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Denominations in Judaism
1. Unit overview
So far this guide has focused on how to talk to, disagree with, argue with, relate
to, and interact with friends, teachers, and family in a respectful yet honest way.
Now, starting with this unit, we begin to focus on pluralism within the Jewish
By the end of this unit, the students will have a solid understanding of the origins
of the major Jewish denominations, the main beliefs and practices of each
denomination, the central issues which cause divisiveness between the
denominations, and ways in which the denominations can overcome their
differences and live together in a pluralistic community of respect.
The text study in this unit focuses on more of the development of the
denominations, as opposed to where the denominations stand today. The students
will get the modern information if you do some or all of the unit projects described
below. This unit is more an analysis of Jewish identity, of how Jews can live in the
modern world, than just what the denominations stand for. This study of the
denominations is really setting up different paradigms of how Jews can live in the
modern world. Thus, by focusing on the historical development and origins of the
denominations, the core foundations and tensions of Jewish identity which make up
the various denominations are more easily exposed.
2. Opening the unit
Consider using the following text to start the conversation off. It is a
provocative way to get the students thinking about the complexities of modern
American Jewish life.
Text 1, Excerpt from Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry ,
by Samuel Freedman
Two hours before dawn on May 21, 1999, the holy day of Shavuot, I walked into the
vine-draped courtyard of the Masorti [Israeli Conservative] synagogue in
Jerusalem, already bustling with dozens of people studying, snacking, and pacing in
anticipation. Like me, they were bound for the Western Wall for the traditional
daybreak service to celebrate God's handing down of the Torah to Moses. It was
my first trip to Israel and I had been advised not to miss the experience, in part
for its tableau of faith in an ancient place and in part for its more recent history
of religious strife.
The congregation in the courtyard belonged to one of the few Conservative
synagogues in Israel, and each time its members had attempted to worship at the
Wall with men and women together it had been attacked. On Shavuot two years
earlier, ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students had rained soiled diapers on the minyan.
Two months after that, on Tisha b'Av, the police had shoved and wrestled the
worshippers off the limestone plaza facing the Wall in the name of protecting
them from assault. Last Shavuot, the congregation managed to pray while being
pelted with small rocks and plastic bags of chocolate milk. Of all this, the deputy
mayor of Jerusalem, Orthodox himself, had said, "The very fact that the
Conservative Jews, who symbolize the destruction of the Jewish people, came to
this place that is holiest to the Jewish people is a provocation. They have no reason
to be in this place."
Just now a lanky figure in khaki slacks and an oxford shirt gathered the crowd to
within earshot. He was Andrew Sacks, a Philadelphia rabbi now leading the
Conservative movement in Israel, and many of his listeners were Americans, too,
students in the Conservative seminary and day school. "We'll probably daven very
quickly," he told them, using the Yiddish word for "pray." "And if there is any
threat of violence and the police ask us to leave, we will." Then he hoisted an Eddie
Bauer duffel bag onto his shoulders. It contained a Torah. "Less conspicuous this
way," Rabbi Sacks said as he led the congregation through the courtyard gate.
Already the streets leading to the Old City were thick with the reverent, moving
seven or eight abreast toward the Jaffa Gate, and Rabbi Sacks's group slid like a
tributary into the broad river — Jews in black hats and kerchiefs, Jews wearing
skullcaps known proudly by the Hebrew term kippot, Jews trailing from their
waists the fringes called tzitzis that remind them of the commandments, some of
the Hasidim already singing and wheeling in joy. Down the crooked, zigzag lanes
within the Old City went the thousands, passing over paving stones worn to icy
smoothness by centuries of pilgrims. Finally, Rabbi Sacks's worshippers reached
the rampart over-looking the Kotel, the wail built by Solomon, the holiest site in all
of Judaism, and beheld a plaza filled to its last cubit with humanity.
"Why are we doing this?" an American Upper Schoolstudent, suddenly fearful,
asked Rabbi James Lebeau, Sacks's colleague.
"I know why I'm doing it," Rabbi Lebeau answered. "This is my place as much as
anyone else's."
Officially, the Kotel remained under Orthodox dominion, and as a place of worship
it subscribed to Orthodox rules. By design, the Conservative congregation
assembled at a corner of the plaza far from the Wall itself. The police had
erected a double line of metal barricades to demark a zone perhaps eighty feet by
one hundred. Several dozen armed officers stood atop concrete pylons on the
perimeter. Within this protective cordon, Rabbi Sacks hoped, men and women could
worship in egalitarian fashion. The rest of the Kotel plaza, under Orthodox
auspices, required the sexes to be separated by the partition called a mechitzah.
As the sky altered slowly from black to faint purple, most of the worshippers
passed the Conservative minyan without any more than a curious stare.
The congregation moved through the liturgy without incident — Birkat Hashachar,
Pseukei D'zimrah, Shacharit, all led by men. Then, for the reading from the Book
of Ruth, two women moved to the folding table holding the Torah, and the first
heckling could be heard. It came from boys clad in the black of the ultra-Orthodox
haredim, the tremblers, so named for the way they shake with awe before God.
Less abashed in this setting, one gave the finger to the Conservative worshippers.
Another hooted until he got some congregants' attention. "Why are you looking up,"
he then taunted in Hebrew, "when you're supposed to be praying?"
Gradually, as if bored, the haredi crowd around the barricades thinned from threedeep to one, even showing a few gaps. The moment of confrontation, it seemed, had
safely passed. But as the Conservative service neared the Torah reading, the
central element of any Jewish service, the nearby haredim once more raised their
voices in derision. "Make an evil plan and it will be dissolved," they sang in a tune
used on Purim for the villainous Haman. "Speak something evil and it will not come
to pass, for God is on our side." Another song thanked God "for separating us from
the goyim."
By now, the sound of ridicule had attracted a crowd. The barricades grew more
crowded than they had been all morning, and it was no longer just children, or just
haredim, who led the catcalls. A young man in his early twenties — without
sidelocks or fedora, and wearing a double-breasted suit -began shouting from the
perimeter."Are gorillas accepted by your conversions?" he asked. "At a homosexual
wedding, who gives the ring to who?" He had been speaking, Rabbi Sacks's group
abruptly realized, not in Hebrew but in English, and not in the thickly accented
English of an Israeli but in the casual, easy English of an American.
