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The relationships between the various denominations of American Judaism can be conciliatory, welcoming, or even antagonistic.

Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Judaism holds that both Conservative and Reform Judaism have made major and unjustifiable breaks with historic Judaism, both by their skepticism of the verbal revelation of Written and Oral Torah, and by Reform Judaism's rejection of halakhic (Jewish legal) precedent as binding. Its views Pluralism as a construct of the liberal movements and does not see their ideology as rooted in historic Jewish norms. Orthodox rabbis have ruled that Karaite Judaism is much closer to Orthodoxy than the Conservative and Reform movements, while maintaining that critical differences between Orthodox Judaism and Karaism exist, Karaites are recognized as Jews. While not recognizing Reform and Conservative as valid expressions of Judaism, it still recognizes Jews affiliated with these movements as Jews.

Haredi views

When dealing with others of their own faith who have different philosophies, Haredi Jews attempt to differentiate between the individual practitioners and the movement/philosophy.[1]

When dealing with the individual, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein is famously quoted as characterizing all current-day non-Orthodox Jews as Tinokot Shenishbu, literally "captured children," in a category analogous to Jewish children captured by non-Jews who were never taught Judaism, meaning that they do not act out of wrong intent or motives, but out of ignorance and poor upbringing (Iggeroth Moshe) .

However, when dealing with the movement/philosophy, they perceive the generation of other denominations to have historically been engendered by heretical intent and the 1800s widespread denigration of religion. They view Reform Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism and Conservative Judaism as heretical non-Jewish movements. Some Haredi leaders[who?] have stated that Reform is philosophically further from authentic Judaism than Christianity and Islam. As such, Haredi authorities have strongly fought attempts by the Reform and Conservative movements to gain official recognition and denominational legitimacy in Israel. Haredi groups and authorities will not work with non-Orthodox religious movements in any way, as they view this as lending legitimacy to those movements. The members of those movements who have been born of a Jewish mother are, however, still regarded as Jews.[1]

The relationship between Haredi and Modern Orthodox Judaism is more complex; most Haredi Jews see Modern Orthodox Jews as allies, but they disagree with their accommodations of modernity, and view them as lax in their observance.

Modern Orthodox views

When dealing with other denominations who have different philosophies, the Modern Orthodox outlook is that differences have not been generated by heretical or iniquitous intent, but by an attempt to reconcile Judaism with modernity. Thus, although Modern Orthodox Jews find all non-Orthodox forms of Judaism to be wrong, the non-Orthodox movements are not considered to be inherent antagonists; rather they are perceived to be competitors offering a faulty product, so to speak.

In his 1954 responsum on relations with non-Orthodox Judaism, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik developed the intellectual foundations for the way Modern Orthodox Judaism was to approach the issue in subsequent decades. Rabbi Soloveitchik developed the idea that Jews have historically been linked together by two distinct covenants. One is the brit yi'ud, "covenant of destiny", which is the covenant by which Jews are bound together through their adherence to halakha. The second is the brit goral, "covenant of fate", the desire and willingness to be part of a people chosen by God to live a sacred mission in the world, and the fact that all those who live in this covenant share the same fate of persecution and oppression, even if they do not live by halakha. Soloveitchik held that non-Orthodox Jews were in violation of the covenant of destiny, yet they are still bound together with Orthodox Jews in the covenant of fate. This approach permitted cooperation in matters effecting the covenant of fate while recognizing differences, and limits, based on the covenant of destiny.

