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Judaism Today

Judaism as it is found in the United States today is divided into four major religious movements represented by synagogue membership. A small percentage of Jews identify with more or less extremist, rightwing, cult-like movements (such as Hasidism) which had their origins in eighteenth century Europe. A far larger percentage of Jews (nearing one-half, at any given time) identify themselves as Jewish though they belong to no movement -- some of these Jews do join synagogues from time to time, but others prefer to remain "secular" for ideological reasons. Mixed among both secular and synagogue-based Jews, there are others who center their Jewish identity on Zionism.

ZIONISM AND ZIONISTS

In the years just after World War II, Zionism (the desire to rebuild a Jewish national presence in the Promised Land) became a popular Jewish cause. Many Jews who had loose ties or no ties at all with religion became involved with the establishment of the State of Israel. Even today, many years after the successful founding of the State of Israel, there are Jews whose only real tie to Judaism is their belief in Zionism and their support for the State of Israel. They are joined by many Jews who are members of synagogues and support a modern Jewish religious movement, but who also find their prime identity as Jews in the Zionist cause.

Broadly speaking, Zionists are proud that a small and struggling state made up mainly of Jews has created a modern democracy out of what were barren mountainsides, near deserts, and mosquito-breeding marshes. Zionists also point with pride at the ability of the Israelis to defend their land against the claims and against the armies of neighboring Arab nations.

Zionists generally agree that the ultimate expression of Zionism is possible only through Aliyah,"“going up" to live permanently in the land of Israel. In truth, however, few Jews -- Zionist or not -- emigrate from the United States to Israel. Nevertheless, many American Zionists express their identity with the Jewish people, in part or in whole, through active support of the State of Israel.

SECULAR JUDAISM

Secular Jews express their Jewish identities in a variety of ways. Some feel a tie to the State of Israel, but their Zionist leanings are not a strong driving force in their lives. Some feel a tie to Jewish religion and attend religious services from time to time, often on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (as many Christians do at Easter and Christmas), but they do not maintain a lifelong membership in a synagogue or temple. Some secular Jews express their identity through study -- sometimes returning to the study of Judaism in their later years, sometimes seeing study as a way of searching for their roots. Often, secular Jews quest for spirituality -- sometimes turning to Jewish ideas and practices, even if they never fully return to the religious practices of their ancestors.

Some few Jews are ideologically secular. They may be atheists who do not believe in the existence of a god. Or they may be agnostics, unsure of whether or not God exists. Among religions, Judaism is somewhat unique in that it makes room for both atheists and agnostics to remain Jewish. It is often pointed out that there is no positive commandment in the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) requiring a Jew to believe in God. When it comes to belief, the Torah commands that Jews adhere to the laws of the covenant, which means that idolatry (the belief in many gods) is forbidden. But a person can theoretically live an exemplary Jewish life without a belief in God.

Moreover, connection with the Jewish people is determined by birth, not by belief. If a person is born a Jew (or converts to Judaism), he or she is identified as a Jew. There is no question about this. Even the most religious Jew accepts birth (or conversion) as the only criteria for membership in the Jewish people.

ORTHODOX JUDAISM

Religious Jews today disagree on what Judaism is and what it should be. Orthodox Jews claim to hold the true religion of Judaism. In fact, Orthodoxy only began to organize and solidify its beliefs in the nineteenth century, in direct response to the Reform movement. To this day, there is less agreement among Orthodox Jews about what being Orthodox means -- especially about how particular laws should be followed -- than there is disagreement in any of the other modern movements. So, for example, the State of Israel has two "chief" rabbis to serve the Orthodox -- one of them serving the style of Orthodoxy (Ashkenazi) that developed in Europe and the other serving the style of Orthodoxy (Sephardi) that developed in what today are primarily Arab lands. Among Ashkenazi Jews, many of the Orthodox follow the laws of the Torah as explained and expanded in a multi-volume code of Jewish law called the Shulchan Aruch that was written by Rabbi Joseph Karo in the sixteenth century.

Generally, all Orthodox Jews believe God gave the entire Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai in two parts -- the Written Torah that contains the 613 mitzvot and the Spoken Torah, the oral traditions and explanations later recorded in the work of the rabbis and sages of the Talmud. Orthodox Jews wear a small head covering called a kippah or Yarmulke at all times. Orthodox Jews are required to offer three prayer services each day (one in the morning and two offered jointly in the late afternoon/early evening), though women are excused from this obligation so they may carry on with their tasks of running a household and raising a family. For the same reason, women are not often encouraged to continue or excel in their Jewish studies.

