What Are the 4 Main Jewish Sects?

Once a unified religion, Judaism is very diverse today and encompasses four major groups. Find out more about the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Hassidic Jewish sects.

Feb 14, 2024By Vedran Obucina, PhD History, MA Political Science and Theology, BA Philosophy

four jewish sects


Judaism is a belief system that assumes the existence of a single (and singular) deity whose creative agency brought the universe into being and who directs all life toward ethical goals. God is an all-knowing, all-powerful creator with no children, no rivals, and no equals. A special covenant relationship exists between the Jewish people and the Creator-God.


There are several Jewish sects in modern Judaism, which began in the 18th century and have lasted until today. Judaism split into several groups, mainly due to pogroms and genocides, but also thanks to the creation of the modern State of Israel in 1948, via the partition of Palestine.


1. Reform Judaism: The First Modern Jewish Sect

Prayer at the Western Wall, by 777jew, Source: Pixabay


In the 1800s, with the spread of enlightenment ideas in Europe, many Jews wanted to apply a more scientific background to their lives and promote morality based on a “reformed” and “modernized” Jewish tradition. Reform Judaism is also known as Liberal or Progressive Judaism.


Some changed prayerbooks and rejected Jerusalem as their home — as they had been living for generations in Europe. Many Reform Jews also stopped wearing a kippah, had shorter services, and introduced organ music to their synagogues.

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Their various rituals became nothing more than a means of achieving spiritual ascension or moral improvement. The reform movement is distinguished by the fact that the individual, even with a sincere consideration of tradition and community, is decisive and must formulate his personal views on any subject.


Rabbi Abraham Geiger, 19th century, Source: JWA


In the 1830s, a group of young German Jews, headed by Rabbi Abraham Geiger, decided which rituals still had meaning and which did not. They also changed the kosher rules and tended to think that the purpose of religion was to feel holy and spiritual and to be moral. Their movement away from tradition was careful but constant; later, the Neo-Reformist movement returned to some abandoned traditions.


Concerning the Creator, reformist thinkers have always adhered to a theistic approach and the belief in the existence of a personal God. In the 20th century, there was a minority of opinion-makers who advocated religious humanism and even secular humanism. The movement rejected these positions, which were never included in the official platform, and the obligation of faith in God was kept solid.


The central element of the reformist conception is a belief in the constant revelation of God’s will in the world, which is not limited to Mount Sinai. According to this understanding, the Torah, the words of the prophets, and all the Holy Scriptures were compiled by the hands of men in whom the Spirit of God sang, but he never explicitly dictated his will to them. The text reflects the experience of revelation, the limitations and desires of the writers, and the spirit of their time.


The entire nation of Israel shares the same ability and is capable of reaching new insights into the divine. Therefore religion can and should be renewed, not necessarily based on past precedents. The concept of constant discovery drew on many philosophers from German idealism, especially Kant and Hegel.


The Torah, by Nellyaltenburger, Source: Pixabay


Around the middle of the 20th century, especially given the heavy shadow cast by the Second World War on the confidence in the improvement of the human race, the rationalistic and optimistic perception was abandoned. The Neo-Reformation replaced this outlook with the religious existentialism of Franz Rosenzweig.


Instead of the idea of cumulative wisdom, with each generation surpassing the previous one, Rosenzweig believed that revelation has no content and message other than itself — the members of each generation experience it and process it according to their subjective understanding, which does not guarantee any truth.


The movement never wholly abandoned the discourse of Jewish law, both out of the need to respond to opposition from the outside and out of continuity with the past. But basically, ethical considerations or the spirit of the times were given decisive weight.


German copy of the Torah, photo December 2007, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Reform Judaism introduced a belief that in its action to spread ethical monotheism and justice, the nation fulfills its destiny and brings closer the arrival of a global messianic age in which peace and harmony will prevail among all human beings. In addition, and as part of the same tendency to sift out elements considered irrational or superstitious, the belief in the future resurrection of the dead was rejected and condemned as both inappropriate and a late importation from the Zoroastrian religion.


