Jewish Denominations: Examples & History

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  • 0:40 Rabbinic Judaism
  • 1:29 Orthodox Judaism
  • 3:01 Reform Judaism
  • 4:03 Conservative Jews
  • 4:47 Other Movements
  • 5:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Judaism is a major world religion, but like all religions, it has its denominations. In this lesson, we'll explore the major denominations of Judaism and see how they differ.


What does it mean to be Jewish? This question can actually be answered in a variety of ways. There are Jewish cultures. Jews make up a major ethnic category. There are even Jewish foods which are quite tasty. However, most of this revolves around one extraordinary shared aspect of life - religion. Judaism is one of the world's dominant religions, based on the monotheistic belief in a single God. The Jewish holy book, called the Torah, contains the traditional laws of the Jewish people as well as the foundation for their history and system of belief.

Rabbinic Judaism

Like all religions, Judaism has changed over time and means different things to different people. So, there are a few major denominations within the greater Jewish religion. Today, most of the major denominations are descended from the Rabbinic traditions, which claim that God gave Moses the written Torah as well as an oral explanation of the laws. In Rabbinic Judaism, orally transmitted laws are considered to be divine, and rabbis are given a large degree of respect in interpreting them. This is different than other ancient branches, which only held written law as sacred. However, since the 6th century C.E., Rabbinic Judaism was the standard and is the foundation for most modern denominations.

Orthodox Judaism

Now let's get to know our modern denominations a little better. While Judaism does not divide into strict denominations as clearly as the Christian religion does, there are three main branches of the religion. Let's start with Orthodox Judaism, which is the branch most followed in Israel itself. Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah contains over 600 laws given to Moses by God, which must be obeyed. They include dietary restrictions (known as the Kosher diet), the need for circumcision, and the traditional Hebrew interpretation of the Sabbath being on Saturday, not Sunday as in Christianity. Orthodox Jews also believe in the prophecy that the Temple of Jerusalem, destroyed twice in their history, will be rebuilt a third time and usher in an era of peace and a return of all Jewish traditions, including animal sacrifice. Many Orthodox prayers are specifically focused on the rebuilding of the Temple. Orthodox Jews take the laws of the Torah very seriously, but most believe in integrating them with the pressures and demands of modern society.

However, some ascribe to Ultra Orthodox Judaism, which does not permit integration into modern society. One of the most influential sects within this group are the Hasidic Jews, who focus heavily on the love of God and joy of creation. This sect was developed in the 18th century by Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer and is now one of the most popular Ultra Orthodox groups in the world.

Reform Judaism

Around the time Hasidic Judaism was being developed, the Jewish faith was under a lot of persecution in Europe. To cope with these stresses, several members of the church formed a new denomination, now called Reform Judaism. Reform Judaism was meant to make Judaism more adaptable, letting European Jews maintain their faith while still assimilating into European society and ideally stopping persecution against them. So, what does this actually look like?

Reform Judaism is, like Orthodox Judaism, focused on the law but interprets the nature of the law differently. While Orthodox Jews see all laws as being given to Moses by God, Reform Judaism claims that many laws are actually products of human minds and human leaders. The Torah, therefore, serves as a very important moral standard, but is not unimpeachable. It's more of a living document: it can be changed and adapted, letting Jews change with the times, but is still a very important and sacred text.

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