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What Is the Difference Between Orthodox and Reform Judaism?

Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah was directly written by God, whereas Reform Jews believe God inspired the scriptures.
Traditional practices, like wearing kippots, are optional for Reform Jews.
Orthodox Jews strictly adhere to kashrut dietary laws, which, among other things, permits only the consumption of unleavened bread.
Prominent roles in Orthodox Judaism, like rabbis, are reserved for men.
Reform Judaism allows modern-day interpretations of the Torah and other ancient texts.
Morning prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 22 November 2014
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There are three major denominations or movements within Judaism in the US: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. The difference among the three, in a basic sense, can be explained by the degree to which traditional observance is required. The three exist in a continuum with Reform being more modern, liberal, or progressive and less observant of traditional interpretations of Jewish law.

Origins of the Torah

One clear difference between the Reform and Orthodox movements is on the question of who wrote the Torah (the first five books of the Jewish Bible or the Old Testament. Orthodox Judaism holds that that God wrote the bible and handed it down to Moses at Mount Sinai. Followers of Reform Judaism don't believe that God wrote the bible. Instead they believe He inspired it but that humans wrote it.

Approaches to Halachic Interpretation

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How the two movements approach Halacha (Jewish law) can also be based on a traditional/modern distinction. That is, Orthodox Jews maintain an understanding of both scriptural writings and rabbinical teachings that is largely literal. By contrast, Reform Judaism allows for modern interpretations of the ancient texts. In addition, Orthodox Jews believe that halacha — and all of its 613 commandments or laws — is binding upon them. Reform Jews, on the other hand, do not feel that halacha is a binding requirement, and as a result, they are generally less observant of traditional Jewish law. Since many Reform Jews maintain cultural practices, like observing some elements of the sabbath (Shabbat) or dietary laws (kashrut), they do observe some halakhic principles albeit perhaps with a much more modern interpretation of the law.

Some Practical Differences

It may be helpful to review some specific differences to understand where Reform and Orthodox Jews differ:

Views of Each Other

In general, the Orthodox view of the Reform movement tends to be negative. This is largely because of the Reform's divergence from what the Orthodox view as key elements of the religion (including the Torah's divine origin and the obligation to follow Jewish law). Some of the more conservative sects within the Orthodox movement like ultra-Orthodox Jews or Haredi Jews view the Reform movement as heretical. The Modern Orthodox sect (the most liberal of the Orthodox movements) does not see the Reform philosophy as being wicked but rather misguided. The Reform movement was born out of a rejection of traditional Judaism and that rejection is still true today. Reform Jews generally find Orthodox movements to be too literal and too rooted in tradition, unnecessarily conflicting with modern life.

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anon262487
Post 17

@anon262247 - Reform Judaism does reject basic Jewish law. For example, it believes in the thirteen principles of faith as articulated by Maimonides.

Your next comment that kashrut is antiquated, demonstrates my point. A basic part of Jewish law is following the Torah which includes kashrut!

anon262247
Post 16

Reform Judaism does not reject basic jewish law, but interprets it to relate to modern day life. It does not separate men from women, or make women to feel less then men. Read the book "Unorthodox." The literal laws of the torah are demeaning to women and confining. I don't condone walking around indecently, but, I don't feel there is a need for women to cover themselves from neck to ankles.

The kashrut laws are antiquated! Furthermore, maybe more people would keep kosher if it was not such an economic strain. The cost of Kosher meats is ridiculous. With so many families struggling these days, choices have to be made. In addition, why can't milk and meat be mixed? What will happen? People do it all the time and are not diseased, cursed or otherwise. Fine, if you don't want to eat "traif." But the extremism and cost of keeping kosher is too much.

anon145508
Post 15

This article is biased toward Reform Judaism. Reform is a breakaway movement that is only a few hundred years old and it rejects basic Jewish law. Most Reform (not all) do not even keep Kosher. Most (and I know many) are not observant and are Secular Humanist in belief with a Jewish family background.

This spin on why women and men are separated is wrong and is a clear example of the result of reform Judaism's lack of depth on the part of those whom call themselves Reform. If you reject observing the laws in the Torah and Talmud, you may have a Jewish culture club, but the practice is not part of the 3500 year+ tradition.

anon124341
Post 14

thank you Malcolm for a better understanding of the difference between the two. I am studying world religions and this was very helpful in my research. Shalom!

anon123230
Post 13

Thank you. It was very informative.

anon103706
Post 10

I'm not a Jew but have met many. They are strict to their convictions and that is to be respected.

anon59532
Post 6

i don't feel G-d to be so "fixed"...as the orthodox believers feel their view of the "structure" of judaism to be. My observation is that it is quite difficult for those with very "fixed" beliefs to change. If i were G-d, I would say to all: loosen up!

anon57752
Post 5

i have no idea what any of you are on about.

anon43994
Post 4

Another distinction in Jewish orthodoxy between men and women is that women are considered to be more spiritually close to G-d. Therefore, there are many commandments which men must fulfill, which women do not. Many of these commandments have to do with things which must be done that are related to time. Women being more closely tied to the guidance and care of children, as well as pregnancy and childbirth, are not expected to take specific times for many prayers.

anon40390
Post 3

I am a reformed Jew. The temple I belong to accepts anyone in my faith and out of the Jewish religion. Peace is the most important thing.

anon29234
Post 2

I'm an Orthodox Jew, though open-minded and I don't understand the gulf as you put it. A Reform Jew is still a Jew, so live at peace with him just as I do with Christians, Muslim's and other faiths who accept me for who I am.

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