Writing Jewish Characters: Groups in Judaism

Updated: Jan 24


It’s time for another post on Writing Jewish Characters!

So I was going to head to the life cycle, but I realized there’s one major thing I need to cover first. Therefore, those will be the next section of the series.

Instead, today we’re going to discuss the way Jewish people divide ourselves. I’m going to stick to modern divisions – there are plenty of historical ones, but frankly I don’t know much about the differences, and I suspect this will be most useful to someone writing about Jews in the modern world, particularly America. If you want other countries, you should really speak to people from those countries.

Ashkenazi/Sephardi/etc. will be discussed in another post as this one is getting too long. Right now, let’s concentrate on sects!

Sects

Within modern Judaism, there are three major branches (plus a number of smaller ones), none of which existed in their current forms before the year 1800.

Before that, all Jews could essentially be defined as Orthodox or traditional, though those terms weren’t used – the laws (as set down in the Torah) were assumed to be correct and followed, though as always in Judaism there were debates about details. Different groups did have individual ways of doing things (some of which I’ll discuss later), but in general, they were one group.

As a comparison, think about western Europe before about 1500 – while individual priests might lead their congregations slightly differently, everyone was Catholic. While there were the Eastern Orthodox groups elsewhere, western Europe was really just one group. But then the Protestants split off and formed a multitude of different groups, and the Catholic Church reacted to that and turned into its more modern form.

Judaism had a similar process three centuries later (and it is still ongoing). Therefore, I’ll be going through these in historical time order.

Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism was the first to split off from traditional Judaism. They are also the most populous in the U.S., so if you want a safe sect to make your character make them Reform.

A Brief but relevant History:

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a number of Jews started deriding traditional Judaism as too old-fashioned, not modern enough, and something that needed to be updated – or reformed. They wanted to join the rest of society (something that they’d been banned from for a very long time), and they felt they needed to give up outmoded traditions in order to do so. In the 1840s, they officially came together and formed what became known as Reform Judaism.

Reform Judaism threw out a number of the old laws/traditions, trying to keep the core of Judaism without all the trappings. They tossed requirements about many of the rules of observance I’ve spoken about before, including such things as keeping kosher, rules keeping men and women separate, observance of Shabbat… basically, anything not modern.

Unsurprisingly, the first formally ordained female rabbi was Reform, in 1972, and they began ordaining openly gay rabbis in the late 1980s, plus the first transgender rabbi in 2006. Intermarriage is mostly welcomed (it will depend on the individual congregation) and Reform Judaism considers children born to one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent to be Jewish (unlike other denominations, which generally only consider someone to be born Jewish if their mother is Jewish). An individual rabbi might or might not perform intermarriages, but once the marriage is performed, the non-Jewish partner is fully a part of the community.

Other Info:

Now, there are some Reform Jews who do keep Shabbat or keep kosher, but in general, they’re the least likely to do so. They are the least likely to wear outward symbols of faith, and if they do, it will more likely be along the lines of jewelry. If you’re writing a Reform Jew in your story, they will likely connect to their faith in other ways – holidays and traditions are more common.

Reform Jews are very common throughout the US and Canada, so if you’re writing about Jews who don’t live in a strictly Orthodox community, they’re likely to show up. I’m not sure about the demographics of other countries, and I know that Israel defines it differently.

Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Judaism is the smallest major sect in the U.S., but if you live in the New York area they are very prevalent. As mentioned before, all Jews were considered Orthodox prior to 1800. So if you’re writing a historical novel set prior to this, you will want make sure to follow the rules that Orthodox Jews follow.

A Brief but relevant History:

Orthodox Judaism codified itself in some ways as a reaction to Reform Judaism, and in other ways simply continued on as they’d been before. In general, they are the most observant of all Jews. (I don’t like calling them the most religious, because that assumes you have to follow the laws/traditions to be religious, but they definitely observe the most laws/traditions.)

Other Info:

Unlike the other sects, there isn’t one central group that leads Orthodox Judaism. Instead, there are many rabbis, and what each individual does probably depends a lot on the community they grew up in, the community they live in as an adult, and what their rabbi says. If you’re writing an Orthodox Jew in today’s America, you will almost certainly have to include their connection to their community.

