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The Main Sects Of Jewish Faith

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Mohammad Aslam Shad reviews the evolution of Judaism and its various branches and comments on the troubled history of interfaith conflicts. Muslim Spain and Ottoman Empire treated the Jews with dignity and equality unlike the sad history of persecution by Christian Europe.

Orthodox Judaism is the branch of Judaism that adheres most strictly to Halakha or the Jewish Law. Orthodoxy asserted that any change to the tradition was a violation of the Jewish heritage. For these Traditionalists the Written and the Oral Torah constitute an infallible chain of divinely revealed truth. According to them, anyone who denies any of these tenets is to be regarded as heretic:

God’s existence, God’s unity, God’s Incorporeality, God’s eternity, God alone is to be worshiped, Prophecy, Moses (Hazrat Musa ASW) is the greatest of all the Prophets, the divine origin of the Torah, the Torah is immutable, God knows the thoughts and deeds of human- beings, reward and punishment.

For the Orthodox Jews, there can be no compromise with secularism. Jewish young women of this sect are reared to become loyal and dedicated mothers and homemakers. Today most Orthodox Jews reside in Israel and USA. In Israel the religiously observant Jews make up about 15-20 percent of the Jewish population. The Traditionalists, who were once marginal to Israeli Society, now play an increasingly important role in communal and political life.

Conservative Judaism viewed Judaism as an evolving organism that remained spiritually vibrant by adjusting to environmental and cultural conditions. As against Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism emerged as a more moderate form of Jewish modernism. Conservative thinkers preserve those elements of the Traditions that they believe to be spiritually meaningful while simultaneously setting aside those observances that actually hinder the continued growth of Judaism. Such obsolete practices were not abrogated, but simply ignored. Conservative Judaism broke with Orthodoxy regarding the belief that the Torah was revealed in its entirety to Moses on Mount Sinai.

In order to modernize the faith, Conservative Scholars have established an authoritative body to adapt Judaism to contemporary circumstances.

Unlike Orthodox thinkers who view revelation as verbal in nature and Reform theologians who conceive of the Torah as a largely human product, the Conservative movement has generally attempted to bridge the two extremes. Within Conservative Judaism, revelation is understood as a divinely initiated process involving human composition. On the whole, they stressed the historical importance of the Jewish heritage such as Sabbath, ethical precepts, dietary observances etc. but what they emphasize and advocate is change and renewal.

Reform Judaism The aim of Reformers was to adapt Jewish worship to contemporary aesthetic standards and try to integrate into the mainstream of Western European culture. As against the Orthodoxy which asserted that any change to the Tradition was a violation of the Jewish heritage as the Written and Oral Torah constitute an infallible chain of divinely revealed truth, Reform Judaism believed in its scientific study. They believe that the Mosaic Legislation is a system of training the Jewish people but today only the moral laws are binding, the rabbinic legislation is bound to obstruct rather than further modern spiritual elevation.

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The Reformers also reject the belief in the Messiah as well as the doctrine of paradise and hell. It is the duty of modern Jewry, they assert, to strive for justice in modern society. Since 1970, they have a new Prayer Book which has changed the content as well as format of worship. In 1970, the first woman Rabbi Sally Priesand, was ordained, and by early 1980’s more than 75 women had entered the Rabbinate. At the outset of 21st century, the Reform Rabbinic Body set out a new statement that affirmed the central tenets of Judaism –God, Torah and Israel–while acknowledging the diversity of belief and practice and the need for reinterpretation of all aspects of Judaism.

Re Constructionist Judaism In the view of its founder Kaplan, Judaism is an evolving religious civilization in which spiritual symbols play a fundamental role. He says that Reform had correctly recognized the evolving character of Judaism, yet it ignored the social basis of Jewish identity as well as the organic character of Jewish peoplehood. In order for the Jewish community to survive, Kaplan believed it must eliminate its authoritarian dogmatic features. So, the Re Constructionist Judaism has placed authority in the Jewish people (as opposed to the rabbis) and has created a process whereby each congregation is free to evolve its own minhar or “custom”.

Ever since the Romans expelled Jews from Jerusalem after their revolts in 70 AD and 132- 135 AD (Simon Bar Kochba), they have remained scattered all over the known world, particularly in Europe, Middle East and Russia. It is after a lapse of 1700 years that they managed to have their own piece of land – Israel in 1948. Throughout this period, they were brutally persecuted in Europe as is evident from the below :

  • Expelled from England in 1290 by the Statute of Jewry promulgated by King Edward One.
  • Repeatedly expelled from France, the last expulsion lasted 150 years.
  • Jews were even blamed for causing and spreading the plague (1348- 50) which killed 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s people.
  • Persecuted in West Europe but helped out by Casimir the Great of Poland who accommodated them in his country.
  • Massacred in Spain in 1391, Jewish refugees find sanctuary in Algeria.
  • In 1415, Pope Benedict 12th even ordered censorship of their Talmud.
  • As a result of Alhamra Decree of 1492, two lac Jews were expelled from Spain.
  • Expelled from Sicily in 1493 and from Lithuania in 1495.
  • Forced to convert to Christianity or leave Portugal in 1497.
  • Genocidal elimination of sixty lac Jews in Hitler’s Holocaust of Second World War .
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As against the above, they along with Christians, were recognized as “Peoples of the Book” and were granted religious toleration, judicial autonomy and exemption from military service in the Muslim World.

It is an undeniable fact that in Muslim Spain the Jews held high positions in State setup and were practically treated at par with Muslims in almost all matters. The same was true about Ottomans who accommodated them out of the way when they were expelled from Spain and granted them the status of an independent Millet along with Greek Orthodoxy, Russian Orthodoxy, and Armenian Orthodoxy of the Christian Faith.

In the early period of Muslim history too, they were benevolently treated by Hazrat Umar and Salahuddin Ayyubi, while they, along with Muslims, were butchered by the European Crusaders when they conquered Jerusalem in 1099.

What we now see in their attitude towards Muslims is simply confounding because Muslims all through have, on balance, been considerate and accommodating towards them. Same can be said about their treatment of the Christians. Sadly, political contests and battles for temporal power pitted Christians, and later the Jewish people, against the Muslims. Interfaith harmony within the Abrahamic traditions is possible, If only we were to view history without the biases that have influenced us all.

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