Who is a Jew?
By Rabbi Shlomo Nachman © 12.29.2010 (last updated 11.13, 2014)
Choosing the best movement for you:
Das Aufklärung and Haskalah
For over a thousand years the Christian Church had been viewed as the bastion of intellectual thought and authority throughout the West. Through its priesthood the Church hierarchy had always produced the most well educated people and leaders. It was often illegal for non-clergy people to be literate without specific Church permission however, and so being the most educated in such a society was not quite as impressive as it sounds! Throughout this period the Jews maintained the education of it own people, often in secret. The Church sought to maintain complete intellectual as well as physical control over the masses during these many years.
Due in large part to the frequent religious conflicts, turmoil and controversies of the seventeenth century, the previously assumed authoritative position of the priesthood among European Christians and non-Christians alike was forfeited during the eighteenth century in what came to be known as the Age of Enlightenment or Das Aufklärung. This period is dated from the 1650s to the 1780s. Immediately following this primarily Gentile Enlightenment came the Jewish Enlightenment known as Haskalah.
Once freed from Papal shackles the newly educated Europeans began questioning everything! As a result many began rejecting the Church's claims of theocratic jurisdiction as well as its endless restrictive mandates concerning morality and most other issues. The Papacy's mystical pretenses were first rejected and then ridiculed by much of the educated public. If the Anglicans and Protestants could find freedom then so could everyone else who wanted it!
It was not only the Protestants and Anglicans challenging the Vatican now! Rumors of secret societies began to be whispered and previously heretical philosophies began coming into the light of day. In Germany, Das Aufklärung (the Enlightenment) reflected this growing dissatisfaction with the self-proclaimed authority and teachings of the Church, both Catholic and non-Catholic. This revolutionary spirit of personal freedom inspired those who were emigrating to the New World and had profound impacts on America's development. The American dedication to individuality arose directly from Das Aufklärung.
The Enlightenment had among its lofty ideals the goal of religious toleration. People should be allowed to believe whatever they wished but be prevented from forcing their views onto others. This led to religious and cultural relativism and the new belief that ultimate truth, if it exists at all, must be relative to personal experience. This view was admirably expressed in Lessing's Nathan der Weise and manifested in the political policies of Frederick the Great. While the Enlightenment demanded religious toleration and plurality, it also insisted than any religious system wishing to be taken seriously had to make reason the basis of its religious (and all other) rulings. This became a guiding principle for the citizens of the New World. It also foreshadowed the faith destroying skepticism we see today.
For Jews there was no Papacy to challenge, no Vatican against which to rebel. Traditional Judaism is hierarchical, however there is no supreme Jewish Pontiff to answer to. Traditional Jewish religion is based on the Talmud and is filled with the contradictory opinions of the debating Rabbis and sages. Hence the saying, "Ask eight Rabbis a question you get 10 different answers!" Despite this, traditional Judaism has the Thirteen Principles organized by Rambam and the generally accepted list of 613 Mitzvot (Commands). Jews were for most part united and mostly religiously observant. Then came Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment.
Because of Das Aufklärung European Jews were now tasting a freedom they had not known for over 2000 years, and they liked it! The idea that Jews could now be accepted as normal members of European society was exciting! To this end many Jews began to assimilate into the greater European culture. They cut off their payot/payos (biblically mandated side locks), they hid or abandoned their tzitzit (biblically mandated fringes), they intermarried with the Gentiles (forbidden by halacha), and appeared and acted just like other Europeans. Their Judaism became something one "did" twice a year, on Pesach and Yom Kippur. It was no longer an integral part of who they were. For these upwardly mobile Jews life in the shtetl and everything that went with it was history!
Haskalah was an intellectual movement in Europe that lasted from approximately the 1770s to the 1880s. Haskalah was inspired by the European Enlightenment but had a distinctive Jewish character.