For the most part, Orthodox children are trained in Jewish parochial schools that teach not only the full range of state required subjects but also Jewish subjects such as Hebrew and Aramaic (and sometimes, Yiddish), Talmud, Jewish history, and Prayerbook. Those Orthodox Jews who go on to become rabbis study at special colleges called yeshivot (singular: yeshivah).

For various reasons, the Orthodox movement is the least organized of the modern Jewish religious divisions, with several national associations claiming primacy. In some parts of Europe -- and certainly in the State of Israel, where the majority of the citizens identify as either secular or Zionist -- Orthodoxy is the largest religious movement. In the United States, however, the Orthodox movement is far smaller than either its Reform or Conservative counterparts.

Basic Judaism--Keyterms: Jewish, jewish, Jews, jews, Judaism, judaism, Jewish beliefs, Jewish observances, Jewish holidays, Jewish holy days, Jewish history, Rossel, rossel, Seymour Rossel, seymour rossel, beliefs, belief, observances, holy days, holidays, prayer, study, professions, history, past, future, basic, introduction, customs, ceremonies, modern, movements, Moses, monotheism, faith, philosophy, Hasidism, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Torah, prayer, study, bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, Jewish law, reference, WannaLearn award, ritualREFORM JUDAISM

Reform Judaism had its beginnings in Germany in the early nineteenth century. Almost immediately, it met with stiff political resistance from the traditional establishment that enjoyed the support of the German government. Though the number of Reform synagogues grew steadily in Europe, its success there was limited compared to its success among Jews in the United States, where there was no connection between the organized Jewish community and the government.

Born in a time when scientific and critical study began to triumph over superstition and entrenched traditions, Reform Jews believe that the Torah was written and edited by human beings (though some profess the belief that the Ten Commandments were written by Moses and given to the people at Mount Sinai). Nonetheless, Reform Jews generally believe that the Torah and its ideas are inspired.

Reform Judaism does not hold that one must wear a kippah, or that one must pray three times a day. The emphasis in Reform Judaism is on ethics: how a Jew should behave. But even when it comes to ethics, Reform Judaism does not follow a single guidebook. Instead, Reform Jews are required to study as much as possible and to make intelligent choices based on what they have learned. Reform Jews generally send their children to afternoon or Sunday schools in addition to regular public schools. In these religious schools, children study the beliefs and practices of Reform Judaism, Jewish history, customs and ceremonies, and so on.

Reform rabbis are not trained in yeshivot but attend a special graduate school called the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (with branches in Jerusalem, New York, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati), studying for five years after they have completed their regular undergraduate college degrees elsewhere. Reform Judaism maintains the complete equality women, encouraging both women and men to conform to the same standards of ethical practice, ritual behavior, and study. In fact, the Reform movement pioneered the ordination of women as rabbis.

The Reform movement currently has the largest membership of any Jewish religious group in the United States. It is also well represented in Europe, Asia, Mexico, and Australia; and, in recent years, it has had some limited success in the State of Israel, as well.

CONSERVATIVE JUDAISM

The Conservative movement emerged in Germany and America in the last century. The early leaders of Conservative Judaism broke away from the German Reform movement in order to pursue a middle route between radical reform and reactionary stagnation. In America, leaders of the Reform movement actually helped to establish Conservative Judaism in the early twentieth century, in the belief that the new Jewish immigrants coming from Eastern Europe could identify more easily with Conservative Judaism than with Reform.

Most Conservative Jews believe that some kind of divine revelation took place at Mount Sinai. Some maintain that the written Torah was given to Moses. Others agree with the Reform movement, saying that the Torah is divinely inspired, but the work of human hands.

Especially when it comes to Jewish law, Conservative Judaism takes a stance between plain reason and blind reliance on tradition. Unlike the Orthodox, Conservative Judaism believes that Jewish law should be continually examined to meet the needs of every new generation. Unlike the Reform, Conservative Judaism maintains that Jewish law should be modified by rabbis and sages, and not by individual Jews.
Conservative Judaism teaches that Jews should offer three prayer services daily and follow other traditional customs, such as wearing a kippah when praying (some Conservative Jews wear a kippah at all times, as do Orthodox Jews). But Conservative Judaism also tries to accommodate the modern world. Conservative Jews generally send their children to public schools, supplementing this with religious schooling several times a week. Conservative religious schools emphasize the Hebrew language and knowledge of the Bible.

Conservative Jews prepare to be rabbis at the graduate schools called the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Conservative Judaism originally opposed the idea of women serving as rabbis, but in recent years many women have been ordained as Conservative rabbis.

