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Branches of Judaism

Ron Elkin
Ammi Minisitry

There are three main branches of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform.

Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Jews make up only 8-10% of the American Jewish population. They believe in the Bible as the inspired Word of God, in the literal fulfillment of prophecy, and in a Messiah whom God will send to redeem all the earth. In regards to daily living, Orthodox Jews follow the Law of Moses as interpreted by the Rabbis in Oral Law and its commentary in the Talmud.

Conservative Judaism

Conservative Judaism is similar to Orthodoxy in its beliefs, except it does not feel obligated to follow completely the 613 laws or traditions of the Rabbis. They allow themselves more liberty to pick and choose according to what is appropriate for today's society. Nevertheless, many still do follow the traditional practices of Judaism. This group makes up about 20% of American Jews.

Reform Judaism

Reform Jews are very liberal in their beliefs and practices, and many are atheists. They find no reason to follow traditional religious practices. However, they culturally identify as Jews and celebrate the Jewish holidays to some degree. Reform Jews reject the Bible as inspired. They view the Messiah as an idea that represents an age of enlightenment, which men can bring about by their own efforts. This group makes up 20% of the total Jewish population.

Reconstructionist Judaism

About 3% of the Jewish population falls into a fourth branch of Judaism. Although they do not believe in a personal God, they believe in maintaining Jewish culture and ethnic Jewish identity.

Who Is a Jew?

A typical Israeli citizen believes that a person who feels that he is Jewish is Jewish. Reform Judaism also believes this. A Gentile can join a Reform synagogue by identifying himself as Jewish. The traditional Orthodox view is that a Jew is one whose mother was a Jew, or one who converts to Judaism. Jews have a right, under Israel's Law of Return, to automatically become citizens of Israel.

However, Israel's Supreme Court recently ruled that a Jew who believes in Jesus is not Jewish. Thus the law for Israeli citizenship has moved from physical requirements to spiritual, but only for a Jew who believes in Jesus. This ruling is unfair, because Jews who are atheists, communists, or of any other persuasion are still considered Jews and can become Israeli citizens based simply on meeting the physical requirements.

The Doctrines of Judaism

No Creed in Judaism

There are no clear-cut Jewish doctrinal creeds, such as the Westminster Confession. There are definite views of God, the Bible, Israel, and Messiah, but opinions and ideas within Judaism regarding these topics are many. Therefore, developing a set of doctrines has never been a priority. As a matter of fact, Judaism prides itself on being a religion that allows for individual intellectual freedom, discussion, and disagreement over the main tenets of Judaism. Within certain limits, it is seen as an evolving religion. Each generation has the job of moving toward a deeper understanding of God, and this only comes about by intellectually pondering the Scriptures and studying the writings of Rabbinical scholars.

Rabbinical writings are considered to be partially inspired by God and authoritative. Christianity is seen as a dogmatic, oppressive religion that stifles the search and discovery of God. Concerning this attitude, one cannot help but think of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 8:1,2: "Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know."

Maimonides

The closest that Judaism comes to creed is from the teaching of Moses Maimonides, born in Spain in the 12th century. Some of his principles are universally accepted by Orthodox Jews. They are:

A Brief Summary of Modern Jewish Beliefs

Doctrine of God

The Orthodox and Conservative views of God's attributes are very similar to the Christian view. God is eternal, there is only one God, God is creator of the universe but separate from His creation, and He sustains all life. There is disagreement about how God expresses these attributes among mankind. Nevertheless, God is seen as the helper of those who strive to live righteous lives, and He can provide His divine power to help individuals resist evil inclinations within themselves and evil in the world. They believe God will create a new heaven and earth after the messianic age. The Reform often do not believe in a personal God, but more in a force of ethics that causes the Jews to work toward developing a better world.

The Trinity

The Trinity is denied by all branches of Judaism. God is seen as an absolute single being.

It might be pointed out, however, that even in the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4, which is chanted at synagogue services, there is the indication that God is a plural unity: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One." This word "one" is the Hebrew word achad. In Genesis 2:24 this same word achad is used to describe the marriage union between a man and a woman. They shall become one [achad] flesh. "One" here indicates a plural unity. (See also Num. 13:23 and Gen 11:6.)

Since God is to be exalted, Jews consider it blasphemy to believe that He would take the form of a man (see Exod. 24:9-11). They universally reject Jesus, and the Orthodox consider Christianity to be idolatry.