As a result of Haskalah Reform Judaism gradually developed. As with most reform movements, originally there was no thought of creating a separate form of Judaism. German Jews such as Israel Jacobson, Abraham Geiger, Samuel Holdheim and Leopold Zunz, sought to fundamentally reform Jewish belief and practice and assumed that all Jews would welcome their reforms. These 'modern' Jews could not understand why so many of their fellow Jews did not join them in their new found freedom. Why did so many of their peers prefer to cling to shtetl life and 'outdated' halacha (Jewish law) when the Gentiles had finally opened the doors to our equality?
Many Jews rejected the liberalizing reforms but so many accepted them that by 1873 there were many Reform "temples" throughout the world, including the Americas. The Union for Reform Judaism was founded in 1873 by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. While Jews usually focussed on their own communities and therefore had limited direct impact on the world outside religiously, a major reform movement arose within Judaism during the late 1800's.
Inspired by the spirit of the Third Great Awakening, as early as 1869 certain American Jews (gathered in Philadelphia) began working to redefine or modernize Judaism to incorporate their continuing assimilation into the American 'melting pot'. They drew inspiration from a similar German Conference held between 1841-1846 that promoted Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment trend). This emphasis on reform exploded within the heart of American Judaism when, in 1883, 'the Trefa Banquet' was held.
The Hebrew word trefa refers to food that is prohibited for Jews under halacha (Jewish law). In order to officially establish its rejection of and separation from Jewish halacha and tradition, Hebrew Union College chose to serve trefa (including shrimp) at its first graduating class of rabbis during the official graduation dinner. This halachically forbidden act instantly established an impenetrable wall of mistrust and disrespect between the reformers and what is now called the Orthodox Movement (i.e. traditional Judaism). It also established a deep gulf between the reformers themselves. While the later divisions are now fading as the movements draw closer (sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right), the former divisions are only increasing with time and has effectively created two Judaisms (i.e. one Orthodox and one non-Orthodox). This was unfortunate.
In 1885 Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler (a liberal reformer) and Rabbi Alexander Kohut (a conservative reformer) oversaw a split among the reformers. Their debates resulted in the Reform Movement's Pittsburgh Platform, chaired by Isaac M. Wise. In 1889, the more liberal "Reform" rabbis established the Central Conference of American Rabbis with Hebrew Union College as its university and seminary flagship.
For more information on the history of American religion see my study The Great Awakenings
Jewish denominations are generally known as movements. The principle Rabbinic Jewish Movements are as follows:
Orthodox Judaism: This is the traditional Judaism that arose following the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in 70 CE. In response to the challenges posed by the Reform Movement (see below) circa 1860 CE, traditional Judaism came to be known as "Orthodox Judaism" to differentiate itself from the then emerging non-traditional sects/movements. Orthodox beliefs and structures date to shortly after the battle of Masada (71-73 CE). For those seeking alignment with the oldest existing form of Rabbinic Judaism this is it.
The Orthodox Jewish Union began as a reaction to the 19th century Humanism that was spreading among the Jewish people. This Humanism was known as Haskalah: Enlightenment. The Orthodox rabbinate sought to codify what traditional or orthodox (small o) Jews should believe and do according to the accepted traditional standards. There is no question that Orthodox Judaism is closest to the traditional model. This form however is a reform of the older Temple-based Judaism that existed before the common era. In Israel the Orthodox Jewish movement wields the greatest authority by far in all areas of society. While the Orthodox wield less direct authority in other countries, their rulings and laws (halacha) remain vitally important everywhere and form the standard of proper Jewish practice. All things being equal, this is the preferred movement to convert through, both for the Jewish education it provides and for the widest degree of acceptance of ones conversion.
Many of the Orthodox regulations are based on Talmudic rulings and have no direct biblical basis. Note that this does not nullify them since Talmud Torah exists to elucidate the true understandings and applications of Torah. "Rabbinic Judaism" is the Judaism passed by down by the Rabbis. Orthodox Jews believe that Judaism and its application must be progressive and yet under the strict determinations of each generation's rabbinic elders and authorities. For this reason the present Orthodox rabbinate wield more Halachic authority in some ways than even the Shulchan Aruch (i.e. Yosef Karo's 1563 Code of Jewish Law). Present day rabbis are responsible for determining how their generation can best meet the demands of global Tikun. This is one reason why the popular idea of 'post rabbinic Judaism' as meant by many egalitarian minded Jewish sects is regarded as wholly unaccepted by many Jews from all movements. Without empowered rabbis rabbinic Judaism would be a rudderless ship doomed to crash on the rocks of a secular and often antisemitic world.
