As discussed in previous blog entries, a fairly sizable percentage of the American public seems to know surprisingly little about the basics of Judaism. In my own world religions courses, some students begin the semester with no real knowledge of the Jewish faith, and may even harbor some fairly common misunderstandings about it.

Many students are quite surprised to discover that, as well-known major world religions go, Judaism is comparatively small — very small, in fact. A lot of people tend to assume that, since “Judaism” seems so familiar to them (at least as a term or category, even if they don’t really know very much about it), and given the major and profound impact that Judaism has had upon the global religious, cultural, and even political scenes throughout history, that Judaism must be of at least roughly similar magnitude, size-wise, as other similarly well-known and impactful major religions.

They are therefore sometimes somewhat startled to discover that, whereas other major religions count their populations in billions (or close fractions thereof), Judaism counts its population in just millions (and not very many millions, at that).

For instance, compared with the world’s 2.2 billion Christians, or its 1.6 billion Muslims, or its 1.1 billion religiously unaffiliated, or its 1 billion Hindus, or its half-billion Buddhists, or its nearly half-billion adherents of various indigenous religions, there are only a comparatively scant 14 million Jews in the world.

As I say, putting Judaism in perspective in this manner often comes as surprising news to a fair percentage of the general American public. (I have discussed Jewish demographics, both domestically within the U.S. as well as on the global scene, in a previous post, which also contains helpful visualizations of the data in colorful pie charts.)

Some newcomers to the study of the Jewish faith are also confused by the internal diversity which exists within modern Judaism. They often puzzle over the differences between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews, and may wonder why some Jews dress in certain characteristic ways (the distinctive garb of Hasidic Jews, for instance), while other Jews do not do so.

Basically, these internal divisions are relatively recent innovations within the millenniums-long history of Judaism. They arose essentially in the wake of, and as responses to, modernity.

For most of the last 2000 years or so, Judaism was just “Judaism” (more precisely, rabbinic Judaism, as opposed to “biblical” Judaism); there were no such subdivisions or additional labels as Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. And normative Judaism corresponded basically to what today we now commonly refer to as “Orthodox” Judaism (although at the time, that specific term did not exist; there was as yet no need for it).

However, when modernity arose in the Western world during the 18th century, it had an impact upon Judaism. Some Jews began to look upon Jewish tradition through liberal and progressive eyes, and they attempted to re-think, reinterpret, or “reform” Judaism in the light of the insights of modernity. Perhaps the Torah was not actually written by God (or by Moses), as Jewish tradition had long insisted; perhaps the values the Bible promotes are one thing, but at least some of its ritual practices and other commandments are just cultural artifacts of their own era, no longer relevant today. This modernizing reform movement led to the birth of Reform Judaism.

Of course, there were still plenty of traditionalists who disagreed with the reformers, choosing instead to reject this modernizing trend. Those who stuck to traditional or “orthodox” Judaism as it had been long been practiced, continuing to regard the Torah’s 613 commandments as coming directly from God and as still (and forever) binding upon Jews, came to be known as Orthodox Jews, in order to distinguish them from Reform Jews.

And if Orthodoxy represents one end of the Jewish spectrum, and Reform the other end end of that same spectrum, then of course there is room within that broad spectrum for midground positions. Conservative Judaism thus developed as recently as the late 19th/early 20th century, in the wake of this Orthodox/Reform split, and taking a stance somewhere in between those two poles.

Finally, Orthodox Judaism itself is internally diverse. There are those who manage to successfully observe Jewish law while also fully living within modern society; this segment is commonly referred to as “Modern Orthodox.” And then, on the other hand, there are those who prefer not to so fully integrate with the wider culture, maintaining their traditional ways of life — including, most obvious to outsiders, uniquely characteristic modes of dress –within distinctive communities of their own, which are geared to support that strongly traditionalist way of life. This includes the various Haredim (or so-called “ultra-Orthodox” groups, although that term is not always favorably used or received); perhaps the best-known among these Haredi groups in America today might be the Hasidic community.

(I have also discussed Jewish “denominations,” both domestically within the U.S. as well as on the global scene, in greater detail in a previous post, one which also contains helpful visualizations of the data in colorful pie charts.)

(To be continued, in Part Four.)





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