Soon after that, bottles began to fly, plastic bottles of soda from the bag lunches
that yeshivas had supplied their students. Every time one crashed into the
Conservative minyan, the nearby haredim cheered. When the police waded into the
crowd to grab assailants, the crowd cried, "Why are you taking civilians?" Some of
the haredim ran deep into the throngs on the plaza, and from that safe remove
hurled more bottles.
By then, nearly two hours into the service, half of the Conservative congregation
was facing outward, chanting the liturgy while scanning the air for incoming rounds.
The rest huddled tightly together, close to the Torah. Every time a bird swooped
low, every time a haredi shouted a fake warning, the worshippers flinched as one.
Some of them, quaking, headed for the gate. One young man, speaking in the cocky
American English one might hear from a ballpark heckler, shouted as they passed,
"Go back to Germany. Let the Nazis finish the job."
From somewhere in the fundamentalists' ranks, a plastic bottle of cola took flight,
tumbling end over end through the bluing sky. Seconds later, the missile struck
what its launcher surely would have considered a bull's-eye — the cheek of a
woman named Tobie Strauss, a Jewish studies teacher from New Jersey who had
read earlier from the Book of Ruth. As Tobie collapsed in a heap on the limestone
plaza, a second bottle arrived. It, too, found an appropriate target, striking a
rabbinical student named Shira Yisrael flush on the forehead, a few inches from
her kippa. Shira recovered the bottle, this one containing orange pop. Her father
was a rabbi. Her mother had been killed years earlier in their native Argentina in
the terrorist bombing of a Jewish community center. Now she was being assaulted
in the Jewish state by Jews. Clutching the bottle in her fist, she stalked to the
barricades and began shouting at the nearest boys. "What are you doing with a
yarmulke on?" one shot back in English.
As Shira retreated to apply an icepack and Tobie groped to her feet and into a
friend's embrace, the Conservative service proceeded, with a woman chanting the
Haftorah, the reading from the Prophets. And the attack proceeded, too, with
more bottles, a few bags of ruggelah pastry, and a song whose Hebrew words
translated as "You're desecrating the mitzvah place," the commandment place. As
if in reply, a man in the Conservative group muttered, "Sinat hinam," pure hatred1.
Finally, a single wizened rabbi walked with police escort along the barricades,
pleading with the young men to halt, even disarming one of a soda bottle. Several
yeshiva girls began arguing with the boys, saying, "You're worse than they are."
Ignored, the girls left in tears.
By the time the Conservative service was moving into its final section, the Musaf, a
policeman, approached one of the worshippers.
"How much time is left?" he asked in Hebrew.
"Thirty minutes."
"See if the rabbi can hurry it up."
Based on past experience, Rabbi Sacks had been hurrying already, omitting the
usual repetition of the Amidah section and pushing briskly through the rest of the
service. At the end, he paused long enough to give directions in English and Hebrew
on how to safely exit the plaza. Then the congregation sang the "Hatikvah," the
Israeli national anthem. Two years ago, the haredim had booed it. This time,
pushed back from the barricades by the police, they didn't respond.
Rabbi Sacks returned the Torah to the duffel bag and shouldered it for the milelong walk back to the Masorti synagogue. The rest of his congregants staggered
out, guarded by a corridor of police. As one of the Conservative worshippers, a
teenager on a study trip from Maryland, passed through the gate, he encountered
a haredi boy roughly his age whom he recognized from the barricades.
"Hag sameach," the haredi said. Happy holiday.
Obviously, this isn’t a typical event in the Jewish world, and that should be
emphasized. But presenting the extremes of a topic is useful in exposing and
highlighting central issues. The teacher will need to be very careful in making sure
the students know this is not the typical way Orthodox Jews act—it is very
abnormal. While it is normal to show repulsion at what they did to the Masorati
Jews, it must be emphasized that they should not generalize their reaction to all
You could make the connection to Texts 7 and 8 of Unit 1
Orthodox Jews. One must also note that there are special pluralistic complexities
that are unique to Israel but focusin on that would veer us off course to focus on.
What are your students’ reactions to this episode in Israel? Why do they think it
happened? What were the issues involved? What were the philosophical and
theological positions of each side? Was it appropriate for the Masorati Jews to
have done what they did—were they being provocative? What should the
Orthodox Jews have done at this “affront” to their religion?
Eventually, facilitate the conversation on this text in such a way as to elicit the
following from your students. First, they should know that there are
denominations in Judaism and that they differ in major ways which sometimes
cause strife and division. Second, students should ask the question “Why?”, which
will eventually lead us to an analysis of the historical origins and development of
the major American Jewish denominations. Third, students should take note of
some of the major hallmarks (in practice and belief) of the major denominations.
For example, in Conservative Judaism women can take major roles in public prayer
while in Orthodoxy they typically cannot.
Fourth, students should begin to think about the major issues which divide the
Jewish denominations. One major question is about authority2: Is Jewish law
(halacha) binding upon the Jewish people? Is it binding because it is the direct
word of God? If it is not the direct word of God, what is the authority of the
Jewish tradition? Where do all of our laws and traditions and books derive their
authority—from human authorship? A second major question is whether and how
Judaism can be changed. Do humans have the right to change Judaism? Who has
that right, and how, when, and to what extent does change take place in Judaism?
A third major question is of interpretation: Who should interpret Judaism, and
how? How should one study Torah? Is it subject to historical, literary, and
philosophical analysis like other books?
And finally, students should begin thinking about alterative ways of solving the
divisiveness of the Jewish denominations, based upon the Tarbut HaMachloket
sources and analyses in prior units. These initial discussions are meant to raise the
major issues and begin thinking about these issues in an organized, critical way.
The students will dive into a more detailed analysis of these issues below.
These three issues of authority, change, and interpretation are influenced by analyses in Barry Schwartz’s Jewish
Theology and Elliot Dorff’s Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to our Descendants.