Again, we need to point out that nothing is impossible for the all-powerful God. He did, in fact, appear in human form on several occasions (see, e.g., Exod. 24:9-11; Gen. 18). God taking on the form of a man and dying for our sins was an expression of His love for us.

Man As Defined in Judaism

Man is created in God's image and therefore is not born evil or totally depraved, as believed by Christians. Man can obey God's law but has a bent towards evil, which he has the power to overcome by sincere effort and God's help. The Reform believe that men are good, and it is wrong cultural training that keeps them from living the life God intended for everyone.

All branches of Judaism have a high regard for man's position in creation. He is seen as a co-laborer with God. All human life is to be respected. The traditionalists, Orthodox and Conserevative Judaism, believe that abortion is murder. However, the liberal or secular Jew believes abortion is a right of the woman.

Jews believe Christianity denies the goodness of God's creation and life here and now. It is seen as puritanical and oppressive. For this reason, Jewish scholars reject what they believe Paul teaches in 1 Cor. 7:25-38--that marriage was a sign of weakness, with singleness the more spiritual position. However, that is not what Paul is teaching, and I myself view such an attitude toward marriage as very harmful. Both Christianity and Judaism have a high regard for marriage and family.

Man is not to separate himself from society. All men are to contribute to society through family life and helping society. Jews see Christianity as other-worldly, not interested in dealing with the problems of poverty or social ills here and now. They point to the Holocaust as an example, when churches failed to assist as six million Jews were murdered.

Sin

Man is not seen as possessing a sin nature. The concept of original sin being passed to everyone from Adam is rejected. According to Judaism, a person is born innocent. Although he is capable of sinning, he is responsible for rejecting evil and obeying God. Some Jews believe that sin consists only of something very evil, like murder or adultery, and not normal everyday imperfections. In addition, Jews believe a man is judged by God based on his works. They ignore the teaching in Leviticus 16 and 17, namely, that forgiveness of sins comes through the shedding of blood. Religious Jews believe that obeying the Law of Moses is a substitute for the blood sacrifice.

The Bible

Judaism has two important religious books.

The first is the Bible. The traditionalists believe that the Bible is inspired and binding in daily life; it is the inspired word of God. However, they view it through the lens of the Talmud, a commentary on the 613 Laws found in the Torah (the Pentateuch). Judaism divides the Bible into three parts: (1) the Books of Moses (Torah), which are the most inspired, (2) the Prophets (Nevi'im), and (3) the Writings (Ketuvim).

The second book is the Talmud. It is composed of two commentaries. The first is called the Mishnah, which was completed in A.D. 200. It consists of the Oral Law and traditions of the Rabbis. The second part is called the Gemara; it is a commentary on the Mishnah. This was completed around A. D. 500.

It is through the Talmud that the religious Jews study the Bible. They believe that the Oral Law, finally recorded in the Mishnah, was also given to Moses on Mt. Sinai and has equal authority as the Bible. It is through the Oral Law that tenets of Christianity can be rejected. For example, the Oral Law says that if the Temple is destroyed so that sacrifices can no longer be performed, then living a life of obedience to God's Law (separated from the world's way), good works, and repentance are in themselves sacrificial. They are enough to satisfy God. The Reform Jews do not believe that the Bible or Oral Law is inspired or binding on daily life. They see it as useful ethics and traditions that can help build moral lives.

Evil

Traditionalists believe that God allows an evil being called Satan to oppose men and trick them into doing evil. The Rabbis teach that evil exists to build character in men by giving them a choice of serving God or evil. Reform Jews believe evil is the absence of good. They do not believe there is a devil or that the world is sinful.

Election

Traditionalists believe that God chose Israel to help bring God's rule over all the earth. This will happen in the Messianic Age. It is Israel's job to show forth God's righteousness to the world. Reform Jews do not believe that Israel is a special nation.

The Land

Traditionalists believe that the Land of Israel has been given to them by God and that the Messiah when he comes will reign from Jerusalem.

The Messiah

The Messiah is seen as a special representative of God who will usher in the restoration of Israel and an age of peace for all the world. He is not God but a man given special powers by God. The Reform do not believe in a personal Messiah.

Resurrection

Traditionalists believe in a resurrection of the dead when the Messiah comes, according to Daniel 12:2. They also believe there is life after death and that God will punish the wicked.


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