secular world etc.). Women are generally treated with respect, but there is a very strong focus on modesty and traditional gender roles, sometimes to an extreme that leads to marginalization and other unpleasant social issues. American ḥaredim tend to be more open and “progressive” than Israeli ḥaredim.

It is very easy to differentiate between datiim and ḥaredim by the way they dress. Dati men wear kipot, may or may not have a beard and/or payot (sidecurls), may dress in regular casual clothes (T-shirts and shorts) or may dress more like Eitan–button down shirts and long pants. The women dress more or less like me: no restrictions on color, shirts with sleeves (the more religious you are the longer the sleeve), skirts past the knee, and married women usually cover their hair to some degree, usually with a scarf or hat.

This criminally adorable couple, for example. Eitan is wearing a kippah and tzitzit with the fringes hanging out (you can see the knots from one of them next to the edge of his shirt...). My hair is mostly covered, sleeves past the elbow, modest neckline, skirt past the knee.
This criminally adorable couple, for example. Eitan is wearing a crocheted kippah and tzitzit with the fringes hanging out (you can see the knots from one of them next to the edge of his shirt…). I have most of my hair covered with a scarf.

Ḥaredi men wear black suits all the time, and the women wear only dull or pale colors, clothes that are non form-fitting, stockings and closed-toed shoes so the only skin you can see is their hands, face and neck. Single women keep their hair tied back, and married women completely cover their hair, usually with a wig, but sometimes with a scarf or hat.

A Hassidic/haredi family in Brooklyn. By Adam Jones [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
A Hassidic/haredi family in Brooklyn.
By Adam Jones [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Now as a Christian you may note with curiosity that none of this categorization corresponds to belief. Whether someone believes in God or not does not actually define him religiously in Israeli culture. Judaism is about what you do. So you might find a completely secular Jew who believes in God and may even believe that the Torah is Divine, but just doesn’t feel it’s relevant to him. Or you may find a traditional Jew who doesn’t really believe in God but thinks that the Jewish traditions are an important connection to his heritage and past.

Spiritual Approach (Hassidism vs. Lithuanians)

Another group you may have heard of is the Ḥassidim.

So what is Ḥassidism? It was a sort of Jewish renewal movement founded in the 17th century by a rabbi called the Baal Shem Tov. Up until that point, Judaism had become a kind of elitist society where learned scholars were seen as being far more important than the common folk in terms of service of God. The approach was generally very dry, rationalist and intellectual. The Baal Shem Tov sought to bring feeling and heartfelt service into the practice of Judaism. He also sought to teach that even the lowliest of peasants was just as important in God’s eyes as the great scholars. This seems totally basic now, but back then, it was pretty revolutionary. There were a number of other ideas spread by Ḥassidism, one of which was the concept of the “tzaddik”, the “righteous person”, who was a conduit to the Divine. Ḥassidim believed that by being close physically and spiritually to a tzaddik, they would be closer to God, too.

So as you can probably tell by now, parts of the Ḥassidic approach filtered down into most of Jewish practice today. But back then it was seen as a frivolous, anti-rationalist, and maybe even dangerous movement, and there was a strong counter-movement–the Mitnagdim (which literally means “the opposers”), led by the Gaon of Vilna (hence the term “Lithuanians”). He was a rationalist and felt that the Ḥassidim had their heads in the clouds and were not taking Jewish law seriously enough.

“Torah is serious business, people. WHY ARE YOU DANCING?!”

This was a major, bitter schism within European Judaism that lasted pretty much all the way up until the Holocaust.

Nowadays, practically speaking, you can hardly tell Ḥassidim and Lithuanians apart. Ḥassidic sects tend to be ultra-Orthodox/ḥaredi and dress in the same black and white garb. There are some distinct features of their traditional dress, such as the streimel, a round fur hat that some Ḥassidim wear on Shabbat and holidays. They do have a lot more singing and dancing than non-Ḥassidic ḥaredi sects, and tend to be more involved in mysticism and Kabbalah. Non-Ḥassidim are more rationalist in their approach.

I mention all this because there are two particular Ḥassidic sects that are particularly relevant–the first because you are very likely to hear about them, and the second because I have a special connection to their philosophies and I am likely to mention them in the future. Incidentally, both of them have a common feature: their “rebbe”, great rabbinic leader, is dead. (In every other Ḥassidic sect, there is a live rebbe who serves as the “tzaddik” and passes his status down through his sons and/or followers.)

The first sect is Chabad (pronounced Ḥabad, but usually spelled Chabad. Except in Spain, where it’s spelled Jabad. Even in Barcelona, though the Catalan “j” isn’t the same as the Spanish “j”. Go figure). They are also known as Lubavitch, the Yiddish name for the Russian village Lyubavichi, where the sect originated. These are the Ḥassidim you are most likely to meet because they are very into Jewish outreach and set up “houses” in all these random places all over the world where they offer all kinds of services to Jews who visit and live there. They tend to be very open and accepting in these contexts, and many people begin their journey of becoming religious through them. (As I just mentioned, Barcelona has a Chabad house too. I was in touch with them before I came; they weren’t particularly helpful, apparently in the tradition of modern Catalan Jews… :-/ ) Their “rebbe”, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (…”sch” is the Yiddish/German sound pronounced “sh”… sheesh, will the pronunciation confusion never end!) was a truly great man, and many of them believed that he was the Messiah. Some Chabadnikim still do believe this, which feels suspiciously Christian to the rest of us 😛 but we love them anyway because they do great things!

The other Ḥassidic sect I want to mention is Breslov. Their rebbe, Rabbi Naḥman of Breslov, lived in Ukraine in the 18th century and taught some really amazing things about despair, happiness, and developing a close and personal relationship with God. He is most famous for the following statements: “All of the world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to make yourself afraid.” “If you believe that it’s possible to destroy, believe that it is possible to repair.” His followers practice a sort of meditation called hitbodedut, which simply involves talking to God like a friend, telling Him about all your troubles, asking Him for whatever you want, even the tiniest things. I really connected with this idea of a personal relationship as a teenager, and though I feel I have become more distant in recent years, I yearn to return to the simplicity of being in constant dialogue with the Creator this way.

Anyway, Breslov also attracts many “ba’alei teshuva” (people who start out secular and become religious) because of its deep and heartfelt philosophy. If you’re ever in Israel and see this:

…don’t call the police, that’s just Breslovers trying to make people happy. 😛 Cultivating joy is a large component of their practice.

And thus we conclude Part II!

Love,

Daniella

2 thoughts on “Different Kinds of Jews, Part II: 2,000 Years of Arguing

  1. Several:
    1: Practical: Did you know that the video didn’t come through to the email unfortunately: Just a blank line.
    2. Personal: Stop yearning for the dialogue and just do it Dee! Do it while you wash up or while you put the kids toys away and if you get a chance for a walk in the woods to do it there then great!
    3. Political: Push me and I might just write a guest blog on the different kinds of Jews in England, which is slightly different (but not very) from the American split.

    1. 1. No, I didn’t know. That’s annoying :-/

      2. It’s not a matter of having time… it’s much more complicated than that. I’m actually going to write a post about prayer soon, but I don’t know how much I’ll address my own struggles with it. If I don’t, we can talk about it sometime.

      3. *PUSH*

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