3. Enlightenment and Emancipation3
One cannot understand the modern American Jewish landscape without learning at
least a little about two European movements which began in the middle of the
eighteenth century, the Enlightenment (Haskalah in Hebrew) and Emancipation.4
One way to start this section is by asking your students whether they feel more
loyalty to America or to Israel. You could give them a specific scenario—you’re a
Jewish soldier in the American army, and America decides to attack Israel for
some reason. Which country are you loyal to—America or Israel? In many ways,
this scenario is at the heart of Jewish modernity. Are you an American Jew, or
are you a Jewish American? Are you a Jew who happens to live in America, or are
you an American who happens to be Jewish? Is there any synthesis between the
two identities? Is there any way to be both equally? What are the implications
towards America, and towards Judaism?
After this discussion, you could then share the following text:
Text 2, Napoleon’s Instructions to the Assembly of Jewish Notables (July 29,
In the eyes of Jews, are Frenchmen considered as brothers or as strangers?...Do
Jews born in France consider France as their country?
You’ll likely need to set up the context of this text. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–
1821) was a general of the French Revolution, the ruler of France from 1799-1804,
and then Emperor of the French and King of Italy from 1804 to 1815. He was
defeated decisively at the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium on June 18, 1815, followed
shortly afterwards by his capture by the British and his exile to the island of
Saint Helena, where he died in 1821. He is considered to have been one of the
"enlightened monarchs".
He lived at a time in European history called the “Enlightenment”. What do your
students think this name implies? They’ll likely note that it has something to do
with “letting the light in”, implying that prior to the Enlightenment there was a
Neil Gillman’s Conservative Judaism helped me arrange my thoughts for this section and the comparative
denomination sections which follow. The quotes from Mendelssohn and Kohler are from his book.
Note that in the 11th grade, students will be learning about these movements in great detail in their Jewish history
period of “darkness”. Can they guess what “light” was being let in? Can they guess
what marked the period of “darkness” (aka the Middle Ages)? A clue would be to
think about what are the hallmarks of living in the modern world, as opposed to
“before modernity”.
A student might say that technology is a hallmark of living in the modern world.
What other things like technology make living today different than living several
hundred years ago? Maybe a student will mention the advances we’ve made in
science and medicine. Or how much we’ve progressed in terms of universal rights
such as women’s and minority’s equality, and voting rights. Or the right to just be
free! Maybe someone will mention all the different kinds of entertainment we
have—movies, theme parks, theaters, art galleries, etc. Or how everyone seems to
be going to college these days, and making all kinds of money unlike ever before.
These are all, more or less, signs of the Enlightenment. How so?
In short, the Enlightenment focused on human reason as the source of truth, as
opposed to received traditions or external authority. What that meant was that
humans were given unprecedented power to think and be creative and come up with
ways to better humanity. Therefore there were unprecedented levels of art,
literature, learning, modern philosophy, political and social equality, scientific and
medical advances, mathematical advances, and so on--all the things that we take
for granted today, as described in the previous paragraph.
But if humans using their natural powers could do all of this, then can your
students figure out what there was no need for anymore? What’s the need for
religion anymore?! Religion came to symbolize the “darkness” that the
Enlightenment sought to banish. The Catholic Church in particular came to
symbolize authority over freedom; faith over reason; superstition, ignorance, and
prejudice over understanding; and the divine over the human. The Church (and
religion in general) became the enemy.5
In this type of climate, what type of socio-political environment do your students
think emerged? Prior to the Enlightenment, there was very little freedom except
for the rich and powerful. The majority of the population had little to no rights.
Most people (including Jews) could not study in universities, they could not choose
where they lived and were forced to live in ghettos, they were prohibited from
entering many professions, they had no political powers such as voting rights, there
This could be an opportunity for integration. In the science class, they could learn about the clash between the preEnlightenment figure of Galileo and the anti-Enlightenment Catholic Church.
was little freedom of speech, etc. With the advent of the Enlightenment, all of
this changed. Jews (as well as most people in Europe) were given civil, political, and
social rights.
Which brings us back to our text from Napoleon. What was the central issue that
Napoleon was exploring? Napoleon wanted to know whether one could have both a
strong Jewish identity and a strong French nationalist identity without
compromising loyalty to France. Indeed, this became the central question of
modernity for Jews. Would the Jews defend Israel, or France; Israel, or
What were some of the questions that the Jews had to grapple with in answering
Napoleon’s questions? Would the Jews assimilate into French (or American, or
German, etc.) culture enough to be accepted, or would they remain so distinct that
they would be excluded from France? How much was assimilating enough? Could
the Jews assimilate enough to be accepted as Frenchmen, and not lose their
Jewish identity? We’re still grappling with these same questions a couple hundred
years later…
The Assembly of Jewish Notables answered emphatically that they considered
themselves loyal Frenchman, bound to unswervingly defend France and obey French
laws. Albeit after weeks of anguishing debate…
Text 3, Jerusalem, by Moses Mendelssohn
Moses Mendelssohn (1729– was a German Jewish
philosopher, and the one of the “fathers” of the Jewish Enlightenment.
Adopt the mores and constitution of the country in which you find yourself, but be
steadfast in upholding the religion of your fathers, too. Bear both burdens as well
as you can.
The first articulate “Modern Jew” was Moses Mendelssohn. He was an observant
Jew who was also a modern philosopher and an art and literary critic, fluent in
Hebrew and German, and fully comfortable and accepted in both the Jewish and
secular worlds. His Enlightenment philosophy can be encapsulated in the previous
text. He is a powerful advocate (and model) of living both a strong Jewish life and
a strong “secular” life.
It would be useful to explore the great tensions of the philosophy. Many of the
same questions that the Assembly of Jewish Notables must have grappled with
apply to anyone who attempts to live Mendelssohn’s philosophy. Perhaps one way to
illustrate this is to mention to your students that two generations after
Mendelssohn, most of his fourteen grandchildren (including famous composer Felix)
had converted to Christianity. Why do they think this is so? What is the
connection between his philosophy and his grandchildren’s conversions? Clearly,
the tension between being Jewish and being “modern” is a difficult one.