The Orthodox movement includes sects like the Orthodox Union, the Chassidim (such as Chabad, the Breslovers, Satmar, etc), the Dati Leumi: National Religious, and other Tradition-based groups. Orthodox Judaism only accepts its own converts as authentically Jewish because non-Orthodox conversions do not meet the halachic (legal) standards in their view. In this rejection Orthodoxy is not rejecting these converts, it is rejecting the authority of the non-Orthodox rabbis and their religious courts. Even then, not all Orthodox Jews accept conversions done though other Orthodox groups. Currently the legitimacy of "Modern" and "Open Orthodoxy" is being challenged by some Haredim (i.e. so-called Ultra-Orthodox Jews) largely because these Orthodox sects are sometimes open to dialogue with the non-Orthodox.
Those seeking Orthodox conversion will be required to live (or relocate) to an Orthodox community.
The current attempts to consolidate all (Orthodox) conversions through the offices of the Jerusalem chief rabbinates is making Orthodox conversion extremely difficult, costly and time consuming. however it is also preserving the continuity of traditional Jewish beliefs, practices, and values. As always there are pros and cons to these new measures. These and other Orthodox requirements are preventing many sincere people from converting to Judaism through Orthodoxy. As a result, due in part to current exclusionary policies and requirements the majority of converts today are entering the Covenant through the non-Orthodox movements. As a result Judaism is becoming ever more fragmented and less traditional. Most Haredim converts (i.e. those who convert into Ultra Orthodox Judaism) have to undergo several conversions over a period of a decade or longer before finally being accepted as Jewish by their chosen sect.
The vast majority of converts to Judaism today are not accepted as authentically Jewish by the Orthodox Movement and its many sects. Conversion through the Orthodox Movement is by far the most difficult, time intensive and expensive way to convert. There are however significant advantages to it depending on ones situation, preferences, and beliefs. When considering conversion choosing the right movement and even sect for you is something to seriously think about first.
According to the Council of Jewish Federations about 10% of American Jews self identify as Orthodox, including 22% of those who belong to a synagogue. In Israel it is estimated that no more than 30% are technically Orthodox. Only Orthodoxy is officially recognized by the Israeli government, although for the purpose of aliyah (immigration) non-Orthodox conversions are currently being accepted as valid. This is subject to change.
To understand how Orthodox Jews view the other movements see my study here.
Conservative or Masorti Judaism: A mixture of traditional and modern ideas, this movement leans toward tradition while embracing current social realities of the Diaspora. It is generally Torah based but typically less observant/demanding than the Orthodox. This movement began as a balance between the Orthodox and Reform movements (see below) in 1913. Their view of G-d is traditionally Jewish
The Conservative Movement seeks to be the most practical of the Jewish movements by blending the 'letter' and 'spirit' of the Torah in a way that upholds Jewish Tradition and values while honoring the personal freedom and dignity HaShem has bestowed upon each of us. The current Conservative movement is largely embracing the move towards formal unification with the other non-Orthodox sects and hence many Conservative Jews are now embracing a more liberal understanding of Judaism than previously. In effect there exists two Conservative movements today. It is commonly noted that there exists "Conserva-dox" and "Conserva-form" sects of this movement, those that are more like the Orthodox and those that are more Reform. Many, not all, synagogues that define themselves as 'independent' are in practice, if not dues paying members, Conservative.
The NJPS found that 26% of American Jews self-identify as Conservative, including 33% of those who belong to a synagogue. There are approximately 750 Conservative synagogues in the world today. Outside of the USA this movement is often known as Masorti Judaism.
