Sects and Divisions of Judaism

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Different Jewish sects are divided up by how strictly they follow the laws, particularly the dietary and Sabbath observations. There is everything from ultra-conservative to ultra-liberal. Modern Jewish sects include ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist. Most are defined by their response to modernity.

In the centuries that followed the publication of the Torah there were a lot of different Jewish sects and often a lot of fighting between the sects. The issues were often when and how the Sabbath should held, dietary customs, interpretations of scriptures and rules regarding marriage.

Jacob Kat wrote in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: The greater part of Jewry, while not accepting tradition as absolutely valid, adheres nevertheless to some parts of it because of religious sentiments or need for identification. The three main trends in modern Judaism — Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Judaism — have assumed the character of denominations. They are centered on synagogues, and these are connected by nation-wide and even world-wide organizations. They also maintain seminars for the training of teachers and rabbis. [Source: Jacob Kat. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences,]

Many Orthodox Jews treat Judaism as if it is were an exclusive club in which a select few belong. To qualify members have to follow rigid rules. Jews converted by non-Orthodox rabbis are not recognized. Liberal Jews on the other hand tend be more inclusive, recognizing almost anyone who calls himself or herself a Jew. The Reform and Conservative movements are fairly liberal Jewish sects. They allow men and women to pray together and have less rules and more liberal interpretations of them. They are generally more egalitarian, open and democratic than other sects. A great many American Jews belong to the Reform and Conservative movements while only a small number of Israelis do. The Reform and Conservative movements have female rabbis that preside over bar mitzvahs of teenage girls and allows their members to drive and do other things on the Sabbath, marry people of other faiths and break strict dietary kosher rules.

Professor Joshua Shanes wrote: What makes Jewish identities even more complex is that for many Jewish people, being “Jewish” is more of a cultural or ethnic identity than a religious one. Over a quarter of Americans who describe themselves as Jewish say they do not identify with the Jewish religion at all, though Jewish culture or their family’s Jewish background may be very important to them. It’s also important to keep in mind that Jewish groups evolved in different ways in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Jews from the Muslim world, often called Sephardic or Mizrahi Jews — a minority of American Jews, but over half of Israeli Jews — did not experience the kind of abrupt emancipation that they did in much of Europe. Different Sephardic traditions developed, which are often described as “Masorti” or “traditional” Judaism in Israel, although many of their adherents have become Orthodox in recent years.[Source: Joshua Shanes, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, College of Charleston, The Conversation, June 15, 2023]

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; ; Chabad,org ; BBC - Religion: Judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica,;Yivo Institute of Jewish Research ; Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline Jewish History Resource Center ; Center for Jewish History ; Jewish ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook

Judaism in Israel and the U.S.

Most Israeli Jews do not identify themselves with a movement such as Orthodox, Conservative of Reform as much as American Jews do. Only Orthodox Judaism functions as an established religion in Israel. Other forms of the religion—such as the Reform and Conservative sect to which many American Jews belong—are not recognized and not given much respect by the Israeli government or ordinary Israelis. Although the state of Israel guarantees freedom of worship, Orthodoxy so dominates the religious life there that it prevents the other branches of Judaism from getting a foothold. Conversions performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel were not recognized in Israel until fairly recently and are still not among Orthodox Jews.

Since around 80 percent of Israeli do not regard themselves as Orthodox they are lumped together as secular Jews. Many of these are non-religious but the majority regard themselves as practicing Jews. Although they do not regularly visit synagogues, they pray, light candles and engage in Jewish rituals to varying degrees. They have been educated in Jewish history in school and accept rabbinical authority on matters like circumcision, marriage, divorce and death. To get a sense of how little influence Orthodox Judaism has a many Israelis, check out the beaches, which are often crowded on the Sabbath and have people at them on solemn holidays like Yom Kippur.

There are around 20,000 synagogues in Israel in addition to religious councils in most cities and large towns. The main religious authority, the rabbinate, controls courts that make decisions about many legal matters, and even dietary matters by naming foods that are kosher. It is controlled by Orthodox Jews. Only Orthodox rabbis are allowed to perform marriages, conversions and burials. Even secular Jews regard Orthodox Jews as “real” Jews and are dismissive of liberal Jews.

