THE MOVEMENTS IN JUDAISM
CONSERVATIVE JUDAISM, ORTHODOX JUDAISM, RECONSTRUCTIONIST JUDAISM, REFORM JUDAISM
One of the real difficulties people who become Jewish have is deciding which movement within Judaism to join. In general, there are four major movements, although there are other, much smaller, groups as well, and some Jews do not affiliate with any group at all. This section includes information about those four major groups. In alphabetical order, the groups are: Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Reform Judaism.
For more information specifically about conversion for all movements, see the section on "Getting More Information on Conversion to Judaism." This section focuses on information about the movements themselves. It is very difficult to generalize about these groups and there is great variety within each of the movements. Therefore, the best step for a potential convert to Judaism to take is to read about each of the groups that sound interesting and, especially, talk with officials of the movement and visit a local synagogue of that group to attend a service. The descriptions below are not official statements of the respective movements and therefore constitute only my own understanding of the movements. I suggest contacting the movements directly to get both official statements and guidelines on conversion.
Conservative Judaism is, along with Reform Judaism, one of the largest of the groups. Conservative Jews make up about 40-45% of those Jews who affiliate. Conservative Judaism accepts the notion that Jewish law (halakhah) is binding upon Jews. That is, that Conservative Jews have an obligation to obey all the teachings (mitzvot, which is also translated as commandments) of Judaism. Thus, for example, Conservative Jews emphasize the laws of keeping the Sabbath and keeping kosher. Conservative Jews believe that Jewish law, by its very nature, is capable of evolution as humans learn more about interpreting the Torah (the first five Books of the Hebrew Bible). Therefore, Conservative Jews have changed some of the earlier interpretations. For example, men and women worship together in Conservative synagogues, people may ride in a car on the Sabbath to attend services, and women can be ordained as rabbis.
In practice, many Conservative Jews are lax about observing all the religious laws, or obey them only in part. In general, there is a considerable amount of Hebrew in the synagogue services. Conservative Judaism is often seen, perhaps unfairly, as the middle ground between Orthodoxy on its right and Reform and Reconstructionism on its left. Conservative rabbis will not perform or attend an intermarriage, that is a marriage between someone born Jewish and an unconverted Gentile. A marriage between a born Jew and a born Gentile who has converted to Judaism is a Jewish marriage and not an intermarriage, so a Conservative rabbi will perform such a marriage. Conservative rabbis require a male convert to undergo a circumcision or a ceremony of drawing a drop of blood if a circumcision has already been performed, immersion in a ritual bath, and appearance before a religious court. Women converts must also be immersed in a ritual bath and appear before a religious court. (See the section "The Conversion Process" for further details). Conservative rabbis generally recognize the conversions performed by other rabbis as long as these ritualistic requirements have been met. There is not one on-line site for the whole of Conservative Judaism. Like other movements, Conservative Judaism is made up of various organizations. These include, for example, the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism which is the association of Conservative congregations. The major rabbinical seminary for the movement is the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Orthodox Judaism is a relatively small movement, making up about 10 per cent of those Jews who affiliate. Orthodox Jews accept the halachah but, unlike Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews do not believe that the halachah itself can evolve. Orthodoxy accepts the idea that the 613 mitzvot in the Torah are binding on all Jews. They believe that God literally gave the Torah to Moses and therefore its rules are divine and must be obeyed. Because of this, the Orthodox are the most traditional of Jewish groups. There often is a barrier between men and women at services. There are no Orthodox women rabbis. In practice, Orthodox Jews tend to observe Jewish law on such matters as keeping the Sabbath and keeping kosher.
The Orthodox requirements for conversion are the same as those of Conservative Judaism. The crucial difference is that Orthodox rabbis generally do not recognize conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis. This fact has caused considerable friction within the Jewish community, and it is important for potential converts to be aware of the problem. The difficulty arises in limited cases. Here is an example: a born Gentile mother was converted by a non-Orthodox rabbi and is married to a Jewish man. Their children, raised as Jews, considered by their community to be Jews, are not considered Jewish by Orthodox rabbis. (The children of Jewish mothers are considered Jewish). Therefore, if that child wanted to marry someone Orthodox, an Orthodox rabbi would refuse to perform the marriage without an Orthodox conversion. A related problem may also arise if the convert or children of a born Gentile mother wishes to immigrate to Israel. The nature of this problem rests on Israeli law at the time of the immigration. Currently, Orthodox Judaism is the only officially recognized movement in Israel for a variety of activities, such as marriage. Orthodox rabbis will not perform or attend an intermarriage. There are many different Orthodox organizations, with very different practical approaches. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations is a major one.
Reconstructionist Jews are a small segment of American Jews, perhaps 3 per cent of those Jews who affiliate. However, Reconstructionism has made intellectual contributions to Jewish life that transcend its small numbers. Reconstructionists believe in a naturalistic approach to religion and conceive of Judaism not just as a religion but as an evolving religious civilization. They do not accept the binding nature of Jewish law and reject the notion of Jews as a chosen people. In general, Reconstructionism tends to be the most liberal of the Jewish movements in many areas. For further information, contact the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.
Reform Jews make up what is probably the largest group of American Jews who are affiliated, about 45 per cent of American Jews. Reform Jews do not accept the binding nature of Jewish law, focusing instead on the moral autonomy of individuals to decide which laws are religiously meaningful for them. In general, Reform Judaism is a liberal religious movement whose adherents often support liberal social causes. Generally, the Reform service has less Hebrew than the Orthodox or Conservative services. The Reform movement is often thought, sometimes by its own members, to be the most lenient when it comes to religious practices. For example, keeping kosher is not required. However, there is some movement in contemporary Reform Judaism back toward embracing some of the traditional practices. Reform Judaism, like Reconstructionism, believes that children of a Jewish father and Gentile mother are Jewish if the child is brought up as Jewish and publicly identifies as a Jew through various religious acts. That is, for Reform Jews, such a child need not convert in order to be Jewish. This idea, called patrilineality, is opposed by the Conservative and Orthodox movements which do not recognize those children as Jewish. They follow the matrilineal principle that a person is Jewish if that person's mother is Jewish or if that person converts to Judaism. The potential for problems here is obvious. Reform Jews have the largest number of converts and the largest number of intermarried families of all the movements. The movement has formed an effective outreach program for intermarried families. There is further information on-line about the organizations within the Reform movement.