It might be useful to illustrate this with an example from the students’ own lives.
Do they have any family members or friends who have either converted out, or are
so assimilated that they are Jewish in name only? Why do they think this is so?
The teacher should facilitate a discussion around the tensions of being American
and being Jewish. Sometimes being American overwhelms us and we lose our
Jewish identities. How is it possible to be Jewish and American while strongly
retaining both identities?
4. Reform Judaism
The denomination which took the lead in trying to meld the values of Judaism and
the Enlightenment was Reform Judaism. These devoted Enlightenment Jews cared
deeply about the future of modern Judaism. All other responses to modernity
(Orthodoxy, Conservative Judaism, Zionism, etc.) all can be seen as reactions to
these Reformers. Reform Judaism in large part set the agenda for all modern
Jewish denominations.
It might be interesting to start by asking students what the different
denominations are today, and then to ask them which came first. Invariably, most
people think Orthodoxy came first. But it’s not true. The original denomination
was Reform Judaism, and then Orthodoxy was a reaction against Reform Judaism.
A provocative way to start off learning about the history of Reform Judaism is to
open with the “Trefah Banquet”. You could tell your students that they are all
students at your rabbinical school, and to celebrate their graduation as rabbis,
you’re holding a banquet for them. Everyone in the entire city will be invited,
including all the rabbis, all the lay leaders, the students, their families, etc. Have
them sit down, and share with them the menu6:
Based upon the actual menu served in 1883 at the first rabbinic ordination dinner banquet of the Reform Hebrew
Union College.
Text 4
Rabbinic Ordination Dinner Banquet
Clams on the half shell
Beef in mushroom cream sauce
Soft-shell crabs
Shrimp salad
Main Course
Sweet breads
Chicken in cream sauce
Potato pie
Ice cream
Assorted cakes
Served during the entertainment
Various Cheeses
Various fruits
Roman punch, sherry, wines, coffee and liquors served
throughout the evening
Do they see anything…strange…about this menu?! Explain to them that this was
accurately based upon the actual menu served at the first rabbinic ordination
dinner banquet ever held in the United States, in 1883, by the Reform movement’s
Hebrew Union College. After the initial shock of serving an entirely unkosher
menu at a rabbinic ordination banquet wears off, try to have them uncover the
values behind the menu. What does a denomination such as this value? Clearly,
they value Judaism, otherwise they wouldn’t have a rabbinical school which ordains
rabbis. At the same time, they value…assimilating into American culture. By
shucking off the laws of kashrut, they lose one of the more distinguishing (and
isolating) aspects of being Jewish. Thus, we can see that this menu is intimately
connected to the previous two texts, Napoleon’s questions to the Notables and
Mendelssohn’s philosophy. These early Reform leaders were trying to assert both
their strong, distinct Jewish identity and their strong, universal American secular
identity. This menu is emblematic of the Reform movement’s initial response to
modernity.7 This approach is described below:
Text 5, Opening address at the 1885 Reform Pittsburgh Conference
Kaufmann Kohler
1843-1926. One of the leaders of Reform Judaism who convened the Pittsburgh
Conference and shaped its outcome
We can no longer be blind to the fact that Mosaic-Rabbinical Judaism, as based
upon Law and Tradition, has actually and irrevocably lost its hold upon the modern
Jew. Whether they have justificatory reasons for doing so or not, the
overwhelming majority of Jews within the domain of modern culture disregard
altogether the Mosaic-Rabbinical laws concerning diet or dress, concerning work or
the kindling of lights on Sabbath, or any other ancient rite…
It must be emphasized to your students that this approach to Judaism must not be looked down upon. This is a
logical and thought-out response to modernity after the Enlightenment and Emancipation. While students can
certainly disagree with the early Reformers’ conclusions, they must be taught to respect the Reform position, no
matter how much it differs from their own. This respectful approach does not mandate that they adopt or agree with
approaches different than their own, only that they show the utmost respect.
Text 6, Excerpts from the 1885 Reform Pittsburgh Platform8
In eight sharply worded paragraphs, it dismisses “such Mosaic and rabbinical laws
as regulate diet, priestly purity and dress” as anachronisms that can only obstruct
spirituality in the modern age; it accepts as binding only the moral laws of Judaism
and those ceremonies that “elevate and sanctify our lives,” rejecting those that
are “not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization”; it claims that
Jews no longer consider themselves a nation and “therefore expect neither a
return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the
restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state”; it rejects the belief
in bodily resurrection; it accepts “the providential mission” of Christianity and
Islam and welcomes their aid “in the spreading of monotheism and moral truth.”
Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900) emerged as the seminal figure in American
Reform Judaism, and was the chair of the Pittsburgh Conference. This conference
produced the Pittsburgh Platform, the landmark document which determined the
shape of Reform Judaism for the next half century. But it was another Reform
leader, Kaufmann Kohler (1843-1926) who convened the conference and shaped its
outcome. His opening address (Text 5 above) unambiguously defined the agenda
for the conference, and the platform was clear in reducing Judaism to a matter of
belief in one God, a commitment to ethics and social justice, and to activity in
furthering an age (akin to a Messianic Age) in which all people acknowledge God and
establish an era of “truth and righteousness”, and abandoning almost all of the
traditional ways of being Jewish—kashrut, prayer in Hebrew, traditional Shabbat
observance, and even circumcision9.
Try to get your students to see why Reform Judaism made these changes. Was it
simply because they wanted an easier life? Was it simply because they felt the
pressure to conform? Perhaps some Jews felt this way, but certainly the
leadership did not. It’s important to acknowledge that these Reformers made
their changes to Judaism not because they wanted to abandon Judaism…just the
opposite! They noted the great rates of assimilation due to the atmosphere of the
Enlightenment, and sought to create a Judaism which would be meaningful for
modern Jews. In short, they wanted to change Judaism so that Jews would remain
Jews. They felt that if these radical changes were not made, Judaism might cease
Quoted from Gillman, p. 27
See Geiger’s letter to Zunz dated March 19, 1845 in Gillman, pp.16-17
to exist because it couldn’t keep up with the times, and eventually modern Jews
would abandon such an ancient, meaningless religion.