Following this lead, until the 1970s the Modern Orthodox and the non-Orthodox movements worked together in the now-defunct Synagogue Council of America. However, the relationship between Modern Orthodoxy and the non-Orthodox movements has worsened over the last few decades. The movements have seen a polarization of views. Haredi Judaism has seen a great resurgence in its popularity, and many formerly Modern Orthodox rabbis have been swayed to some degree by their views. As well, non-Orthodox movements have progressively moved to the "left". Starkly so, Reform Judaism rejected the traditional definition of a Jew via matrilineal descent, effectively severing the united peoplehood that had linked Reform and non-Reform movements. For practically all Orthodox Jews (and many Conservative Jews) this was seen as splitting the Jewish people into two mutually incompatible groups. The confluence of these two phenomena helped drive most of Modern Orthodoxy further to the right, and effectively ended all official cooperation between Modern Orthodoxy and all of the non-Orthodox denominations.

Some within the Orthodox world advocate that while non-Orthodox forms of Judaism are incorrect, they nonetheless have functional validity and spiritual dignity. Rabbi Norman Lamm writes:

...Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist communities are not only more numerous in their official memberships than the Orthodox community, but they are also vital, powerful and dynamic; they are committed to Jewish survival, each according to its own lights; they are a part of Klal Yisrael; and they consider their rabbis their leaders. From a functional point of view, therefore, non-Orthodox rabbis are valid leaders of Jewish religious communities, and it is both fatuous and self-defeating not to acknowledge this openly and draw the necessary consequences--for example, establishing friendly and harmonious and respectful relationships and working together, all of us, towards those Jewish communal and global goals that we share and that unite us inextricably and indissolubly....
...non-Orthodox rabbis and laypeople may possess spiritual dignity. If they are sincere, if they believe in God, if they are motivated by principle and not by convenience or trendiness, if they endeavor to carry out the consequences of their faith in a consistent manner--then they are religious people.... But neither functional validity nor spiritual dignity are identical with Jewish legitimacy. "Validity" derives from the Latin validus, strong. It is a factual, descriptive term. "Legitimacy" derives from the Latin lex, law. It is a normative and evaluative term.[1]

A number of modern Orthodox rabbis advocate good relations with their non-Orthodox peers. In 1982 Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought published a symposium on the state of Orthodox Judaism, with contributions by many leading Orthodox rabbis. The first question the editor asked the rabbis was "Do you believe that recent developments warrant the triumphalism exhibited by segments of Orthodoxy which predict the total disappearance of non-Orthodox movements?" Rabbi Marc D. Angel replied that "we should be frightened by the possibility. With all our theological differences, yet we part of one Jewish people and work together in so many ways for the benefit of the Jewish community....It is not a happy prospect that the overwhelming majority of American Jews will lose their Jewishness. It is also unlikely that the vast numbers of the non-Orthodox community will move into Orthodoxy in the relatively near future." Rabbi David Berger replied "I confess that I would not look forward to such a disappearance....The Jewish loyalties and observances of non-Orthodox Jews are decidedly better than nothing....The only weakening of Conservatism and Reform for which Orthodoxy can legitimately hope would come through conversion to Orthodoxy. No such development appears imminent in statistically significant numbers." The message of other rabbis rings a similar note; no rabbis profiled in the symposium believed that most non-Orthodox Jews would ever convert to Orthodoxy. Thus Orthodoxy should work together on some issues with non-Orthodox Judaism, and it is far better for Jews to be members of non-Orthodox Judaism than to assimilate and not be religious Jews at all.

A small number of modern Orthodox rabbis cooperate with non-Orthodox rabbis on a regular basis through smaller organizations such as CLAL (The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) and the New York Board of Rabbis.

Some American Modern Orthodox rabbis have recently created a new modern Orthodox advocacy group, Edah, which includes members of the Rabbinical Council of America. Edah's mission statement says: "The Vision of Edah is an Orthodox Jewish community in which we, as members, leaders, and institutions....reach out to and interact with Jews of all the movements as well as non -affiliated Jews as an expression of the wholeness of, and in an effort to strengthen, the entire Jewish people."