Professor Joshua Shanes wrote: Today, most U.S. Jews are either unaffiliated with any particular denomination or Reform. However, the percentage of Jews who are Orthodox — especially ultra-Orthodox, whose members tend to have very large families — is growing rapidly. Almost 10 percent of American Jews and nearly 25 percent of Israeli Jews are Orthodox today, although attrition from these communities is also rising. This trend may continue, or that sector may see mass defections, as it did a century ago. Either way, Orthodoxy is going to continue to play a very important role in Jewish life for many years to come. [Source: Joshua Shanes, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, College of Charleston, The Conversation, June 15, 2023]

Ancient Jewish Groups

In the 2nd century B.C., the first significant divisions in Judaism began to appear with the emergence of three distinct groups: the Essenes, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees. The Essenes were to some degree ascetic- mystics that lived separated from society. The Sadducees were the Greek-speaking aristocrats and priests. They were conservative in matters of law, but socially more liberal and open to change. They did not believe in the authority of the Oral Torah. For the Sadducees, the center of Jewish life was the Temple and the sacrificial rites performed there, which they controlled and profited from. The Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, believed that God passed on to Moses both Oral and the Written Torah. Both were open to interpretation, so it was the Pharisees who promoted a strong tradition of education and biblical scholarship. [Source:]

The Zealots were a group that developed in the early years of the Common Era. They were more of a nationalistic movement than a religious one. They "zealously" (fiercely) opposed the rule of the Roman Empire and launched a revolt against Roman rule in A.D. 70. The Zealots are most famous for holding out against Roman legions at their stronghold of Masada, where they eventually committed mass suicide rather than surrender. The Zealots and Essenes were nearly all killed by the Romans. The Sadducees lost their influence with the Roman destruction of the Temple. The only group to survive this period was the Pharisees.

Ancient Jewish sects

Rabbinic Judaism

Rabbanic Judaism has been the mainstream form of Judaism since the A.D. 6th century after the codification of the Babylonian Talmud. Rabbinic Judaism has its roots in the Pharisaic school of Second Temple Judaism, and is based on the belief that Moses at Mount Sinai received both the Written Torah (Torah she-be-Khetav) and the Oral Torah (Torah she-be-al Peh) from God. The Oral Torah, transmitted orally, explains the Written Torah. At first, it was forbidden to write down the Oral Torah, but after the destruction of the Second Temple, it was decided to write it down in the form of the Talmud and other rabbinic texts for the sake of preservation. [Source: Wikipedia]

Rabbinic (Rabannite) Judaism emerged around the the beginning of the A.D. 1st century and went through a period of development that lasted until around the year A.D. 500. Many of the ideas put forward by the great rabbis of the Rabbinic Judaism creation period had their origin in an earlier age. In the rabbinic literature there is a fairly consistent treatment of the three ideas of God, Torah, and Israel, with much debate among the rabbis on the details of these ideas. [Source: Louis Jacobs, Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1990s,]

Some trace the origins Rabbinic Judaism back to Ezra, who lived in the 4th century B.C. He was Jewish religious leader and reformer who returned from exile in Babylon and reconstituted the Jewish community on the basis of the Torah (Law, or the regulations of the first five books of the Old Testament). His work helped make Judaism a religion in which law was central, enabling the Jews to survive as a community when they were dispersed all over the world. According to Encyclopedia Britannica: Since his efforts did much to give Jewish religion the form that was to characterize it for centuries after, Ezra has with some justice been called the father of Judaism; i.e., the specific form the Jewish religion took after the Babylonian Exile. So important was he in the eyes of his people that later tradition regarded him as no less than a second Moses. [Source: Encyclopedia Britannica]

Divisions in Rabbinic Judaism Emerge

From the A.D. 1st century to 19th century Rabbinic Judaism was the dominant form of Judaism. Professor Joshua Shanes wrote: There were tensions in Rabbinic Judaism from the outset. For example, starting in the Middle Ages, a Jewish group called the Karaites challenged the rabbis’ authority by rejecting the oral Torah. [Source: Joshua Shanes, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, College of Charleston, The Conversation, June 15, 2023]

Even within the rabbinic tradition, there were regular disagreements: between mystics and rationalists, for example; debates over people claiming to be the messiah; and differences in customs between regions, from medieval Spain to Poland to Yemen.

Still, Rabbinic Judaism remained a more or less united religious community for some 1,500 years — until the 19th century. Around that time, Jews began to experience emancipation in many parts of Europe, acquiring equal citizenship where they had previously constituted a separate, legal community. Meanwhile, thousands — eventually millions — of Jews moved to the United States, which likewise offered equal citizenship.

These freedoms brought opportunity, but also new challenges. Traditionally, Judaism was based on Jewish autonomy — communities governed by rabbinic law — and taking the truth of its beliefs for granted. Political emancipation challenged the first, while Enlightenment ideas challenged the second. Jews were now free to choose what to believe and how to practice Judaism, if at all, at a time when they were experiencing widespread exposure to competing ideas.