For the same reasons, expansive interpretations of the concept of reward and punishment in the next world were ruled out in favor of a minimalist conception. The souls of the righteous will know peace after death, while the wicked will experience eternal torments and pangs of conscience. Of all the beliefs concerning life after death, only the one about the soul’s survival remained in Reform Judaism, which the fathers of the movement saw as a noble and rational idea.


Hanukkah candles, by Ri_Ya, Source: Pixabay


Reform Judaism made considerable steps toward liberal values. It introduced equality for women in prayer and religious life and was also a pioneer in tolerance towards LGBT people and the ordination of rabbis who openly identified as non-heterosexual. They introduced the struggle for social justice and various progressive goals, accepted partially mixed marriages, and the recognition of offspring from both Jewish parents as Jewish.


Reform Judaism identifies with progressive political and social agendas, mainly under the traditional Jewish agenda of Tikun Olam, or “Repairing the World.” Tikun Olam is the central motto of Reform Judaism, and acting within its framework it is one of the main channels through which followers can express their affiliation. The most important center of the movement today is in North America. Various regional branches also share these beliefs, including the American Union for Reform Judaism, the Movement for Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism in Great Britain, and the Israeli Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. They are all united in the International World Union for Progressive Judaism.


It is estimated they represent at least 1.8 million people in 50 countries; close to a million registered adult members and nearly as many unregistered individuals who identify with this denomination. This makes it the second-largest Jewish sect in the world, after Orthodox Judaism and before Conservative Judaism.


2. Orthodox Judaism: The Reactionary Jewish Sect

Jewish prayer, by mig-ua, Source: Pixabay


Orthodox Judaism is a major current in Judaism that advocates the traditional belief that the written Torah and the Oral Torah were given to Moses on Mount Sinai, emphasizing the full commitment to the chain of accepted rulings of Jewish Law (Halakha). This position distinguishes it from the other two main currents in modern times, the conservatives and the reformers.


The existence of Orthodoxy as a separate stream is an innovation that first developed in the 19th century in Central Europe due to the disintegration of Jewish communal autonomy during the emancipation and polarization between those who continued to maintain an affinity for observing the mitzvot (commandments within the law) and between the majority who gradually distanced themselves from religious life. Orthodox Jews stuck to the laws of the Torah and Talmud, warning that the Jews cannot just reject what was written for them and has been explained by the rabbis through centuries.


Star of David and Torah, by Ri_Ya, Source: Pixabay


Orthodox Judaism lacks an organizational framework and is made up of communities sharing a common ethos, some of which do not recognize the legitimacy of each other. Roughly speaking, the current can be divided between the conservative and withdrawn ultra-Orthodox and relatively open groups such as religious Zionism and modern Orthodoxy.


A splinter group of modern Orthodox has allowed some small concessions. Samson Rafael Hirsch, the leader of this group, decided it was time to split organizationally and form separate synagogues and communities rather than arguing for only one way in Judaism.


It can be said as a general rule that Orthodox Judaism strives to preserve the observance of the commandments, as they were in the Jewish community after the disappearance of the various Jewish sects after the destruction of the Second Temple and the rise of the Pharisee tradition until the modern era.


The concept of Halakha rests on the belief that the source of the written Torah and the Oral Torah was at Mount Sinai and that the prophets and the rabbis who continued on their path derived all their rulings from there. A central component of this worldview is the view of religion as essentially standing above history, unhindered by external influences. Hence the Halakha must be based on rabbinical sources and accepted rulings.


Orthodox Jews praying in Jerusalem, by Rliessum, Source: Pixabay


Orthodox Judaism is essentially a reactionary movement against reformist tendencies. The growth of Orthodox consciousness is linked to a significant threat to the religious framework, which motivated the religious authorities to respond in a way that is not individual but systemic and inclusive, often with a trend of strengthening the prevailing practice. The Orthodox went through processes of social isolation while establishing an elitist self-identity as the keepers of tradition, and even in its early days, its members adopted austerities that were controversial.


The characteristics of classical orthodoxy, which was introduced by Hatam Sofer and his students in Hungary, were expressed in several principles: A desire to establish separate communities from the rest of the Jewish public while abandoning the unity of Israel, sometimes while calling for the new sinners to be treated like sectarians who had been expelled, suspicion and hostility towards the past, and an emphasis on Gemara religious studies only — neglecting external wisdom.