You might want to wrap up this historical discussion of Reform Judaism by
challenging your students to write and share their thoughts about the following.
Many of the students in the Upper School do not keep kosher. Why not? It would
seem the Reformers did not keep kosher as an ideological stance and as a way of
keeping Enlightenment Jews within the fold of Judaism. What’s your students’
reasoning? Challenge them to think about the actions they take. How many things
do we do (or not do) out of laziness, or ignorance? Encourage them to do things
for a good reason, and if they don’t understand something, to learn more about it.
Relate this back to the KTR charts from the 9th grade curriculum. This type of
challenge could be a good synthesis between learning about Reform Judaism and
making the students think about their own Jewish identity as a modern Jewish
5. Orthodox Judaism
One way to open up the discussion of Orthodox Judaism is to do the following.
Have your students pretend that they were “Orthodox Jews” (whatever that term
happens to mean to them right now) living in the times of the Trefah Banquet or
the Pittsburgh Platform. What would they think, how would they react? Perhaps
have them write a letter to the editor of the local Pittsburg newspaper trying to
explain to the general population why Reform Judaism is wrong, why the public
should dismiss it, and what type of Judaism is actually “correct”. What would an
Orthodox Jew think of reforming Judaism according to the needs of the time?
What would he think of the value of “secular culture”? What would he think of the
need for “archaic rituals” such as not eating shellfish—rituals which have no
apparent ethical component to them? This pre-thinking exercise will start the
students thinking about how a traditionalist would react to Reform Judaism, which
will make a smooth transition to learning about Orthodoxy10 below.
German Rabbi Shimson Rafael Hirsch (1808-1888), largely regarded as the founder
of Modern Orthodoxy, took the above assignment upon himself. He was a gifted,
Students are really going to be learning about Modern Orthodoxy, the branch of Orthodoxy which embraces
learning about secular culture within the parameters of strict adherence to Halacha. As with all of the movements,
there is a great variety of sub-movements, but there simply isn’t the time to go into such depth. So this curriculum
focuses on Hirsch’s Neo-Orthodoxy as the precursor to today’s Modern Orthodox movement, the Orthodox
movement which would most likely appeal to our students and would most likely take part in a Jewish pluralistic
community. This should be conveyed to your students in some way.
prolific writer and orator against Reform Judaism, and in defense of “Orthodoxy”.
In the following text, he shrewdly and bitingly attacks the foundations of Reform
Text 7, Judaism Eternal, Shimshon Rafael Hirsch
Rabbi Hirsch (1808-1888) was the intellectual founder of the Modern Orthodox Judaism,
and an opponent of Reform Judaism.
To reform Judaism according to the needs of time—this, according to our critics
[Reform Jews], is the task of our time…To bring Judaism up to date, to adapt it to
the needs of the time, to harmonize it with the views generally prevalent at any
given period and with the conditions and needs of any given time—this would be the
What would have become of Judaism if our ancestors had considered it as their
task to bring Judaism at every period up to date...? What would have happened if
they had done so, if they had taken, in Egypt, the wisdom of the priests of Merce;
among the Babylonians, the mysteries of Mylitta; …and, in the middle ages,
cloisters and monks as their standard for reforming Judaism? What is to happen
today if, in obedience to this modern teaching, the Jews in all climes and all
countries are to reform their Judaism in such a way as to adapt it to the views and
customs of their fellow countrymen? In heaven’s name, what kind of monstrosity
would it be which passed as Judaism? …Is it possible for me to take my religion
which has been given to me by God as a standard with which to measure myself, my
generation, and all my action and inaction, and trim it to fit the meanness, the
sensuality, the petty-mindedness of my own desires, at any particular time?
From the very beginning, God placed Judaism, and with it its adherents, in
opposition to the age. For thousands of years Judaism was the only protest against
a completely pagan world…
In point of fact it was not “orthodox” Jews who introduced the word “orthodoxy”
into Jewish discussions. It was the modern “progressive” Jews who first applied
this name to “old,” “backward” Jews, as a derogatory term…”Orthodox” Judaism
does not know any varieties of Judaism. It conceives Judaism as one and
indivisible…It only knows Judaism and non-Judaism. It does not know Orthodox
and Liberal Jews…
Now what is it that we want? Are the only alternatives either to abandon religion
or to renounce all progress with all the glorious gifts which civilization and
education offer mankind…? Judaism never remained aloof from true civilization
and progress; in almost every era its adherents were fully abreast of contemporary
learning, and very often excelled their contemporaries…They have lost nothing in
culture or refinement, even though they do not smoke their cigars on the Sabbath,
even though they do not seek the pleasures of the table in goods forbidden by God,
even though they do not desecrate the Sabbath for the sake of profit and
Indeed, we…believe that the Jew who remains steadfast amidst the scoffing and
the enticements of the easy-going world around him, who remains strong enough to
sacrifice to God’s will profit, inclination and the respect and applause of his
fellows, displays far greater moral strength, and thus a higher degree of real
culture, than the frivolous “modern Jew” whose principles melt away before the
first contemptuous glance or at the slightest prospect of profit, and who is
unfaithful to the word of God and the teachings of his fathers in order to satisfy
the whim of the moment…
The Jew will not frown upon any art, any science, any culture…Wherever the age
offers him anything which is consonant with his Judaism he will willingly adopt
it…and make use of the new means provided by any period in order that, in the
conditions of that period, he may be able to make the old Jewish spirit expand in
new beauty and may perform his duty to it with ever renewed vigor and loyalty.
Consider giving your students a chevruta guide to learn this text which would
prepare them for a larger group discussion. The guide can be based upon the
following commentary to this text. It might include questions on Hirsch’s critique
of the Reform policy of changing Judaism to suit the times; the attitude of
Orthodoxy to Reform Judaism and Reform Jews; the attitude of Orthodoxy to
secular culture; and the Orthodox response to the Reformer’s abandoning of
rituals in Judaism which they claim have nothing to do with ethics.