At one time, Conservative Judaism was the largest movement in the United States, but its popularity has dwindled in recent years. Like the Reform movement, it is represented in countries around the world (with an especially large following in Great Britain) and it has made some in-roads in the State of Israel.

RECONSTRUCTIONIST JUDAISM

The newest of the four modern Jewish religious movements in the United States is the small Reconstructionist movement. This movement broke away from Conservative Judaism in the 1920s to follow the teachings of a brilliant rabbi, Mordecai Kaplan. Kaplan felt that Judaism needed, not small changes, but a “reconstruction” for our time. Kaplan's idea of God was unique in Judaism, for while all Jews believed that history was an important aspect of the Jewish religion, Kaplan viewed history as the unfolding of God in the world. In this light, God could be said to be the sum total of all things that are, were, and are yet to be.

In its philosophy, Reconstructionist Judaism differs somewhat from Conservative Judaism. In practice, however, Reconstructionist Judaism adheres closely to its parent movement.

Reconstructionist Jews generally send their children to public schools and to afternoon or Sunday religious school for instruction in Hebrew and Judaism. As in the Conservative and Reform movements, students train to be rabbis at a special college, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (located in Philadelphia) only after completing four years of undergraduate work at another university. The Reconstructionist movement has always been a staunch supporter of women's rights in Judaism. Indeed, the first recorded ceremony of Bat Mitzvah was held for the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. Women in the Reconstructionist movement are encouraged to become rabbis and the first ordination of a Reconstructionist woman rabbi was held in 1974, only two short years after the first Reform woman was ordained.

HASIDIC JUDAISM

Hasidic (sometimes spelled Chasidic) Judaism is a very vocal sub-group that wields influence beyond its small numbers. Its beginnings can be traced to the late 1700s, but the group that calls itself Hasidic today bears little resemblance to its early progenitors. Hasidic Judaism began in an honest effort to restore the joy of Judaism to the average Jew. It succeeded due to the charisma of its early teachers; and, where it continues to succeed today, it is still due to its charismatic leaders each one called a rebbe (a Yiddish term used instead of the Hebrew "rabbi"). Like many other reactionary movements, the main idea of Hasidic Judaism is that Jews should separate themselves from the modern world and continue to live in "the good old ways." On close inspection, however, "the good old days" (that is, the eighteenth-century world which Hasidism represents in both dress and practice) were times of oppression and ignorance. It was in such a world that Jews could give credence to the claims that their rebbes worked miracles, wrote effective amulets, and exorcised demons.

One group of modern Hasidim -- the followers of the Lubavitch rebbe who call themselves Habad (often spelled, Chabad) Hasidim -- have proven very canny in the use of modern media to garner attention. Their ever-growing presence on the Internet, for example, makes it seem as if they number in the millions while quite the opposite is the case. Despite their outward look of modernity, their medieval roots persist, as seen in their response to the death of their last rebbe. All mourned him, but some soon proclaimed that the deceased rebbe was either the messiah or the harbinger of the messiah. Huge billboards announced prayers for the dead rebbe's resurrection. Such a call, for the resurrection of a charismatic leader, is antithetical to mainstream Judaism (and has been so throughout history as mainstream Jews denounced one false messiah after another)

In terms of belief, the Hasidic movement hardly differs from the Orthodox movement except that it is consistently more stringent and more extremist. While study is encouraged for men and boys, women are still accorded a lesser place in Hasidic Judaism than in any other Jewish religious movement. Unlike the vast majority of Jews in this or any other age, Hasidim read the Bible as the literal word of God believing, for example, that the world was actually created in seven days. Hasidic Judaism is also cult-like in its demand for complete and blind faith on the part of its adherents who live in small tightly knit, carefully controlled communities.

The Hasidic movement remains the smallest Jewish religious group in the United States. Its radical, rightwing position today is ironical, considering its beginnings as a movement to bring new vigor to the Jewish world. Early Hasidism set out to be a liberalizing influence and its early form actually influenced and continues to influence all branches of modern Jewish thought.

KLAL YISRAEL

No matter what set of beliefs a Jew subscribes to, there is a sense of solidarity among all Jews, born of the recognition that Jews share a common history, heritage, language, and culture. They also tend to share a common fate, sometimes for the good and sometimes not. When one Jew is noticed, all are brought into focus. When the Jewish people, faith, or state is noticed, so is the individual Jew. The Talmud expressed its recognition of this commonality in a positive statement, "All Jews are responsible one for another." This sums up the Jewish value called Klal Yisrael, the "Community of Israel."

 


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