They also raised the importance of custom and the status of the judge through what finally crystallized into the concept of Torah opinion. They embraced the development of the ideology that in the world of Jewish thought and action there is nothing but the four pillars of Halakha. Not every Orthodox group follows these rules.


Samson Raphael Hirsch, Source: Jewishpress.com


One of the challenges facing Orthodoxy since its inception is the attitude of the majority of the Jewish public who no longer observe mitzvot. Their rabbis have presented a variety of answers to questions about Shabbat violators and the violation of the kosher laws. Although there were many calls for complete withdrawal and the severing of all ties with them, a combined approach was generally taken, the goal of which was not to recognize the legitimacy of the offenses but to assert the superiority of the religious over the rest.


Despite what they have in common in their adherence to Halakha, the various Orthodox groups are divided on many levels. While in the 19th century, the differences focused on questions such as the attitude to modern education and the need to separate from the general public, in the 20th century, the issues of Zionism and the State of Israel have emerged as a primary source of friction, with some Orthodox movements preaching a principled and absolute negation of the state. These differences have led to alienation and multiple conflicts and separations.


An Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem, by tdjgorden, Source: Pixabay


In Israel, various groups are divided by the interpretation of the mitzvot and by customs such as clothing. Among the prominent groups are the Ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox, and groups based on their geographical origin. Examples of this are the religious kibbutz settlements and religious feminist groups, which call for the integration of women into religious life while maintaining the Orthodox framework and loyalty to Jewish law. Among the modern wing, division is increasing on questions such as scientific research, feminism, and various social questions.


Most of the traditionalists in Israel also see themselves as having an affinity with Orthodox Judaism. Even the secularists in Israel, most of whom come from Eastern Europe, tend to see it, positively or negatively, as the authentic version of the Jewish religion. Those of them who hold religious ceremonies such as funerals, prayers in a synagogue on Yom Kippur, and the turning to the Torah at a bar mitzvah usually do so in accordance with the practice of Orthodox Judaism, sometimes because of an affinity with the current and sometimes because of the lack of an alternative. In addition, Jewish marriages and divorces in Israel are subject by law to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which is an Orthodox body.


Although the acceptance of the principles of the faith and observance of the mitzvot have decreased drastically among the Jewish public since the beginning of the modern era, and despite being a minority of all Jews, Orthodoxy is the largest of the currents in Judaism.


Based on estimates of the situation at the end of the 20th century, at least two million people follow this Jewish sect. Another two million nominal fans have expressed considerable identification with it or are registered in Orthodox community organizations such as the Knesset of Israel in Great Britain.


3. Conservative Judaism: A Compromise Jewish Sect

Zechariah Frankel, by X.A.V.E. Singer, 1882, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Conservative Judaism (also known as traditional Judaism and positive-historical Judaism) advocates that the authority of tradition derives first of all from its acceptance by the people and the community over the generations and less from its origin in revelation. Therefore, the conservatives see the law as binding and, at the same time, subject to constant historical influence.


They believe that its ruling should reflect a scientific-critical approach to the sources and the lifestyles of the general public. Also, the movement has moved away from unequivocal theological determinations and maintains extensive pluralism on matters of faith.


The movement’s primary focus is in North America, where most of its communities are incorporated within the “United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism.” The spiritual leadership is in the hands of the Knesset of Rabbis of the movement.


The Conservatives estimate that they represent over a million adult Jews, with about 600,000 members registered in their communities, and several hundred thousand more who have identified themselves in a statement. In the State of Israel, the traditional movement represents this Jewish sect.


Conservative Service in Adath Israel, Merion Station, Pennsylvania, photo by Morris Levin, 2019, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Zechariah Frankel, another critic of Reform Judaism, was the founder of Conservative Judaism, formed around the Jewish Theological Seminary in Wroclaw, Poland. Frankel saw a systematic theological practice as foreign to Judaism and was frequently accused by his opponents of evasion and obscurity. Only one significant attempt has been made to formulate a platform of faith, the “Truth and Faith” statement compiled by the movement’s leadership council in 1988.