Development of Reform, Orthodox and Conservative Judaism,

Professor Joshua Shanes wrote: Competing Jewish denominations emerged, each one attempting to negotiate the relationship between Jewishness and modernity in its own way. Each group claimed that they followed the best or most authentic traditions of Judaism. The first modern denomination to organize was Reform — first in Germany in the early 19th century, but soon in America as well. Reform Judaism is based on the idea that both the Bible and the laws of the oral Torah are divinely inspired, but humanly constructed, meaning they should be adapted based on contemporary moral ideals. Reform congregations tend to emphasize prophetic themes such as social justice more than Talmudic law, though in recent years many have reclaimed some rituals, such as Hebrew liturgy and stricter observance of Shabbat. [Source: Joshua Shanes, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, College of Charleston, The Conversation, June 15, 2023]

Orthodox Judaism soon organized in reaction to Reform, rallying to defend the strict observance of Jewish customs and law. Orthodox leaders often blurred the distinction between these categories and put particular emphasis on the 16th-century legal code called the Shulchan Aruch. Orthodoxy insists that both the written and oral Torah have divine origins. Contrary views in pre-modern sources are often censored.

Conservative Judaism, which did not arrive in the U.S. until the mid-1900s, shares many of Reform Judaism’s views, such as equal religious roles for men and women. However, Conservative Jews argue that the Reform movement pulled too far away from Jewish tradition. They insist that Jewish law remains obligatory, but that the Orthodox interpretation is too rigid. In practice, most Conservative Jews tend not to be strict about even major rituals, like observing Sabbath restrictions or kosher food practices.

There are also smaller but still influential Jewish movements. For example, Reconstructionism, created by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in the 1930s and 1940s, emphasizes community over ritual obligations. And the Jewish Renewal movement, born out of the late 1960s counterculture, seeks to incorporate insights from Jewish mysticism with an egalitarian perspective, and without necessarily following the minutiae of Jewish law.

Different Practices in Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Judaism

J.M Oesterreicher wrote in the New Catholic Encyclopedia The traditional service is, except for a few Aramaic interludes, in Hebrew. However, in the typical Reform Temple (the term temple was originally chosen as a substitute for synagogue to disavow hope for the rebuilding of the shrine that was once the pride of Jews) most of the prayers are in the vernacular. Since every congregation is independent, the proportional use of Hebrew and English in Reform and Conservative congregations varies. Traditional Jews will not pray, study Torah, or perform any act of worship unless their heads are covered. If they did otherwise, they would consider it irreverent, to stand slipshod in the presence of the Lord. [Source: J.M Oesterreicher, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1960s,]

The Orthodox Jews who follow custom rigidly have their heads constantly covered; at services they like to wear hats, whereas Conservatives use "yarmulkes" (Yiddish word for skullcaps), at times of varied colors and beautifully embroidered. Reform Jews wear no head covering, following in this the conventions of Western civilization, where the bared head is a sign of respect.

In Orthodox synagogues men and women are separated. In most Conservative synagogues and all Reform temples they are seated together. In a traditional service Scripture readings and prayers are chanted; in a modernized one, they are recited in a formal manner. In all Orthodox and many Conservative synagogues, priestly descendants (their shoes removed, as was done in the Temple of Jerusalem) chant the Aaronic blessing (Nm6.22–27) over the people. The cantillation, at times amateurish, may jar a modern musically trained ear. In a reformed service, therefore, the rabbi imparts that blessing. There, as elsewhere, a prevailing criterion is decorum.

Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism is one of the three main movements of Judaism and began before the other two — Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. The term Reform Judaism is generally used to refer to the less traditional branch of Judaism. The movement originated in early nineteenth-century Germany and adapted the rituals and liturgy of Judaism to accommodate modern social, political, and cultural developments. It is very strong in the U.S. and is sometimes called Liberal Judaism (in the U.K. Liberal Judaism is regarded as a different movement).

The Reform movements embraced ideas of The Enlightenment and liberalized and fought to free Jews form the constraints of Orthodoxy. Historical research was embraced as a way to refute orthodoxy. Orthodoxy was strengthened by the movement as it stood up to the challenges the reform movement threw at it.

The Reform movement was founded in Germany in the 1830s as a response to the rigidity of Orthodox Judaism. Reforms, inspired by German church services, included giving services in the local languages instead of Hebrew, shortening services, introducing the organ to synagogues, allowing people to not cover their heads. An effort was made to treat males and females equally and provide equal opportunities to boys and girls. Reformed Jews tend to view many parts of the Torah as metaphorical and symbolic, while Orthodox take them literally. In the United States synagogue services are often conducted in English.

Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Judaism is one of the major sects of Judaism. It encompasses several groups whose members tend to traditional Jews who are conservative in their outlook and are characterized by strict observance of laws and rituals (the Halakhah) Orthodox Jews share a common belief that God gave Moses the entire Torah, including both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. They believe that the 613 mitzvoth, or commandments or laws contained in the Torah, remain binding on Jews. It is estimated that about 10 percent of American Jews are Orthodox. Orthodox Judaism is the only recognized form of Judaism in Israel. [Source:]

Strict Orthodox Jews take the Torah literally. For them God commands and they obey without questioning. There are many commandments, rules or prohibitions they have to abide by. Their primary reason for existence is to declare, “There is only one God.” Devout Muslims live by a similar code. Although the state of Israel guarantees freedom of worship, Orthodoxy so dominates the religious life there that it prevents the other branches of Judaism from getting a foothold.

There are a number of groupings in contemporary Orthodox Judaism. Reform has made little headway among Sephardic Jews (mostly from North Africa and the Middle East) , and the majority of these, if religious, are at least Orthodox, with many of their own rites and customs.

Conservative Judaism

Conservative Judaism is a movement in modern Judaism that tries to strike a balance between Orthodox and Reform Judaism. It is the largest denomination of American Judaism, and advocates moderate modifications of Halakhah (Jewish law). Its U.S. teaching center is the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. It has been said that, while contemporary Reform stresses the God idea and contemporary Orthodoxy the idea of Torah, Conservative Judaism stresses that of Israel (i.e., Jewish peoplehood). This off course is a generalization, but Conservatives do emphasize the unity of the Jewish people amid its diversity. [Source: Louis Jacobs, Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1990s,]

The conservative movement has been an attempt to deal with change based on Jewish precedent. Theologians address problems and disputes by looking for legal and historical justification and rabbis act as a collective. The Conservative movement was founded in Eastern Europe in the 1860s. It is a less strict version of Judaism than Orthodoxy.

Conservative Judaism is sometimes described as traditional Judaism without fundamentalism. Despite its middle-of-the-road position, Conservative Judaism is independent of both Orthodoxy and Reform. Conservative Judaism is also known (particularly in Israel and the UK) by the Hebrew word 'Masorti', which means 'traditional'. [Source: BBC |::|]

Liberal Judaism

According to the BBC: “Liberal Judaism, as the name suggests, is a progressive form of Judaism that aims to bring Judaism and modernity together. To use the movement's own words: Liberal Judaism is the growing edge of Judaism. It reverences Jewish tradition, and seeks to preserve all that is good in the Judaism of the past. But it lives in the present. . . It is the Judaism of the past in process of becoming the Judaism of the future. [Source: BBC, July 24, 2009 |::|]

“Liberal Jews apply Judaism's religious and cultural tradition in the framework of modern thinking and morality. They seek to live according to the prophetic ideal - to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with God. In beliefs and practice Liberal Judaism is more radical than UK Reform Judaism, and has much in common with American Reform Judaism. |::|

“The movement has a strong intellectual tradition, and believes that Jewish texts should be reinterpreted in the light of modern scholarship and Jewish laws reassessed by their practical suitability to contemporary conditions. So, for example, there is no obligation to obey Jewish dietary laws, but one can do so if it helps one's internal feeling of 'Jewishness' to do so. This is typical of the Liberal belief that each individual should be encouraged to make their own decisions within the Jewish framework (and taking a questioning attitude to that framework), as opposed to the strict obedience to law that characterises Orthodoxy. |::|

Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jews

Professor Joshua Shanes wrote: Of all the Jewish denominations, the Orthodox groups are perhaps most misunderstood. They all share a commitment to Jewish law — especially regarding gender roles and sexuality, food consumption and Sabbath restrictions — but there are many divisions, generally categorized on a spectrum from “modern” to “ultra” Orthodox.[Source: Joshua Shanes, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, College of Charleston, The Conversation, June 15, 2023]

Modern Orthodoxy celebrates secular education and integration into the modern world, yet insists on a relatively strict approach to ritual observance and traditional tenets of belief. They also tend to see Zionism — the modern movement calling for Jewish national rights, today connected to support for Israel — as part of their religious worldview, rather than just a political belief.

The ultra-Orthodox, on the other hand — sometimes called “Haredim” or Haredi Jews — advocate segregation from the outside world. Many continue to speak Yiddish, the traditional language of Jews in Eastern Europe, or to dress as traditional Jews did in Europe before the Holocaust.

