This is pretty US-centric.
Secular/Humanist/Cultural: Kinda self-explanatory, it’s basically the culture of Judaism without the religion or halacha. Personally, I don’t really like the attempt to start “official” Humanist Judaism congregations, because I think religion is a central part of Judaism. Still, I suspect that the majority of Jews in the US are this. When someone who is Orthodox becomes non-Orthodox or “cultural,” s/he may be termed “Orthoprax” (that is, going through the motions without believing).
Renewal: I don’t know exactly what this is, but I’m pretty sure it was started as a reaction against the legalism of traditional Judaism, and an attempt to inject more spiritual elements. There’s a lot of singing/music, especially lots of acoustic guitars. Spiritual feeling is key.
Reconstructionist: This is a new branch started by Mordechai Kaplan’s followers. There’s not really an official credo out there to be found; you sort of just have to ask around. Basically, what you’ll hear most often is that it’s “what Jews do.” Halacha gets a “vote, not a veto.” That is to say that any law in Judaism can be voted down collectively by a community if they don’t want to do it. To use one example, Kaplan originally wanted to do away with Kol Nidre (an important prayer of Yom Kippur), but eventually the community decided that keeping Kol Nidre in the service was necessary to speak to their own condition. Similarly, individualism is rather important in Reconstructionism (a bit ironically, since its basic motif is “custom defines the law). If that Hebrew tattoo speaks to you, you can get it. The halacha that tattoos are forbidden in Judaism…gets a vote, not a veto (and it can get voted down!)
- Halacha (Jewish law) gets “a vote, not a veto.”
- Jews are only bound by the norms of the community.
- The “peoplehood” aspect is central.
- The view of God is very metaphorical and intellectualized.
Classical Reform: This is the Reform of the 19th century, which I’m pretty sure some older Reform Jews still follow today, whether or not they know it. ThePittsburgh Platform of 1885 outlines the basic beliefs. It was a product of the Enlightenment, and stood to do away with any “outdated laws” that would get in the way of full integration and acculturation, which was the main goal of the first platform. For instance, kashrus (keeping kosher) is now “archaic” and unhelpful.
- Judaism is seem as mainly a code of ethics; supported by reason, not revelation.
- Any practice that seems to get in the way of this should be discarded.
- The peoplehood aspect is de-emphasized, in an attempt to encourage integration.
Modern Reform: Compare to the 1999 Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism. This is an outline of what Reform Judaism is today. The underlying belief of “ethical monotheism” and “being a light unto the nations” (via assimilation) is still there. Jewish practice is OK so long as it can be backed up with modern sources (this is my cynical take on it, although it’s not inaccurate). Recently though, some Jewish practices are being taken up by some who are starting to see their inherent value. Still, practices such as wearing tefillin or davening (praying) daily are not widespread. There is still a sense of ceremoniousness, which can be seen in subtle ways such as the idea that a child becomes bar or bat mitzvah during his or her ceremony, as s/he reads from the Torah. There is often a Confirmation ceremony that comes a few years after the bar/bat mitzvah, and is seen as a complement to it.
- The main motif of Modern Reform is “individual autonomy.”
- The ethnic aspect of Judaism is all but abandoned, and the idea of Jews as “chosen people” takes on a new meaning: rather than being “chosen” to receive the Torah and follow the commandments, Jews have been chosen to be a “light unto the nations,” spreading moral values, or “ethical monotheism.”
- Practices long since forgotten since Classical Reform are now starting to be taken up again by some.
Left-leaning Conservative: Conservative Judaism is infamously seen as having two sides, the layman’s perspective and the rabbi’s/academic perspective.Conservative Judaism by Neil Gillman is a great book which (inadvertently?) lays out the building blocks of “layman’s” Conservatism. It looks a lot like Reconstructionism in thought; that is, “Judaism is what Jews do.” In practice, Left-leaning Conservative Jews (i.e. the majority of Conservative Jews) save their observance for inside the synagogue. This has been the case since at least the 1950’s. Women who would never cover their hair outside the synagogue do so inside, for instance. This isn’t surprising, given that the movement was founded around the “synagogue center,” with “ethnic solidarity” as its main focus. People gathered around the synagogue, and that was the ideal. (See Conservative Judaism by Marshall Sklare for more details.) In this sense, Left-leaning Conservatism resembles Reconstructionism almost completely.
- Women can participate in the synagogue, and are able to be called to the Torah and count in a minyan. (See “Women and the Minyan” by Rabbi David J. Fine for more information on this.)
- There is a concept called Catholic Israel, coined by Solomon Schechter, that is similar to Reconstructionism in that it defines Judaism as “what Jews do.” In effect, it replaced the desire for traditional rabbinics by the majority of congregants. With Catholic Israel governing laymen, rabbis and academics realized that the traditionalist approach was no longer respected. Therefore, around the 1950’s, a “responsa” ideal began, with key rabbis voting majority against minority, replacing the traditional Talmudic method. Importantly, both majority and minority opinions could be enacted for any individual congregation by its rabbi.