Reform Judaism: Developed through the liberal, non-observant wing of Judaism that embraced European Haskalah ('the Enlightenment' assimilationist movement). Formally founded circa 1900 in reaction to and rejection of traditional (Orthodox) Judaism, which it tended to view as backward and superstitious. The Reform Movement hoped to modernized Judaism and to provide a home for Jews living within contemporary societies throughout the Diaspora. The founders of the Reform Movement did not agree with Haskalah completely, however they did reject the strictly defined Judaism of traditional (Orthodox) Halacha (i.e. Jewish law). They sought to establish a Judaism that embraced the Western ideals of personal freedom in a way that would be meaningful for modern Jews, yet that was consistent with traditional spirit of Jewish ethics and morality. While rejecting what they regarded as the superstitions of past ages (such as the divine authorship of Torah, the objective reality of the Covenant, ritual practices like wearing kippot and tzitzit, the dietary laws of Kashrut, all gender defined roles and restrictions, and so on).
The Reform Movement offers a mixture of traditional and modern ideas while leaning towards the modern in all cases. The findings of the Lenn Report in 1972 presents a rabbinate in transition. At that time a significant percentage of Reform rabbis were publicly questioning the existence of G-d as historically conceived and other standard Jewish beliefs. At that point many Reform rabbis viewed G-d in ways that were very similar to current Reconstructionist rabbis (under the influence of Mordecai Menahem Kaplan: June 11, 1881 – November 8, 1983). Over the years however the Reform Movement has become somewhat more traditional in some of its views and today:Reform Judaism [officially] believes in G-d. This belief has been demonstrated from the earliest days of the movement; specifically, the Pittsburgh Platform in 1885, which said, "We hold that Judaism presents the highest concept of the G-d-idea as taught in our holy Scriptures." It was reaffirmed in 1937 in the Columbus Platform: "The heart of Judaism and its chief contribution to religion is the doctrine of the One, living G-d, who rules the world through law and love." It was reaffirmed yet again in 1976: "The affirmation of G-d has always been essential to our people's will to survive" (Source of quote).Reform synagogues today vary between being Torah based and almost completely secular unitarian communities. Many Reform Jews continue to view HaShem more as a non-personal concept of goodness than as an individual "G-d of Israel," but again this seems to be gradually changing as more and more young Reform Jews are reclaiming their roots. Reform tends to regard the Torah and Talmud more as books of history and human wisdom than as divine revelations. Some within the Reform Movement are just as dogmatic in their views as their polar opposites among the Haredim. But again, some in the Reform movement are returning to more traditional perspectives. The Reform Movement is a movement in transition.
The current Reform movement is largely embracing the move towards the unification with the other non-Orthodox movements. There are approximately 900 Reform synagogues in the United States and Canada and many more elsewhere, although in Israel they are must less represented. This is currently numerically the largest Jewish movement within the Diaspora.
Reconstructionist Judaism: Reconstructionist Judaism is a generally progressive, contemporary approach to Jewish life that integrates a respect for traditional Judaism with the insights and ideas of contemporary social, intellectual and spiritual life. It is a diverse movement with both impressive strengths and disturbing weaknesses in my opinion. For instance their siddur is at times moving and spiritually uplifting while at other times it so humanist as to make one doubt if there is any connection between their form of Judaism and Torah at all.
Many Reconstructionist Jews view G-d more as an Omnipresent Force or Collective Consciousness than as an individual G-d (as an Other to humanity) in the traditional sense (but then, the same could be said of certain Orthodox mystics!). Others view HaShem in a more traditional light. Torah is considered very important to many, but again there is debate about why and to what degree it is applicable to the modern Jew and divinely inspired. Some consider Torah to be divinely inspired (not revelation) while most see it as an example of significant human wisdom and tradition from ancient, largely outdated times.
Like many in the Reform Movement, many Reconstructionist Jews have what is best described as a universalist or unitarian view of the Jewish religion and its G-d. This view is in part based on Martin Buber's (February 8, 1878 – June 13, 1965) philosophical distinction between the I–Thou relationship and the I–It relationship. The traditional uniqueness of the Covenant and the Jewish people is generally denied.