This is especially true of Hasidic Jews, who make up about half of the ultra-Orthodox population worldwide. Hasidism is a mystical movement born in 18th-century Ukraine, but today mostly concentrated in New York and Israel. Hasidic Jews are known for being particularly strict about shunning secular culture and education, but they remain also a mystical movement focused on God’s close presence. They are divided into subgroups named after cities in Eastern Europe, and they follow leaders known as “Rebbes,” who wield enormous power in their communities.

Haredim are particularly committed to gender segregation, separating men and women beyond what previous Jewish traditions called for, and tend toward the strictest interpretation of Jewish law, even when traditional understanding of a rule has been more lenient.

Whether modern or Haredi, Orthodox Judaism sees itself as “traditional.” However, it is more accurate to say it is “traditionalist.” By this I mean that Orthodoxy is attempting to recreate a pre-modern religion in a modern era. Not only has Orthodox Judaism innovated many rituals and teachings, but people today have greater awareness that other types of life are available — creating a firm break with the traditional world Orthodoxy claims to perpetuate.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews

Religiously adherent Jews in Israel include the strict Orthodox Jews and the even stricter ultra-Orthodox Jews. Comprising only 10 to 15 percent of the Jewish population in Israel, they make a substantial portion of the population of Jerusalem and are well represented in the Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories. Many are Sephardim.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews take the Torah literally. For them God commands and they obey without questioning. There are many commandments, rules or prohibitions they have to abide by. Their primary reason for existence is to declare, “There is only one God.” Devout Muslims live by a similar code.

Many Ultra- Orthodox Jews treat Judaism as if it is were an exclusive club in which a select few belong. To qualify members have to follow rigid rules. Jews converted by non-Orthodox rabbis are not recognized. Liberal Jews on the other hand tend be more inclusive, recognizing almost anyone who calls himself or herself a Jew.

Hasidic Jews

Hasidic Jews are extremely pious and mystical ultra-Orthodox Jews known for their unusual clothing styles and preservation of 18th century customs and rituals. They are also known for their strong devotion to individual leaders, their ascetic lifestyles, ecstatic religion experiences, devotion to prayer and study and their emphasis on the traditional Jewish concept of simple delight in the service of God.

According to the BBC: “Poland and Central Europe saw the creation of a new Jewish movement of immense importance - Hassidism. It followed the example of the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) who said that you didn’t have to be an ascetic to be holy; indeed he thought that the appropriate mood for worship was one of joy. The movement included large amounts of Kabbalic mysticism as well, and the way it made holiness in every day life both intelligible and enjoyable, helped it achieve great popularity among ordinary Jews. However it also led to divisions within Judaism, as many in the religious establishment were strongly against it. In Lithuania in 1772 Hassidism was excommunicated, and Hassidic Jews were banned from marrying or doing business with other Jews. [Source: BBC]

Hasidic Jews usually speak Yiddish as their first language or their only language. They often live in isolated communities and rigidly follow strict rules but also lose themselves in mystical, ecstatic experiences with God that are not unlike those experienced by evangelical Christians.


The Karaites are a Jewish sect established by Anan Ben David in the A.D. 8th century in Babylon. They practice Judaism according to Halacha (Jewish Law) and do not accept the Mishna, Talmud or any other later interpretation of the Torah. The oldest surviving Jewish group that opposes rabbinic Judaism, they only recognize the Pentateuch, Prophets and Writings. Karaites are also known as the Baale Mikra, Israelite Karaitoes, Karaim, Karaite Jews and Qaraites. The word Karaite is derived from the Hebrew word “kara” , “to read.’

Most Karaites live in Israel and are of Egyptian origin. Their roots are matter of some dispute. Some believe they are descendants of the groups that existed in the second Temple period and were mentioned in the Dead Sea scrolls but most believe the sect came into existence when it was founded by Anan Ben David in the 8th century. Karaites have traditionally lived in isolation from other Jews as well as from non-Jews. Whether they should be regarded as members of the Jewish community remains a matter of debate among Orthodox Jews. Maimonides scolded Jews who followed Karaite practices. In Israel, some Karaite customs have been made illegal by the Orthodox Chief Rabbanite, which is the exclusive legal authority there.

There are an estimated 8,000 to 30,000 Karaites in Israel. The numbers are inexact because the Karaites refuse to allow themselves to be counted for political and religious reasons. Before the founding of Israel a community of between 3,000 and 6,000 Karaites lived in Egypt. There were also some in Lithuania and the Crimea. Many were artisans, particularly goldsmiths and silversmiths. They have mostly emigrated to Israel, where many are working-class construction or factory workers or work as teachers or civil servants.. A few Karaites live in the United States and Europe. Around 100 Karaite families live in Istanbul.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons and Pew Research Center except Judaism diagram,

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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