First, Hirsch tackles the Reform policy of changing Judaism to suit the times,
which he feels was poorly conceived. If this policy was taken to its logical
conclusion, then Judaism would slowly but surely assimilate into the surrounding
cultures. God, he says, created Judaism for just the opposite reason: to not
assimilate, to be different, and to oppose all the negatives of the “pagan” world.
Hirsch says that it’s impossible to continually change Judaism to suit the times
without destroying Judaism in the process. Hirsch also thinks that “updating”
Judaism really means getting rid of all the things which are hard to do. In other
words, it’s a ruse for creating a more convenient and easy Judaism. He also thinks
it’s anathema and heretical to make changes to commands from God for any reason,
but especially for reasons of convenience. Are your students persuaded by these
Why or why not?
Second, Hirsch discusses his relationship with Reform Jews. He simply does not
recognize the movement. He recognizes Reform Jews, but not Reform Judaism.
And he recognizes Reform Jews as Jews who have made mistakes, and who have
not fulfilled their mission on earth. Going back to the previous units in this this
curriculum, he can be classified as a monist11. Do your students agree with how
Hirsch talks about Reform Jews? Is it in any way “pluralistic”? In other words,
would Hirsch accept Reform Jews into his “Tarbut Hamachloket”? Would Reform
Jews accept Hirsch?
Third, Hirsch discusses the attitude of Orthodox Judaism to secular culture. His
brand of Orthodoxy (which, as already noted, is generally agreed to be the
precursor to Modern Orthodoxy) actually embraces secular culture. He says this
to debunk the myth promulgated by the Reformers that Orthodoxy is backwards
and by definition rejects secular culture. The key difference between how
Orthodox Jews and Reform Jews embrace secular culture is that Orthodox Jews
put adherence to all of the laws of God first, while Reform Jews put secular
culture first. (Both put Judaism first, but have radically different methods.)
Hirsch says that if Judaism and modernity conflict, modernity yields. However, if
one does not have to give up God’s laws, then a Jew can fully embrace anything in
the world of art, science, literature, culture, and so on, and can use that secular
culture to enhance Judaism.
Fourth, Hirsch deals with the Reform position that only the ethical commandments
are binding while the ritual commandments are not. He deals with this more
explicitly in other writings, but he alludes to it here as well. Hirsch says that one
does not have the option of shucking off God’s commandments for any reason,
especially reasons of convenience. He also gives the strong message in the second
to last paragraph that Jews who remain steadfast to all of the commandments, and
See discussion after Text 16 there.
do not buck to pressure to conform and assimilate, exhibit greater moral strength
than those who abandon rituals for the sake of convenience.
One way to conclude this initial discussion of Orthodox Judaism is by challenging
your students to write and share their thoughts about the following. How do you
react to and treat someone who isn’t “up to your level” of observance? Let’s
suppose (for example) you’re Orthodox and observe very strict kashrut. Another
person identifies as Conservative and eats kosher in his home, but eats dairy in
non-kosher restaurants. Another person does not eat kosher food at all, but for
ideological reasons (he’s Reform). Is one “better” than the other? Are there
“levels” of kashrut observance that one must “climb up”? Or are there just
different ways of observing kashrut, no one way better than the other? Clearly,
different Jews would answer these questions differently. But by thinking
critically about them as a class, students can learn to respect those who have
different observances than them in the various denominations. This type of
challenge could be a good synthesis between learning about Orthodox Judaism and
making the students think about their own Jewish identity as a modern Jewish
6. Conservative Judaism
On the one hand some Jews abandoned much of ritual Judaism in favor of
modernity, and on the other hand some Jews didn’t abandon any of ritual Judaism
while taking a much more limited embrace of modernity. Is there a middle ground?
What if someone sees Reform Judaism as being too radical, too ready to abandon
practices an beliefs hallowed by tradition, and too hostile to Halacha? What if
that same person sees Orthodox Judaism as being too rigid to change in light of
research that demonstrates the developing nature of Judaism over the centuries?
Text 8, Alexander Kohut, The Ethics of the Fathers12
Alexander Kohut (1842-1894) was one of the more articulate spokesmen for the new
movement on ideological matters. He is considered to be the ideological father of
Conservative Judaism.
The chain of tradition continued unbroken from Moses through Joshua, the Elders,
the Prophets, and the Men of the Great Assembly, down to the latest ties. On this
tradition rests our faith, which Moses first received from God on Sinai. On this
Cited in Dorff, p. 24
foundation rests Mosaic-rabbinical Judaism today; and on this foundation we take
our stand…
But you may ask: Shall the fence around the garden, shall reverence be extended
around everything that the past hedged in…? “Remember the days of old,” said
Moses, and have regard to the changes of each generation (Deut. 32:7). The
teaching of the ancients we must make our starting-point, but we must not lose
sight of what is needed in every generation…
Conservative Judaism, like Orthodox Judaism, developed as a reaction against the
radical moves of Reform Judaism. It gave itself the name “Conservative Judaism”
because it adopted a more conservative approach than Reform Judaism. These
more conservative leaders founded a new rabbinical seminary (the Jewish
Theological Seminary) as well as other important institutions such as an
organization of like-minded Conservative synagogues.
Alexander Kohut (1842-1894) was one of the more articulate spokesmen for the
new movement on ideological matters. He is considered to be the ideological father
of Conservative Judaism. What can your students find in his words which are
different than both the Reform movement and the Orthodox movement? You can
teach his ideas by way of mentioning two other figures in Conservative Judaism.
Zechariah Frankel and Solomon Schechter are two prominent founders of
Conservative Judaism who your students should be familiar with. Frankel (18011875) was initially a spokesman of the more traditional wing of the early
Reformers. He advocated a more gradual approach to change in Judaism. He also
coined the term “positive-historical Judaism”, one of the calling cards of American
Conservative Judaism. This is what Kohut is describing above. Judaism is
“positive” in its acceptance of the tradition and all of Halachah, and "historic" in
that Judaism was a dynamic process which gradually changed throughout history.
In other words, Kohut and Frankel are describing a Judaism which accepts the
authority of Halacha (like Orthodoxy), and accepts the dynamic nature of a
continually changing, historical religion (like Reform).