Many Reconstructions do not believe in a deity who is active in history, nor that the Jewish people are the Elect or Chosen of HaShem in any sense. This movement may be a good match for Atheists and Agnostics wishing to maintain a connection with their Jewish roots without being "religious." Much varies with the individual of course as this is a very diverse and loosely aligned movement. As with most non-Orthodox Jews, specific beliefs tend to be down played. Much of Judaism is more concerned about what one does with ones beliefs than with the beliefs themselves.
This movement seeks to offer Jews (and non-Jews equally) a connection to Jewish culture without appearing "too religious" in traditional terms. The current Reconstructionist Movement is largely embracing the move towards the unification of the non-Orthodox movements.
About 2% of Jews in America identify as Reconstructionists however many of the "independent" groups are essentially Reconstructionist, and contemporary Jewish philosophers like Buber remain quite popular within and without the non-Orthodox world. It seems likely that at least one significant split will occur within this small movement due to its theological diversity. There are less than 100 Reconstructionist synagogues world-wide.
Independent Egalitarian Judaism: This is a growing 'non-movement' outside of Israel (especially). It is often house/synagogue (local congregation) driven and varies in its level of Torah observance, interpretation, etc. depending on the perspectives of its local members. One Shul and its Darshan Yeshiva is representative of this sort of approach to Judaism as it seeks to move beyond the home shul. This non-movement is drawing many previously non-practicing Jews back into the fold as well as many ex-Orthodox who are weary or wary of stringent rabbinic decrees. It is also attracting a considerable number of interested non-Jews as it offers on-line conversion. Its converts of course are never accepted as Jews by the Orthodox. Its acceptance by the non-Orthodox varies.
These loosely connected house/synagogues and chat rooms are largely embracing the move towards the unification of the non-Orthodox movement yet tend to remain independent of it. Among these groups one will find tremendous diversity. Depending on the qualifications of the leaders, converts through this non-movement will be accepted by some as Jews and rejected by others (always including the Orthodox). Check with your synagogue authorities about this before beginning a conversion process through one of these if you are interested in acceptance beyond the overseeing group.
Then there are "those who say they are Jews but are not" -- So-called Messianic Judaism (Revelation 2:9, 3:9): This term is used so broadly that it lacks any concrete definition. There is no established Jesus-centric Messianic Movement within nor without Judaism that is endorsed by any Jewish organization. Nor is there any central authority nor agreement about what the term even means beyond the obvious inaccurate belief in Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah. Religious Jews do not and will not accept Jesus (Y'shua, Yeshua, Yehoshua, etc) as Messiah because he did not meet the requirements spelled out in the Tanach. Those Jews who embrace so-called Messianic Judaism are considered heretics and are often disowned by the families.
Be clear that in none of its forms does Judaism, neither Rabbinic nor Karaite, accept the claims/beliefs of Messianic Judaism (so-called) nor of Christianity at large. All forms of Judaism reject the belief that Jesus was the Messiah. Thus far the Messianic prophecies have not been fulfilled by anyone, hence the Messiah has not yet come. This is a fact of observation apparent to anyone who looks. For more on this see my study What the Messiah must accomplish.
Since the early days non-Jews, sensing the divine power that exists within Judaism have sought to usurp our Covenant with G-d in many different ways. So-called Messianic Judaism is but one of these. Such people are encouraged to take Genesis 12:3 seriously:And I will bless those who bless you [Israel, the Jews], and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you."Such people are not Jews regardless of their erroneous claims.Go to: Part 1 -- Who Is A Jew?As always, I invite you to Contact Me with questions or thoughts.
Go to: Part 2 -- Our Roots
Go to: Part 3 -- Becoming Jewish
Go to: Part 5 -- Why Be Jewish? With Rabbi Meir Kahane (ZK"L)
Go to: Part 6 -- By the Numbers
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Rabbi Shlomo Nachman