Denominations in Judaism vs Christianity

A few times over the past few months, I have had to explain the practice of Judaism to nonJews, usually those more familiar with Christianity. Like Christianity and other religions, Judaism also has denominations. However, it is a bit different in Judaism than Christianity. I like to say that while Christianity is like a tree with many branches and subbranches, Judaism is more like a spectrum. That is not to say that Judaism does not have branches, but the main difference is spectral.

600px-BranchesofChristianity.svgWhile this image is not a perfect description, it largely illustrates how Christianity started more or less with one type. It took a few hundred years to coagulate into reasonable consistency, as it filled the growing religious vacuum in the Roman Empire. The first split was not as big as later splits, but yielded what is today Orthodox Christianity. This shows us the beginning of the branching off. The next most famous split was the Protestant reformation started by Martin Luther. Around the same time, Calvinism began, and when Henry VIII wanted his marriages ended, he split off to form Anglicanism. Over the next centuries, there would be a lot of fracturing among Protestants. Meanwhile the Catholic trunk remained firm.

In Judaism, as I said, it is more like a spectrum from very strictly observant to very unobservant. Even atheists are considered Jewish if they are of descent, while atheists of Christian descent are not. For most of Jewish history, there was largely one type of practice. There were regional splits, whether between the two kingdoms, or later between Ashkenazim, Sefardim, Mizrahim, Yemenites, Ethiopians, and others. But by and large, the general practice remained the same, or was unified, at least until the 1700s and 1800s.

Around that time, a cult-like movement began that is known today as Hasidism. Hasidics focus on mysticism of Judaism and the vague term spirituality. The movement was founded by a rabbi in Poland. It has since branched out into many sects of varying types, from the crazy ultra-religious and antiisrael Satmar, to the joyspreading Breslovers, to the quirky but openhearted Chabad-Lubavitch. Not to mention many many other sects.

While that was developing in Poland, a reformation was occurring in cosmopolitan Germany. Jews faced less antisemitism there at the time, than elsewhere, but still felt it. Finally liberated somewhat from shtetls and the Pale, they wanted to assimilate and modernize. However, they still felt a duty to their faith. Thus, reform Judaism was developed, which focused on secular views, discarded many religious practices, and focused on light prayer and more practical things. The movement settled in Britain and America, but disappeared in Germany. Reform Judaism has gotten into so much trouble that today they struggle to keep members and have opened up to mixed marriages, women in leadership roles, and inclusion of homosexuals. The change has been described as a Protestantization of Judaism. Looking at the descendant of this movement, one can be skeptical if it is even Jewish.

While this was ongoing, some felt that the Reformers had taken it too far. However, they were not interested in going back to Orthodoxy. Instead, they formed a midway point: conservative Judaism. My family went to a conservative synagogue, however my mom referred to it as conservadox. One might say that conservative Judaism does not really exist. One is either conservaform or conservadox. My family was more conservaform, but our synagogue was more conservadox. A conservative synagogue might keep kashrut and Shabbat and holidays observantly, but with a more liberal view. One might rest on Shabbat, but drive to synagogue for the convenience.

Among the Orthodox, there was a feeling that some assimilation and modernization is ok. This became the modern Orthodox movement. Most Orthodox Jews you meet will be this, however, the fertility of the ultra-Orthodox is higher, so they are greater in proportion, but keep more to themselves in a few enclaves in New York and New Jersey, and a few other locations.

From there, there is even further divergence with Reconstructionism, which is almost atheist, and humanist Judaism, which is completely secular, but still want to identify as Jewish. There are other smaller groups as well. Altogether, this makes a spectrum from Reconstruction and Reform, to more observance in Conservatism, and more in Modern Orthodox, and the most among the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox. Interestingly, this has only occurred among Ashkenazim. Other regional types of Judaism remained in an orthodox observancy.

In the late Second Temple era, after the Maccabees, there was another schism, and perhaps the only one that can be compared to Christianity. As some may know, there were two main groups: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Both claim to be the original practitioners of Judaism since Sinai. Most of the information about them is from heavily biased sources: the Gospels, the Talmud, and Josephus. The Sadducees were primarily made up of the priests: Kohanim and Levites. The Pharisees were a more populist group, who wanted to sort of democratize things. The main split was over whether there was an Oral Law (Mishnah) given at Mt Sinai along with the Written Law (Torah). Other differences developed, but the Sadducees ultimately disappeared. The Pharisees became the “mainstream” rabbinic Judaism we know today.

A similar group emerged in the 800s CE and became known as the Karaites. It is likely that the Karaites descended from the Sadducees, and had simply disappeared from the records for a few centuries. This group grew very large in the Middle Ages and flourished when Saladin and the Kurds conquered Jerusalem. A synagogue was built, that today is the oldest surviving synagogue in Jerusalem, despite being attacked and bombed a few times over the years. After a golden age, the group declined, and are thought by many to be extinct. However, they persist in a few small communities in the United States (that include converts and ex-rabbinic Jews), in Turkey, Poland, and mainly Israel. Egypt had a large community of Karaites until rising antisemitism caused emigration of virtually all Jews in the early 1950s. Moshe Marzouk, an Egyptian-Israeli secret agent executed by Egypt, was a Karaite.

I personally identify somewhere between Karaite and Sadducee. There are actually some differences between the two, as Karaites appear to have assimilated some rabbinic beliefs and practices. Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife; Karaites do. In addition to that original schism, there was a third group which was more monastic. The Essenes, as they were known, produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, which provided a wealth of information not available for centuries, including on the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). Their editions of the Tanakh, in some cases, validated the Septuagint over the Masoretic text (which is the common basis of the modern Torah, Prophets, and Writings). This group concentrated around the Dead Sea and lived bizarrely in some ways. It is thought that John the Baptist and Jesus may have been born out of this community.

The fact that Judaism is more of a spectrum has kept us more unified. While even Pharisees and Sadducees and Rabbinics and Karaites had strongly divergent opinions, they never went to war. The same cannot be said of Catholics and Protestants, who warred for centuries (altho this might be more an ethnic conflict cloaked in religion). All in all, the contrast between the two religions is intriguing at least. From time to time, I will continue to provide comparisons between Judaism and Christianity that are less known. I will not delve into core issues like messiah (Sadducees dont believe in one, but Karaites do!), but will mainly take a look at structural differences.


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