Schechter (1847-1915) was the architect of American Conservative Judaism. He
believed that free and democratic America was where Conservative Judaism would
flourish, and he was right. He was a powerful leader, scholar and rabbi who
launched the movement on a period of unparalleled growth. He assembled a gallery
of outstanding Jewish scholars, members of the faculty at JTS, who demonstrated
that it is possible to wed critical scholarship to full observance of Halacha. The
JTS scholars studied Judaism in a modern way, not afraid to use a “scientific
approach” to studying Judaism (for example by uncovering the Roman philosophical
influences on a particular passage of the Talmud).
Schechter was also instrumental in placing authority in the hands of the people. As
opposed to Reform’s primacy of personal autonomy, Schechter advocated that the
Jewish community set broad parameters in areas such as observance, and that
these are binding on its members.13 He also advocated that Hebrew must remain
the language of the Jewish people, and Zionism is a positive force in Jewish
history and should be encouraged.
Can your students identify any of the tensions inherent in Conservative Judaism as
it tries to balance both Reform and Orthodox Judaism? Among the many tensions
are the following: It teaches both continuity and change. It invests much power in
the community itself, but which of the community’s many voices do we attend to?
If Schechter feels that America is where Conservative Judaism will flourish, why
advocate Zionism? If the Torah can be studied “scientifically”, how can Halacha be
binding? In other words, can the Torah and Shakespeare be studied in the same
way if one is divine in origin? How can Judaism balance intellectual openness on one
hand and adherence to traditional observance on the other? Do your students have
any reactions to these tensions? Schechter himself does:
Text 9, Solomon Schechter14
1847-1915. One of the leaders responsible for building Conservative Judaism into a major
movement. Headed the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and helped Conservative
Judaism prosper.
I would consider my work…a complete failure if this institution would not in the
future produce such extremes as on the one side a raving mystic who would
denounce me as a sober Philistine; on the other side, an advanced critic, who would
rail at me as a narrow-minded fanatic; while a third devotee of strict orthodoxy
would raise protest against any critical views I may entertain.
While it’s fine to teach that this idea was called “Catholic Israel”, just as soon skip the term because it is so
confusing with its seeming reference to Catholicism, which actually is a reference instead to “universal” (ie “Klal
Cited in Gillman, pp. 46-47
In a nutshell, Schechter is embracing these tensions as the necessary
manifestation of a healthy, pluralistic Judaism which embraces both traditional
Judaism and modernity at the same time. He is saying that ideological tension,
alas, is a good thing.
One way to end this section on Conservative Judaism is to ask your student to
think and write about whether it’s possible to change and stay the same.
On a personal basis, can you change your thoughts and beliefs and actions and
appearance, yet still be the same person? Is that discussion relevant to Judaism
at all? Can you change your way of observing Judaism so much that it’s no longer
Judaism? Are there “norms” of Judaism that must not be changed? Like what?
Who should get to decide who changes things in Judaism? The individual? The
community? The rabbis? This type of challenge could be a good synthesis between
learning about Conservative Judaism and making the students think about their own
Jewish identity as a modern Jewish teenager.
7. Reconstructionist Judaism15
What if you don’t view halacha as binding (as Conservative and Orthodox Judaism
does), yet you don’t buy the “personal autonomy” of Reform Judaism? What if you
have “extreme” views of the Torah and God—to the extent that you don’t believe in
a personal God as most people conceive of Him, rather a positive Force in the
world? What if you don’t view Judaism as a religion—it’s more of a culture for you?
What if you express your Judaism through things like the food that you eat (not
necessarily kosher, but “Jewish-style”), the places you visit (the JCC, for example),
and the music you listen to (Klezmer)? These are just some of the questions which
lead to our fourth and final denomination, Reconstructionism.
Text 10, Mordechai Kaplan16
Rabbi Kaplan ( founded Reconstructionist
Judaism. He was born in Lithuania and was ordained as a rabbi at the Jewish Theological
Seminary in 1902.
This is the final denomination students will be studying in depth. There are other important Jewish groups, such
as Humanistic, Jewish Renewal, Cultural, Secular Zionist, Trans- or Post- denominational, and so on. Because of
severe time restraints, students learn only the “major” four American denominations. By all means, mention these
other groups to your students and supply them with a “for further reading” list, and encourage them to see you if
they would like to pursue study of those other groups.
Cited in Dorff, pp. 149-150
Instead of assuming the Torah “to be divine revelation,” I assume it to be the
expression of ancient Israel’s attempt to base its life on a declaration of
dependence upon God, and on a constitution which embodies the laws according to
which God expected ancient Israel to live. The declaration is spelled out in the
narrative part of the Torah, and the constitution is spelled out in the law code of
the Torah.
Our position is that those mitzvot which in tradition are described as applying
“between man and God” should be observed, insofar as they help to maintain the
historic continuity of the Jewish People and to express or symbolize spiritual
values or ideals, which can enhance the inner life of Jews. Their observance,
however, should be reckoned with not in the spirit of juridical law, which is
coercive, but in the spirit of a voluntary consensus based on a general recognition
of their value. We shall therefore refer to our approach to Jewish ritual
observance as the voluntarist approach.
In advocating that approach to Jewish ritual, we are not taking an antinomian
attitude [one which argues for having no laws at all]…We insist that the concept of
Jewish peoplehood which is basic to the whole Reconstructionist position involves
the translation of ethical principles into concrete laws and institutions…To achieve
the purposes of ritual, even from the voluntarist viewpoint, calls for a formulation
of norms or standards. These norms must be determined by the two-fold purpose
of contributing simultaneously to Jewish survival and the enrichment of the Jewish
spiritual life…These considerations, rather than Halachic precedent and legalistic
interpretation, should, in our opinion determine the development of Jewish ritual
for the Jew today.