Conservative views

Conservative Judaism holds that Orthodox Judaism is a valid and legitimate form of normative rabbinic Judaism; it respects the validity of its rabbis. Conservative Judaism holds that both Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism have made major and unjustifiable breaks with historic Judaism, both by their rejection of Jewish law and tradition as normative, and by their unilateral acts in creating a separate definition of Jewishness (i.e. the latter movement's acceptance of patrilineal descent as an additional way of defining Jewishness.) Despite this disagreement, Conservative Judaism respects the right of Reform and Reconstructionist Jews to interpret Judaism in their own way. Thus the Conservative movement recognizes the right of Jews to form such denominations, and recognizes their clergy as rabbis, but does not generally accept their decisions as valid. Thus, for example, the Conservative movement typically does not accept Reform converts to Judaism whose conversions did not meet the requirements of Jewish law as being Jews.

The Conservative movement, while respecting the validity of Orthodox Rabbis, believes that Orthodoxy has deviated from historical Judaism through an insistence on the halachic principle of binding legal precedent, in particular with respect to relatively recent codifications of Jewish law. A prominent Conservative spokesman has written:

Reform has asserted the right of interpretation but it rejected the authority of legal tradition. Orthodoxy has clung fast to the principle of authority, but has in our own and recent generations rejected the right to any but minor interpretations. The Conservative view is that both are necessary for a living Judaism. Accordingly, Conservative Judaism holds itself bound by the Jewish legal tradition, but asserts the right of its rabbinical body, acting as a whole, to interpret and to apply Jewish law.
(Mordecai Waxman Tradition and Change: The Development of Conservative Judaism)

The Conservative movement, however, has clashed with Orthodoxy over its refusal to recognize the Conservative and Reform movements as legitimate, and in February 1997 Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, claimed that Orthodox organizations in Israel politically discriminate against non-Orthodox Jews, and called on Reform and Conservative Jews, as well as the Jewish Federations throughout the United States, to stop funding Orthodox organizations and institutions that disagree with the Conservative view of pluralism. Several weeks later, at the movement's annual Rabbinical Assembly conference in Boston, he called for the disintegration of Israel's chief rabbinate and its network of courts. [2]

Reform views

Reform Judaism espouses the notion of religious pluralism; it believes that most Jewish denominations (including Orthodox groups and the Conservative movement) are valid expressions of Judaism. Historically, however, the Reform view of Orthodox Judaism had been highly negative. Reform began as a rejection of Orthodox Judaism, and early battles between Reform and Orthodox groups in Germany for control of communal leadership were fierce. Reform viewed Orthodoxy as overly focused on tradition and literal interpretation of scripture that conflicted with modern science. Relations with the Conservative movement are much more cordial (although the two split due to such affairs as the Treyf (that is, Nonkosher) Banquet), and Conservative and Reform leaders co-operate on many areas of mutual concern.

Humanistic views

Humanistic Judaism views other forms of Judaism as valid from a traditional point of view, but itself emphasizes Jewish culture and history - rather than belief in God - as the sources of Jewish identity.

Karaite views

Karaite Judaism does not recognize the Oral Law as a divine authority, maintaining that the Written Torah, and the subsequent prophets which God sent to Israel, whose writings are recorded in the Tanakh, are the only suitable sources for deriving halakha, which Karaite Judaism maintains, must not deviate from the plain meaning of the Hebrew Bible. Rabbinic laws which either allow Jews something the Torah forbids, or releases Jews from a commandment the Torah requires, are seen as a break with the Torah, and transgression of Divine Law. An example being the white tzitzit donned by Rabbinic Jews, which is absent of tekhelet. This is regarded as a violation of the Torah, which requires that tzitzit be made with tekhelet. The tzitzit worn by some in the rabbinic community, which does have tekhelet, is also seen as a violation of the Torah, because according to the Talmud, a tekhelet string must be made of wool, and the white strings from linen, making the tzitzit shatnez. Karaite Jews also maintain that Rabbinic Jews are not observing Jewish holy days on their correct date, because the dates are fixed according to the pre-calculated Hillel II calendar, instead of beginning each month with the sighting of the New Moon from the horizon of Israel, and starting the year during the month when the barley reaches the stage of Aviv in the land of Israel. However, despite Rabbinic Judaism deviating from the plain meaning of the Torah, Karaite Jews recognize Rabbinic Jews who have unbroken patrilineal Jewish descent, as Jewish, and eligible to join Karaite Judaism without a conversion.

