Branches of Judaism

Updated September 9, 2022 | David Johnson

Jewish traditions from Ashkenazic to Zionist

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In the early 1800s Jewish scholar Nachman Krochmal of Galicia proposed reconstituting Jewish life in accordance with the ideals of European culture.

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One of the two main cultural branches of Judaism is Sephardic, derived from the Hebrew word for Spain. Sephardic Jews are called Sephardim. For several hundred years when Moors, North African Muslims, ruled Spain and Portugal, a thriving Jewish community developed. They spoke Ladino, a mixture of medieval Spanish and Hebrew, and produced a vibrant culture.

Religiously, Sephardim did not separate into distinct movements as Ashkenazim did. Sephardic beliefs generally follow Orthodox Judaism. However, Sephardim were more integrated into their communities than Ashkenazim. Sephardic thought was heavily influenced by Greek and Arabic philosophy and science, and contained a strong mystical strain. One of the greatest Sephardic philosophers was Maimonides, who sought to reconcile Aristotle's teachings with Judaism.

In 1492 Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand unified Spain as a Christian country. They expelled the Muslims and the Jews. The Sephardim settled in various countries, especially Italy, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans. Some went to Northern Europe. Often preserving their Ladino culture, Sephardim had great influence on Jewish philosophy. Until the 1800s, most Jews in the United States were of Sephardic origin.


Ashkenazic Jews, or Ashkenazim—the other major branch of Judaism, came from Northern and Eastern Europe, and Russia. Yiddish, a combination of medieval German and Hebrew, developed among Ashkenazim around 1100. Trading contacts between communities and periodic migrations in the face of persecution gradually turned Yiddish into a universal language for Northern and Central European Jews.

After the early 1800s, the majority of American Jews were Ashkenazim. Much of the food, vocabulary, and culture considered "Jewish" in the U.S. today is actually Ashkenazic. Yiddish language communities arose in large cities, especially New York, where Yiddish theater and literature flourished. Isaac Bashevis Singer is probably the most famous American author to write in Yiddish, while Sholem Aleichem wrote Yiddish tales from Russia. At its peak before World War II, 11 million people spoke Yiddish. Today some 5 million Ashkenazim around the world speak Yiddish.


Orthodox Jews follow Jewish law as laid down in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and the Talmud, the vast compilation of Jewish law. They believe God gave the whole Torah to Moses at Mt. Sinai and that it has remained intact and unchanged. To distinguish them from Hasidim, mainstream Orthodox are sometimes called "modern" Orthodox. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey undertaken by the Council of Jewish Federations determined that 7% of the 5 million American Jews are Orthodox.


Following the Enlightenment of the late 18th century, Europe was becoming more secular and democracy was an increasingly admired ideal. Jews found greater acceptance, prompting many to reassess their religious life.

In the early 1800s Jewish scholar Nachman Krochmal of Galicia proposed reconstituting Jewish life in accordance with the ideals of European culture.

In the 1830s, German rabbi Abraham Geiger suggested reforming Judaism by downplaying traditional beliefs, and concentrating instead on the promotion of moral law and monotheism. Such ideas eventually led to the creation what is called Reform Judaism.

The Reform movement says that while the Torah is a valuable cultural and philosophical body of work, it was not delivered by God at one time, but developed over centuries. Reform says Judaism must continue to evolve, with each individual free to decide what to believe. It also conducts worship services in a contemporary language, such as English, as opposed to Hebrew.

According to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey undertaken by the Council of Jewish Federations, 42% of American Jews belong to the Reform movement. There are 900 Reform synagogues in the U.S. and Canada, where it is the dominant branch of Judaism. Reform, or secular, Jews are numerous in Europe and Latin America. They are also prominent in Israel, where there is often considerable tension between secular European Jews and Orthodox Sephardim.


The Conservative movement arose from tension between the Orthodox and Reform advocates. Although its origins date from the 1880s at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Dr. Solomon Schechter led the formal incorporation of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in 1913. Conservative Judaism believes that while sacred Jewish writings did come from God, there was a human component. Although Jewish law should be obeyed, it must adapt.

Conservative worship services vary considerably. Some Conservative synagogues are similar to Reform, while others are close to Orthodox. There are some 800 Conservative synagogues, with some 1.5 million members, in North America. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey found 38% of American Jews are Conservative. The Conservative movement in Great Britain and Israel calls itself Masoreti, meaning "traditional" in Hebrew.


The Reconstructionist movement grew out of Conservative Judaism. Reconstructionists believe that Judaism is an evolving religious civilization. While they accept the importance of the Jewish heritage, they do not believe that those practices must remain unchanged. Rather, they call for "reconstructing" Judaism as needed to fit contemporary traditions while maintaining the intentions of the past. An estimated 1% of American Jews are Reconstructionist.


Originally Zion referred to a stronghold in Jerusalem, but over time it came to mean Jerusalem itself or the land of Israel in general. Returning to Zion has long been a part of Jewish belief. Zionism as a secular political movement developed in the late 19th century and called for the resettlement of the dispersed Jews in a new Jewish state in Palestine.

Through his writings, journalist Theodor Herzl created modern political Zionism. A secular Jew, he originally believed anti-Semitism could be overcome through assimilation. He changed his mind after covering the 1894 trial of a Jewish French soldier, Alfred Dreyfus, unjustly convicted of passing secrets to Germany. The trial exposed widespread anti-Semitism that shocked Herzl.

Historically, some Orthodox Jews had opposed Zionism because the Messiah had not appeared. But there were many religious Zionists as well. At the turn of the century, early waves of Zionists began settling in Palestine. The British Balfour Declaration of 1917 gave their cause international legitimacy. Zionists helped rescue Jews from the Nazis. The Holocaust increased support for a Jewish homeland, which was declared in 1948.

After the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, many Orthodox saw the Israeli defeat of the Arabs as an omen that God supported Israel, prompting a new wave of religious Zionism. While a few secular and some Orthodox Jews remain anti-Zionist, support for Israel is now overwhelming.

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