Orthodox Jews are very likely to follow most if not all of the rules of observance I’ve discussed, plus a number of other rules which will come up in later posts. I can usually identify an Orthodox Jew on the street, as they dress in a specific manner.

The men wear kippot (yarmulkes) at an absolute minimum, and many wear the more modest clothing, hats, beards, and payot that make them noticeable at a glance. Boys will often have the payot, kippot, an almost suit-like outfit, and visible tzitzit, but not the full suit/hat.

The women almost always cover their elbows and knees and wear skirts – pants are extremely uncommon, especially in mixed-gender spaces. Some women will also only wear shirts that reach their wrists and skirts that reach their shoes, and some will only wear modest colors. Married women generally wear either headscarves or wigs to cover their hair, though girls and unmarried women do not.

Gender differentiation is definitely a thing in Orthodox Judaism. I had so much trouble finding pictures of men and women together that ultimately I had to use separate ones… which should tell you something.

Intermarriage is pretty much not allowed (think Fiddler on the Roof and the scene where Chava is disowned) and children must have a Jewish mother to be Jewish (but people with a Jewish father can officially convert). There are constant debates about modernity – the role of women vs. the role of men, LGBT Jews, exactly how many of the laws you have to follow and to which degree – but Orthodox Jews are definitely the least likely to break tradition. This is especially the case as they consider the laws to be already decided and no longer adaptable. Additional questions may be answered, but answers that already exist are much harder to change.

Subgroups include (but are not limited to):

  • Haredi Jews (aka the ultra-Orthodox) – very traditionalist, not fans of modernization, tend to follow all the laws, very common in much of Israel and certain places in the US and Europe

  • Hasidic Jews – spiritual subgroup of the Haredim, tend to follow all the laws but more specifically follow their own Rebbe (rabbi) which is a hereditary position handed down from father to son – Fiddler on the Roof fits best into this structure, with the rabbi who is an authority

  • Chabad/Lubavitch – a subgroup of Hasidic Jews, Chabad is a specific organization which is all about bringing less religious Jews back into the fold, and one I have a lot of issues with that I’m not going to go into here

  • Litvak/Yeshivish Jews – less spiritual subgroup of the Haredim, originated in Lithuania (hence Litvak), very much about the schools and studying in Yeshivas, generally considered to include all Ashkenazi Haredi Jews who aren’t Hasidic

  • Sephardi Haredim – similar to the Litvaks, these are the Sephardi branch of the Haredim

  • Modern Orthodox – the least traditional and observant, but still in both categories, often allow women more of a role though still not equal to men, most likely to be found in the US – often follow some of the theories of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) movement

  • Religious Zionism – overlaps with the others, views Israel in an almost messianic way, generally Israeli.

Conservative Judaism

Conservative Judaism originated as a reaction to both Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism – essentially, they were Jews who felt some change was necessary but that Reform Judaism was going too far.

A Brief but relevant History:

One of the major instigating events was the event that is now known as the Trefa Banquet, which was the graduation dinner for the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College – the first American Reform Rabbinical school. It, uh, served vast amounts of non-kosher food and offended a number of the more traditional rabbis, who eventually broke off and formed the Conservative movement.

Other Info:

While the Conservative Jewish movement considers halakha (Jewish law) binding, Conservative Jews vary in how much they actually follow that – and the movement believes that it can be updated for the modern world the same way the rabbis changed things in history. Rabbis write opinions on modern problems which aren’t binding, but are widely accepted… even when they disagree with each other. (Which, by the way, is a major facet of Judaism – disagreeing and both POVs being considered valid.)

Intermarriage is discouraged but not forbidden, but gay marriage is widely accepted. Specifically, there are extremely few Conservative rabbis (if any) who will marry an interfaith couple if the non-Jewish partner doesn’t convert, but once married, the couple and family are accepted into the community. In my mother’s generation, I know a number of people who converted before marrying a Jewish person, but I suspect that number is lower now as it’s less of “convert or you’re out”… though there’s still at least implicit pressure to do so.