See also


  • Seth Farber, Reproach, recognition and respect: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Orthodoxy's mid-century attitude toward non-Orthodox denominations, American Jewish History, June 2001 v89 i2 p193(23)
  • Ferziger, Adam S. Exclusion and Hierarchy: Orthodoxy, Nonobservance, and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity, Univ. of Penn. Press, 2005. Note: Focus on attitudes of Rabbis Hatam Sofer, Jacob Ettlinger, Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Seligmann Bamberger.
  • Samuel G. Freedman Jew vs. Jew: The struggle for the soul of American Jewry New York, Simon & Schuster, 2000
  • Gurock, Jeffrey S. "From Fluidity to Rigidity: The Religious Worlds of Conservative and Orthodox Jews in Twentieth Century America," David W. Belin Lecture in American Jewish Affairs, University of Michigan, 2000.
  • ____________. "Twentieth-Century American Orthodoxy's Era of Non-Observance, 1900-1960" in Torah u-Madda Journal, v.9, 2000
  • Hartman, Donielle. The Boundaries of Judaism, Continuum, 2007. This book examines Jewish denominationalism, especially Orthodox tolerance toward non-Orthodox Jews as exemplified by Rabbis Hatam Sofer and Moshe Feinstein.
  • Heilman, Samuel. Synagogue Life: A Study in Symbolic Interaction. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1973. Although focused on a modern Orthodox synagogue, this study examines inter-denominational issues, e.g., "Relations with Other Jewish Sects" pp. 12–24.
  • ____________ and Steven M. Cohen. Cosmopolitans & Parochials: Modern Orthodox Jews in America, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989. A sociological study that compares non-Orthodox with nominal, centrist and traditional Orthodox. See esp. ch. 4, "Kehillah: Orthodox Insularity and Community Boundaries" on integration, intergroup friendship, permeability of group boundaries.
  • Ammiel Hirsch and Yosef Reinman One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues That Divide Them Schocken, 2003
  • Jacob Katz works, including A House Divided: Orthodoxy and Schism in Nineteenth-Century Central European Jewry (1998)
  • David Landau Piety & Power: The World of Jewish Fundamentalism, Hill and Wang, 1993. Written from an Israeli modern Orthodox perspective.
  • Lazerwitz, Bernard, J. Alan Winter, Arnold Dashefsky and Ephraim Tabory. Jewish Choices: American Jewish Denominationalism SUNY, 1998. Study includes a socio-historical overview and the shifting of adherents between the denominations.
  • Shapiro, Mark D. Saul Lieberman and the Orthodox University of Scranton, 2006. Based on his lecture for the Union for Traditional Judaism, Prof. Shapiro discusses the complex relationships between Orthodox rabbis and a leading Talmudist at Conservative Judaism's seminary.
  • ________. “Scholars and Friends: Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg and Professor Samuel Atlas,” in The Torah u-Madda Journal v.7 (1997):105-21. See also "Facing the Truths of History" by Jacob Schachter [3] on the public disclosure of the relationship between these major Orthodox and Reform figures.
  • Di Tog Morgen Journal, November 19, 1954. Letter by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik warning Jews not to attend services in non-Orthodox synagogues.
  • Jack Wertheimer, A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America, BAsic Books, 1993
  • Israel Religious Action Center, November 23, 1999 IDF suspense officer who compared the conservative and reform movements to the Nazis

External references


Miscellaneous topics

Articles relevant to Haredi views

Haredi defenses