Mordechai Kaplan (1881-1983) is one of the seminal figures of 20th century
Judaism. An ordained Orthodox rabbi, he became a central figure in the
Conservative movement, and then eventually broke off to form the
Reconstructionist movement. Kaplan’s traditional beliefs began to crumble when he
started exposing his beliefs to the hard, critical thinking espoused by the
Conservative Movement. Thus, his views can be seen as one reaction to the
Conservative Movement. He began to question whether the Torah was the direct
word of God. And if it wasn’t the direct word of God, was the Torah divine? And
if it wasn’t divine, what authority did it have over us? Was there a God? What
makes Judaism so unique from the other religions? Why be Jewish? Kaplan’s
responses to these questions were so radical that he was excommunicated by a
group of leading Orthodox rabbis, and publicly condemned by many leading
Conservative rabbis at the same seminary where Kaplan taught, JTS.
Kaplan’s thought culminated in his book, Judaism as a Civilization. In it, he wrote
that Judaism is not simply a religion but a civilization made up of language, history,
institutions, beliefs, practices, arts, and ties to a land. One “belongs” to or
participates in a civilization by identifying with any or all of these dimensions.
Judaism is an evolving religious civilization, changing as it passes through history.
Judaism like every other civilization is a function of the Jewish people; Judaism is
whatever the Jewish people claim it is. Authority lies not in a supernatural God
(which Kaplan rejected—he felt God was more of a positive force which pervades
all things as opposed to a personal, supernatural being beyond nature) but in the
community. If the community wants to change Judaism for the sake of making a
more vibrant Judaism, it may do so (as Kaplan did when his daughter Judith
celebrated the first Bat Mitzvah in history). In the absence of strong
communities, individuals have the power to decide what type of Judaism to
Kaplan rejected the notion that the Torah was revealed by God at Sinai, and
believed that the Torah was written by humans. Thus, Judaism is no better than
any other religion—he rejected the notion of the Jews as the Chosen People.
Jewish observances should be kept, though, in order to give our people a sense of
coherence and continuity. He felt that Judaism had a strong and beautiful
message as well as way of organizing one’s life; however if a particular ritual
becomes irrelevant or offensive, it should be dropped.
By defining Judaism as a “civilization” Kaplan made it into an all-embracing way of
life that includes language, literature, food, customs, civil and criminal law, art,
music, food—all elements of any civilization but elements usually considered
secular. This definition encouraged Jews alienated from traditional theology and
practice to become part of the movement. It strongly embraces both the values of
America (or any host culture) as well as the values of Judaism.
To end this section on Reconstructionism, you could have your students think and
write about whether it’s “acceptable” to be a “cultural Jew” (which is different
than Reconstructionism, but for our purposes will do). In other words, is it
“kosher” for one’s Jewish identity to be comprised of things like belonging to a
Jewish community center, speaking Hebrew as the language of the Jewish people,
loving Israel as the Jewish homeland, eating “Jewish-style” foods (non-Kosher), and
other cultural practices without observing traditional Jewish rituals or holding
traditional Jewish beliefs? Isn’t this how many of our students actually live their
lives? If they react negatively towards Reconstructionist Judaism as a religious
system, then challenge them to explain the differences between their own
practices and beliefs and Reconstructionism. This type of challenge could be a
good synthesis between learning about Reconstructionist Judaism and making the
students think about their own Jewish identity as a modern Jewish teenager.
8. Projects
There are many exciting projects you can do throughout this unit, or as a
culminating project, which can bring this unit to life.17
Project #1
One idea is to do a version of the “Jewish Congress”. You could assign pairs of
students assume the personalities of Mendelssohn, Kohler, Hirsch, Schechter, and
Kaplan. Each group would have to master their historical personalities. Then you
could make a live round table in which the students talk to each other as if they
are actually their historic personalities. You could provide them with questions you
will ask as the moderator, and the students will have to answer and respond to each
other. The students could think of questions they would ask the other
personalities, and their fellow students would have to respond. They will have to
anticipate what questions they will be asked, and how they will answer. They will
have to think of how each personality would actually have spoken (with respect,
disrespect, contempt, etc.) to the others. Videotape the round table and show
them the results! You could even give this assignment at the beginning of the unit
so the students will know what to expect at the end of the unit.
Project #2
You could bring your students to each of the different denominations’ synagogues.
Attend a service, spend some time with the rabbi or the synagogue president, and
so on. This will help each denomination come alive, and will expand your students’
horizons as to what is out there in the local Jewish world.
Project #3
Many of these projects will expose the students to the “modern” view of the movements. As previously
mentioned, this unit focused on more of the development of the denominations, as opposed to where the
denominations stand today. The students will get that information if you do some or all of these projects described.
Bring in a denominational panel of the rabbis in your community to discuss modern
views of each movement. Have your students come up with questions of their own
to ask the rabbis. Invite the school community to attend. You could ask questions
such as: How do you conceive of God? Who do you think wrote the Torah? Who
decides questions of Jewish law in your movement? How does Judaism change or
develop in your movement? Is Jewish law authoritative to you? What do you think
of the other denominations? Do you see them as equally valid as yours?
Project #4
Assign a research paper on different hot-button topics which are effecting the
denominations today as a way of seeing how each movement actually works. Each
pair or group of students can be assigned a different movement. For the Reform
movement, they can research patrilenial descent; Conservative: homosexuality;
Modern Orthodox: the role of women in prayer; Reconstructionist: changing liturgy.
By researching those topics (through carefully selected internet sites, preselected source material, or interviews with local leaders of each movement) the
students will examine where each movement currently stands on issues such as
authority, interpretation, halachic change, modernity, and so on. Students should
choose a denomination to research which is not their own.
Project #5
Assign a position paper on where the student stands in terms of their own Jewish
identity. Where do they stand on the myriad different issues we analyzed in this
unit referring to the Jew in the modern world?
Project #6
How can your students create a healthy Tarbut HaMachloket of denominations at
this school in particular, and the local community in general? They can tie in their
work that they did previously with the information they learned in this current
unit, the “Tarbut Hamachloket club”, the Diversity Committee, and so on.
There are a number of resources I used which were indispensable in writing this
unit: Barry Schwartz’s Jewish Theology; Elliot Dorff’s Conservative Judaism; and
Neil Gillman’s Conservative Judaism.