It referred to basic concepts such as God, revelation, and the election of the people of Israel but recognized a wide range of views within the movement and avoided rigid definitions. Conservative thinkers generally tend to insist on a belief in the existence of a personal God. Many conservative thinkers also continue to believe in the survival of the soul, in the resurrection to some degree, in the keeping of the priesthood, and in the coming of the Messianic age.


Still, all of this has been contested in many debates. The issue of revelation has also undergone considerable development. Frankel and his associates applied scientific-critical methods in the analysis of the Oral Torah and saw the prophets as creative innovators and not only subjects and interpreters of the events at Mount Sinai. At the same time, they ultimately rejected criticism of the Bible. They continued to see the written Torah as the exclusive fruit of heavenly revelation, a text beyond skeptical analysis.


Jewish menorah, by Ri-Ya, Source: Pixabay


The reconstructionists who emerged in the 1930s completely rejected the concept of revelation and saw the Holy Scriptures as a purely human creation. Their position was not accepted by the majority. Still, along with the weakening belief in the Bible’s divinity by the American public, their influence led around the 1970s to the transformation of non-literal conceptions of the idea into a dominant stance in the Conservative rabbinate.


These two schools of thought described the transmission of the Torah as a human process with some degree of divine inspiration. Such thinking also justified extensive changes in religious practice and halakhic flexibility. However, what is common to all conservative views is the emphasis on the revelation of the Creator to the spiritual leaders or the people of Israel as a collective (and not to the individual, as in Reform Judaism). Because of this, they all give great importance to tradition and community rather than personal decisions, a prominent feature of conservative thought in all its streams.


A rabbi in Jerusalem, by neufal54, Source: Pixabay


Frankel attributed importance to tradition not necessarily due to its anchoring in a divine source but because it represents the collective spirit of the people. Shneor Zalman Schechter continued in this direction and developed a concept of “all of Israel,” which, in his eyes, was the true driving force of the tradition throughout the generations. It created disputes with the other elements in Judaism but also within the Conservatives themselves.


Many of their successors claimed that this created a disconnection between the public. The Conservative rabbinate has often debated how far it can take into account the indifferent and far-from-observant majority among the members of its congregations, who were supposed to function as “all of Israel” and be a factor in determining the Halacha. This gap between the rabbinate and the audience is a prominent characteristic of the movement. It is considered one of the essential factors in the deterioration of its status since the end of the 20th century.


Female rabbis reading Torah, 2007, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Conservative Judaism emphasizes the observance of the Halakha as the primary expression of belonging to Judaism, regardless of belief in its divine origin. At the same time, the conservatives see its development as the result of a mutual influence between Jewish society, the surrounding world, and the judges, and as always it is derived from its ancient origins and the environment in which the rabbis worked together. At the same time, the accusation of stretching the boundaries of the Halakha far beyond what is possible was raised, among other things, during the repeated resignations of conservative judges over the ratification of the ordination of women as Rabbis or recognition of same-sex relationships. Within the Knesset of Rabbis, there are various positions regarding various modern issues and the appropriate attitude towards them.


The most distinct characteristic of conservative jurisprudence is the inclusion of the critical-scientific method deep into the process. Discussions always outline the development of the subject throughout history, as learned not only from the accepted traditional sources but also from information obtained in any other way through external, historical, or philological research. Over time, these innovations have gained permanence.


The movement continues to issue new, more daring regulations, such as mixed sitting in synagogues, using electricity on Shabbat, performing divorces, marrying converts and gentiles, giving full equality to transgender people, etc.


4. Hasidic Judaism: A Mystical Jewish Sect

Hasidic Jews at Western Wall, by MoneyforCoffee, Source: Pixabay


Although not a sect by itself but a group within Orthodox Judaism, Hasidic Jews are among the most prominent Jewish communities today. Hasidism is a Jewish spiritual and social movement that arose in the middle of the 18th century in today’s Western Ukraine and spread rapidly in Eastern European Jewry. Baal Shem Tov is considered the originator of Hasidism. Hasidic thought was influenced, especially in its first generations, by the emphasis on the presence of God in the entire universe, the need to adhere to Him at all times and places, and the hidden spiritual dimension of reality.


Hasidism became the primary form of Judaism in Eastern Europe until 1815. It was an appealing movement, in which people danced, clapped, sang religious songs, were enthusiastically spiritual, gave blessings, and cared for the spiritual state of people. They would focus more on prayer than studying, although they were printing more books than any other Jewish group at the time.