Right-leaning Conservative/Conservadox/Traditional: This is the other, more traditional face of Conservatism. It is the “rabbis’ Conservatism” or “academics’ Conservatism.” Which one is more “authentic” would have to depend on your view on whether “cult religion” or “official religion” is more authentic. Right-leaning Conservatism seems to be the ideal, according to Conservatism itself. While in reality, most Conservative congregants have a fleeting knowledge of Conservative ideals at best, Right-leaning Conservatives would like to see these ideals put into practice. They include:
- Modeling Jewish practice on the “science of Judaism.” This is a vague concept, more of a method than a real ideology that can be put into practice. it involves using Biblical criticism along with the historical value of Jewish practices to model the community’s practice on.
- An egalitarian community, with women having not only rights but responsibilities. In a fully egalitarian community, women would commit themselves to davening three times a day rather than the traditional two. I believe this is the norm at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Women would also voluntarily assume upon themselves the obligation of tefillin, for example. Interestingly, the above are requirements for women rabbinical candidates, although I am not aware of any real, tangible push from USCJ for womencongregants to assume such responsibility, further widening the gap between Conservative theory and practice; congregants and rabbis.
***All of the above is considered “Liberal Judaism.”***
(Not to be confused with “Liberal Judaism” of Europe, which I *believe* IIRC is synonymous with a slightly stricter version of American Reform Judaism.)
What distinguishes liberal Judaism from Orthodoxy:
- Women and men are seated together (no mechitza), and may perform the same rituals in the synagogue.
- Women may be ordained as rabbis, with the exception of Traditional Judaism, which is a very small institution (UTJ) without much influence.
- Gay men and lesbians may be ordained as rabbis. The official answer to homosexuality in Orthodoxy is to “remain celibate,” as the halacha does not allow relations between men and does not look favorably upon relations by women (although it is not explicitly forbidden). Nonetheless, the culture in mainline Orthodoxy seems to be “don’t ask, don’t tell” until further notice.
- Only Reconstructionist and Reform allow patrilineal descent. They are also open to intermarriage, and rabbis may elect to marry interfaith couples if they wish to do so.
- With the possible exception of Right-leaning Conservatism, halacha is not seen as unwavering–it is seen as constantly changing and adapting with the times.
- Therefore, with the exception of Right-leaning Conservatism, the majority of congregants are not observant “to the letter of the law,” although this doesn’t mean that they don’t participate in the practices of Jewish life. This view of halacha is the main reason for the two “types” of Conservatism; for instance, driving a car to the synagogue on Shabbat is officially OK. However, on one hand most congregants will drive their cars not only to the synagogue but everywhere else, too. On the other hand, many Conservative rabbis still don’t drive on Shabbat. The fact that Conservative rabbis find their own halachic responsa too liberal says a lot about the movement (a lot of these decisions were made for pragmatic and historical, not halachic, reasons.)
- The Torah is, in general, not taken literally, and Biblical criticism is accepted.
- There is not an emphasis on rabbinical authority, and the idea of “daas Torah,” or rabbinical knowledge on all worldly matters, is all but unheard of.
Indy minyan/Trad egal: This is a newer phenomenon, harkening back to the havurah movement of the 1960’s. They are purposely not connected to any specific denomination, although the demographics most indy minyans appear to be made up of mostly ex-Conservative Jews. The practice could be placed along the liberal Orthodox spectrum. The other main camp of indy minyans seems to be more Renewal in practice. I’ll focus on the former. Some are egalitarian, allowing women to take part in all parts of the service, and others are “trad egal”–traditional egalitarian–and allow women greater roles than traditionally given them by Orthodoxy, though they are still bound by halacha (albeit liberal readings of it). An example of this difference might be: While a fully egalitarian minyan would let women lead Maariv, halachically speaking a woman cannot say Maariv for a man. Therefore, a trad egal minyan would likely have a man lead that particular part of the service.
- These are small, community minyanim not connected to any denomination.
- They are often characterized by egalitarianism and social justice.
- Many participants come from educated, day school backgrounds.
Open Orthodox: This looks a lot like trad egal in theory, with its main emphasis on greater women’s participation. It is a fairly new development, led by Avi Weiss et al. It is characterized by an “openness” to secular education etc. Biblical criticism is fairly well received, with organizations such as the Drisha Institute teaching it alongside traditional Jewish sources. Women are tentatively beginning to serve in official capacities resembling that of ordained rabbis, with the most “controversial” title being rabba, given to Sara Hurwitz in 2010.
Modern Orthodox: This is a slightly less “open” Orthodoxy, which is less insistent on more inclusive roles for women. Its flagship institution is Yeshiva University in Manhattan.
- Modern Orthodoxy is currently grappling with its place in the secular world. Two current examples of this are how to face the presence of the large amount of singles in a marriage-heavy culture, and how to face homosexuality.
- Secular knowledge and education is valued.
Yeshivish: This is a very traditional form of Orthodoxy, often known as “Black Hat.” Its emphasis is on traditional yeshiva education for men, and the role of wife and mother for women. Men often wear suits and women wear long skirts, although even within this subculture there is a large amount of variation. Halacha is strictly kept.
- Innovation in halacha or lifestyle are not seen as positive, with many refraining from reading secular books or listening to secular music.
- Secular education is less valued, although some may attend more Jewish-friendly colleges such as Touro College in Brooklyn.
Chasidish: I admit that I don’t know much about this. Chasidism is often seen as the more “spiritual” counterpart to Yeshivism, although compared to Modern Orthodoxy they are similar to each other. One main difference is that Chasidic Jews often follow a rebbe, who serves as a kind of spiritual leader. Within Chasidism there are many groups, the most well-known being Chabad Lubavitch.