In my personal experience, Conservative Jews run the entire range of observance – everything from my rabbi, who observes the laws/traditions but believes in full inclusion of women and LGBT people, to my best friend from high school, whose family regularly serves shrimp at their Passover seder and who definitely doesn’t keep Shabbat. This includes dress – you may see a Conservative Jewish man who always wears a kippah, but you may also see one who doesn’t. Women may prefer skirts or may not, but it definitely won’t be required.

I consider myself Conservative, with my own observance somewhere in the middle. If your characters are Conservative, they will almost certainly pick and choose from their own list of rules to follow. This makes them both easy and difficult to write, as there is definitely not one “right” way to do so… but that gives you lots of options.

Conservative Jews are most likely to be found in the US and Canada – while it originated elsewhere, it really grew as a movement in the US. In fact, elsewhere in the world, the movement is called Masorti Judaism, which can then get confusing – as Masortim are a distinct Israeli group I’ll be speaking about later.

Jewish population in the USA and Canada

Others

All of these groups are much smaller and I don’t know nearly as much about them. I probably wouldn’t write a Jewish character from one of these groups unless you a) had done a ton of research and b) also included Jews from the more mainstream groups so these weren’t your only representation. If your only Jewish character is from one of these groups, it’s probably best if you have personal experience with that group.

  • Reconstructionist Judaism only truly came into being in the 1920s-1940s, when it broke off from Conservative Judaism. The main difference from Conservative Judaism is that halakha is not considered binding, but is an important part of Jewish history and can be observed. Reconstructionist Jews tend to fall somewhere between Conservative and Reform Jews in levels of observance. And unless you’re in the US or Canada, the chances of running into a Reconstructionist Jew are minuscule. One interesting note: Reconstructionist Jews performed the first bat mitzvah in 1922. Go progress!

  • Humanistic Judaism came into being in the 1960s, and it’s an offshoot of Reform Judaism, except it’s, well, even more toward the end of “do what you want.” Again, this is a very small group, and unlikely to be encountered.

  • Jewish Renewal takes the spirituality of Hasidic Jews and combines it with the more liberal views of Reform and Conservative Jews. Very small group, unlikely to be encountered.

  • Neolog Judaism – primarily Hungarian and I honestly know nothing about them.

  • Jewish Science was formed as sort of a counterweight to Christian Science… and again, I know very little about the group.

  • Karaite Jews only recognize the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) as an authority, and don’t follow even the later commentaries that most Jews today do regard as authoritative. They’re actually one of the oldest separate groups of Judaism, and today primarily exist in Israel.

  • Secular Jews – Jews who generally don’t follow the religion, but may follow the traditions. I’d be very wary about writing this if you’re not Jewish yourself, because it removes a lot of what makes Judaism, well, Judaism.

  • Non-Denominational Jews generally reject the current divisions, but in practice end up somewhere between Reform and Conservative. One synagogue I occasionally attend is non-denominational, and it’s pretty much in the middle.

  • Kabbalists are mystics who are also part of other sects but follow some specific texts of Kabbalah… which I admit I know very little about. Unfortunately, their texts have been appropriated by non-Jews and are often used separate from the religion, which is also where some of the associations with magic and such come from. It’s… a problem.

Israel

Israel divides in its own way, and I’m going to cover their three main groups in brief here. If you want to know about the details and the politics and how the groups think about each other, I strongly suggest speaking to an Israeli rather than me.

  • Dati – religious, generally identifies within one of the Orthodox groups (comprise the top-three groups in that chart)

  • Hiloni – non-religious or secular, often identifies with Israel as a country and a culture but not as much as a religion (the largest group)

  • Masorti – in the middle, more of the equivalent of Conservative or Reform but not necessarily identified with either group (the smallest group)

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which is essentially the religious authority for the country, is made up of Orthodox rabbis, allowing them to exert power over much of the religious life of the country (and often the political life – the religious parties are often given concessions in order to help form a government). If your character is Jewish and lives in Israel, their life will be impacted by those rulings

Messianic Jews

Not actually Jews. They may call themselves Jewish and take on some of the trappings of Judaism, but they believe in Jesus Christ as the savior and messiah, which by definition makes them Christians. In fact, the history originates in trying to convert Jews to Christianity, so, uh… we’re wary of them.

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