Judaism is one of the oldest religions in the world. It has a long history that stretches over more than three millennia. Over the course of its existence, Judaism has undergone several changes and has embodied extraordinarily diverse forms and beliefs. This resulted to a number of denominations that emerged from within the Jewish religion.
Judaism, in essence, is a monotheistic religion that developed among the ancient Hebrews some 4,000 years ago. Its adherents believe in one God who revealed Himself through the ancient prophets including Abraham and Moses. Generally, the term ‘Judaism’ refers to the entirety of Jewish beliefs and practices, as given by God and recorded in the Torah – the first five books in Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) which outline the laws that the Jews must follow.
To understand more about the Jewish religion, it is essential to discuss its various denominations and determine their differences. Written down below are some of the different streams of Judaism.
Orthodox Judaism is the most rigid denomination of the Jewish religion. Its followers adhere most strictly to the traditional beliefs and practices of Judaism. They adamantly refuse to accept the position of the other Jewish streams, especially when it comes to the divinity of the Bible and other sacred Jewish writings. For the Orthodox Jews, the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament; the Written Law) and the Mishna and Talmud (the Oral Law) are unbending, and they will forever remain the sole norm of religious observance.
Because of its strict adherence to traditional Judaism, Orthodox Judaism has constantly resisted pressures to modify its observance in accordance to modernity. Today, it continues to adhere to such traditional practices as daily worship, traditional prayers and ceremonies, regular and thorough study of the Torah, separation of men and women in the synagogue, and dietary laws. It also remains strict when it comes to observing the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays and festivals.
Compared to Orthodox Judaism, Reform Judaism is quite a flexible stream of the Jewish religion. It has abandoned and modified numerous traditional Jewish beliefs, laws, and practices in an effort to make Judaism adaptive to the changing conditions of the modern world. For the Reform Jews, the whole of Judaism cannot coexist effectively with those who live in modern times for as long as it remains frozen in time. In essence, Reform Judaism aims to make the Jewish community receptive of innovation while simultaneously preserving tradition.
To be clear, Reform Judaism continues to affirm the central tenets of the Jewish religion – God, Torah, and Israel. For the Reform Jews, the Torah remains as the most essential and divine collection of texts that enable humans to confront the timeless challenges of day-to-day life. However, alongside this, they believe that Judaism cannot remain stiff. It has to change and adapt to the needs of the day in order to survive. In general, the Reform Judaism movement sees itself as politically progressive and social justice-oriented, emphasizing personal choice more than ritual observance.
Conservative Judaism is a stream of Judaism that seeks to preserve the essential elements of the traditional Jewish religion while still allowing for the modernization of religious beliefs and practices in a less radical sense that that espoused by Reform Judaism. In other words, Conservative Judaism stands in between Orthodox Judaism and Reform Judaism. It is a religious movement that combines tradition and modernity together.
Generally, Conservative Judaism continues to uphold the importance of the Jewish laws and sees them as obligatory. In practice, however, there is an enormous range of observance among the Conservative Jews. When it comes to following dietary laws, for example, Conservative Jews insist that these laws should remain to be respected and observed, but such observance must be done with modification whenever necessary. Aside from this, the Conservative Jewish community also stands firm on the sacredness of the Sabbath. However, unlike Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism allows for the Jews to drive to the synagogue even on Sabbath.
Messianic Judaism is a modern stream of Judaism that combines some Christian beliefs with the elements of the Jewish tradition. In essence, it is a syncretism of Judaism and Christianity that has tried to straddle the fence between the two separate religions.
One of the central tenets of Messianic Judaism is the belief that Yeshua (Jesus) is the Messiah who had been sent by God to save mankind from all of its sins. Unlike most of the other denominations of Judaism, the Messianic Jewish community adheres to the Christian belief that accepting Yeshua as messiah is the only way to reach salvation. In sticking to its Jewish roots, however, Messianic Jews remain insistent on the importance of the Tanakh as authoritative scriptures. Aside from this, they also continue to obey some of the explicit laws of the Torah. This includes observing the Sabbath on its traditional Jewish time (i.e., before sunset of Friday until Saturday evening) and following the dietary commandments stated in the Torah (e.g. avoidance of pork and shellfish).
Humanistic Judaism is an interesting stream of Judaism, as it offers a non-theistic alternative to the contemporary Jewish life. For the Humanistic Jewish community, Judaism is defined simply as the cultural and historical experience of the Jews. In other words, Humanistic Jews see Judaism as a way of life that does not anchor to divine revelation.
In essence, Humanistic Judaism is a celebration of the Jewish identity. It celebrates the Jewish culture and history without any reference to a divine entity. It encourages the Jews to participate in Jewish holidays and events without being restricted by the confines of traditional literature. To put it simply, Humanistic Judaism emphasizes on a rationalist and human-centered ethics.
Overall, Judaism is a prominent religion that is rich in history. Its various denominations are an evidence of its lengthy past. The different streams that have been emerging from within Judaism is a signification that it is an ever evolving religion. It has always been open to changes and developments. Although its beliefs and practices may change across different streams, Judaism, at its very core, remains a sterling way of life that emphasizes the importance of holiness and ethical behavior.