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Judaism is based on the Bible, each age reinterpreting and redefining biblical laws. The Talmud is the result of such a process of interpretation. Changing conditions and circumstances resulted in further interpretations by rabbinic authorities of every generation. Hence, Judaism never froze into a fixed and rigid philosophy and was always more concerned with the practice of the commandments regulating human’s relations with each other and with God.

Orthodox Judaism. The way of life that adheres to the traditional aspects of Judaism came to be called “Orthodox” in the early 19th century when Reform and Conservative Judaisms, which differ somewhat from the original tradition of Judaism, developed. Orthodox Jews continued to follow the laws, customs, and ceremonies prescribed in the Shulhan Arukh. This code of Jewish law, however, deals only with obligatory practices. In addition, there are many customs which have evolved over the ages. These customs have been so hallowed by time and tradition that they now have almost the binding force of law for the communities in which they are practiced. Numerous collections of such customs have been made, and many of them have become an organic part of Jewish life.

At the center of the Orthodox way of life lies the idea that God chose His people Israel from among the nations and bestowed His law upon them as a symbol of this love. In receiving the Torah, the Jews took upon themselves the task of becoming “a nation of priests and a sacred folk” by dedicating themselves to fulfilling the ideals of justice and holiness embodied in the Law. For the Orthodox Jew, the Law embodies all the rules for the good life. When he or she acts according to the letter and spirit of the Law, the Jew realizes the will of God and reflects upon the goodness of God and the love lavished by Him upon Israel and all humankind. In fact, a large number of customs and ceremonies observed by Orthodox Jews serve directly to remind them of this love.

Conservative Judaism. The history of Conservative Judaism began with the Historical School of Jewish Learning founded by Zechariah Frankel in Germany in 1850. Frankel held that Judaism was a living spirit which had undergone many changes in its long history to adjust itself to the changes in its surroundings. The Historical School he initiated aimed to use modern scientific methods to study the Jewish past. As long as every effort was made to preserve and understand the Jewish tradition, Frankel believed that in the future, as in the past, changes in customs or ceremonies would evolve naturally in the spirit of Judaism, as well as in the spirit of the times.

A leader of this school of thought was Sabato Morais, a founder of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. When Solomon Schechter assumed the leadership of the Seminary, Conservative Judaism in America was greatly strengthened. Schechter felt that “Universal Israel” had always permitted differences of opinion because of the all-embracing unity of Judaism, past, present, and future. This unity together with tradition and scholarship constituted, he believed, a fertile soil for the growth of a program for Conservative Judaism. The religious movement known as Reconstructionism was first formulated by a member of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s faculty, Dr. Mordecai M. Kaplan.

Reform Judaism. Early Reform Judaism was rooted in the period of political emancipation and cultural adaption of European Jewry from the middle of the 18th through the 19th century. Israel Jacobson in the German province of Westphalia was perhaps the first leader to express the current desire for modifications in Judaism. He introduced a number of changes into his synagogue: a mixed choir, a few prayers recited in German, and a sermon in German.

When he moved to Berlin in 1815, Israel Jacobson instituted these innovations in a new synagogue founded by him and the banker Jacob Beer. It was, however, the scholar Abraham Geiger who laid the ideological foundation for Reform Judaism. Geiger saw Judaism as an historical, developing faith and rejected basic beliefs and practices that he believed were contradictory to modern scientific thought.

The first to found Reform institutions in the U.S. was Isaac Mayer Wise. The principles he advocated formed the basis for the Pittsburgh Platform adopted by a conference of rabbis in 1885. These principles emphasized the prophetic ideas of the Bible and declared some of the biblical and Talmudic regulations no longer applicable. The Platform separated Jewish religion from Jewish nationalism and rejected a return to Palestine and the belief in a personal Messiah. For the Messianic era of peace and perfection it substituted the hope for a perfect world achieved by cultural and scientific progress. Reform Judaism thought of Jews as a group with a mission to spread godliness in the world. A revision of these principles took place in 1937 at the meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Columbus, Ohio. The conference defined Judaism as the “historical religious experience of the Jewish people,” thereby including not only Jewish belief and ethic, but also traditional culture and peoplehood. Today the Reform movement sponsors ARZA, or American Reform Zionist organization, which is dedicated to the cause of Israel. Since the 1960’s, there have been two major ideological trends within Reform. On the one hand, many Reform rabbis have become more traditional and observant, and have even advocated a “Reform Halachah.” On the other hand, other Reform rabbis, including the former leader of the movement, Alexander Schindler, broke ranks with the other Jewish movements by introducing new concepts such as patrilineal descent (recognizing one as a Jew even if not born to a Jewish mother, only a Jewish father). Moreover, a growing number of Reform rabbis began to officiate at marriages between Jews and non-Jews.

A somewhat similar phenomenon could also be detected in the Conservative movement, where the approval of the ordination of women drove a wedge between traditionalist and liberal Conservative rabbis. In the Orthodox camp, a trend toward the right could be seen among some young rabbis, who refuse to recognize the validity of non-Orthodox movements, while others have been seeking dialogue and reconciliation.

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