On local levels, they would form Chavurot, small groups of people who facilitated everything from doweries to funerals. They are recognizable for their heavy hats, black clothes, and long curly hair on the sides of their head (Payot), which they do not cut because of a Commandment in the Torah.


Since the second half of the 20th century, most Hasidic Jews have lived in Israel, the United States, Great Britain, and Belgium. They are a subgroup within the ultra-orthodox world and they are generally considered pious and conservative. Hasidic Jews preserve many of the traditions of Eastern European Judaism. Their old clothing and daily Yiddish speech have become almost exclusively identified with them.


Baal Shem Tov, Source: Myjewishlearning.com


Among the characteristics identified with Hasidism, which are very common outside of it, is the emphasis on joy in the work of the Creator. So is the respect for the “ordinary Jew” as compared to the glorification of the elitist disciples of the sages that were widespread among its opponents.


The tension between Hasidism and the ruling rabbinic establishment, whose authority was based on the greatness of its members, quickly dissipated, and the movement soon emphasized the centrality of regular learning. The spiritual-mystical Torah spread by the fathers of Hasidism was not abandoned; Many rabbis continued to be original and creative thinkers, and despite claims of “degeneracy,” the movement remained vibrant and active. However, the emphasis on many aspects of early doctrine was indeed reduced in favor of routine and accepted norms.


Tish, or gathering, of Hasidic Jews, 2009, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The basic concept underpinning Hasidic thought is immanence — the divine presence in the entire universe, which is frequently expressed in a quote from the mystical text the Zohar. Before creation, God was required to reduce his perfect, abstract, and unlimited presence, known as “infinite light.” This is how a “vacant space” was created in which only a record of infinite light remained, seemingly separated from God’s bones.


In this space, good and evil could exist along with free will, and other phenomena impossible within the perfect and uniform infinity. But the reality of the universe depends entirely on its divine origin and spiritual essence, without which it would be nothing.


At the same time, infinity cannot appear in its complete form within the free space and must reduce itself to a limited physicality that the senses can perceive. Thus, there is a dialectical unity of contrasts between physical corporeality and divinity when each transforms itself into the other. Just as God has to reduce himself to express himself in the material world, so it is incumbent upon human beings to transcend and reunite with the infinite.


Hasidic Jews dancing, Source: The Israel Museum


While it is difficult to separate the doctrine of Hasidism from the texts of the Kabbalah, the distinct and distinguishing characteristic of the movement, both as an ideal and as an institutional entity, is the spiritual leader of the Hasidic community, the tzaddik — known today also by the general honorific title “Admor” (our Lord, our teacher and our rabbi) or by the popular nickname “Rabbi.”


The idea that there are righteous men in every generation through whom the abundance is continued into the physical world predates the students of the Beshat, and the Book of Zohar declared that one of them is supreme. Hasidism made the concept of the righteous the basis of its entire system and organizational core, so much so that in its literature, the title took on a different and distinct meaning from the original one of a God-fearing person.


Hasidic prayer practice helps meditation and is accompanied by characteristic chanting without words and sharp body movements. Hasidic prayers are accompanied by melodies (nigun), which became well-known for the so-called klezmer music.


Hasidism considers prayer one of the most important religious practices. A feature of Hasidic prayers, which causes fierce resistance in non-Hasidic Orthodox circles, is the almost complete rejection of the traditional prayer schedule (zmanim), especially for morning prayers.


There are other Hasidic peculiarities of the prayer, which critics see as a violation of the laws of Halakha. Some ideologues of Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism claim that elements of Hasidic rituals have become widely accepted in their practice, with which the Hasids themselves mostly disagree.

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By Vedran ObucinaPhD History, MA Political Science and Theology, BA PhilosophyVedran is a Croatian political scientist, historian, and theologian. He is an Old-Catholic priest and is interested in the history of religions and philosophy. He is also very active in religious peacebuilding. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Regensburg; an MA in political science from the University of Zagreb; and an MA in Theology with a BA in philosophy from Old-Catholic Seminary. He writes about world religions, their histories, and rituals, as well as the history of philosophical ideas.