Streams of Judaism

There is an old saying that for every two Jews, there are at least three opinions. No wonder, then, that there have almost always been different streams of Judaism through history.


There were divisions among the Jews as far back as the time of the Chanukah story, the time when the land of Israel was under Greek control. Those Jews who were deeply influenced by Greek culture were known as Hellenized Jews, and they were opposed by religious traditionalists called Chasideans. However, when the Selucid Greeks began to oppress the Jews as a whole, Jewish people united against them. This unification in purpose continued for 25 years, but then the Jews divided into three groups.

The Essenes were devoted to strict discipline, believing in isolation from the world. They were ascetic and mystical, and it is believed that an Essene sect produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. Early Christianity seems to have been influenced by the mystical and hermetical teachings of this group.

The Sadduces evolved from the Hellenistic influences on Judaism. Priests and aristocrats made up this movement. They were religiously conservative but socially liberal, adopting the ways of Greek society. They believed in a strict, narrow and unchanging interpretation of the written Torah, and did not believe in Oral Torah. At the centre of their worship was the Temple and its sacrificial services.

The Pharisees believed that God gave the Jews both the Written and Oral Torah, which were equally binding and open to interpretation by the rabbis. The rabbis were people with sufficient education to make such decisions. The Pharisees believed in devotion to the study of Torah and education for all.

A fourth group appeared after Judea was conquered by Rome, causing tensions to mount further between Rome and the Jews. The Zealots were more a nationalistic movement than a religious one. The Zealots are most famous for their defence of Masada, holding the mountain fortress against the Roman Tenth Legion for months and ultimately committing suicide rather than surrendering.


No organised, large-scale difference of opinion existed within Judaism for a few centuries after the destruction of the Temple (70 CE). Judaism was Judaism, resembling what we now call Orthodox Judaism.


A number of sects denying the existence of Oral Torah arose during the 9th century. These were known as Karaites (literally, ‘People of the Scripture’), and they were different from the Rabbanites or Rabbinical Jews.

The Karaites interpreted the literal text of the scripture strictly, not believing in rabbinical interpretation. They believed that rabbinical teachings are subject to the flaws of any document written by mere mortals. The Karaite movement at one time attracted as much as 40% of the Jewish people. Today they are a very small minority, and most Rabbinical Jews do not even know that they exist.


Chassidism was the first of the modern Jewish movements developed in the 1700s in Eastern Europe. Its founder was Israel Ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov. Chassidism emphasised personal experiences and mysticism as alternative ways of getting close to God, as distinct from the previous emphasis of Judaism on education as the appropriate path.

A person considered by the Chassidim to be more enlightened than other Jews is called a ‘Rebbe’ or ‘Tzaddik’. The Rebbe is the spiritual leader of the Chassidic sect, and is consulted by his followers on all major life decisions. Chassidism is today a vital movement throughout the Jewish world.

Those who held to the pre-existing view of Judaism strongly opposed what they considered the radical movement of Chassidism. These opponents were called mitnagdim (‘opponents’), and disputes between the two groups were often brutal. Today, these groups are relatively unified by their joint opposition to the modern liberal movements.


Sydney’s Jewish community dates back to 1788, with the arrival from England of the First Fleet, on which there were at least eight, and perhaps as many as 14, Jews. Throughout the 19th century most of the small community was based in English Orthodoxy, which was complemented by the arrival of some central and eastern European immigrants in the decades before World War II. What has made today’s local Jewish community so dynamic and vital, however, has been immigration since World War II. In various waves of immigration over the past 75 years, Jews have come here from all over Europe, bringing the strength of their heritage and connection to traditional Judaism.

The range of Jewish practice in New South Wales today is diverse. It includes Chassidism, particularly through the Chabad movement, which is strongly represented through the Sydney Yeshiva and many of the rabbis serving the Orthodox synagogues of Sydney.

Orthodox Judaism itself is varied, depending on the immigrant backgrounds and current constitutions of the many strong Orthodox synagogues here. There are two Progressive synagogues as well, one of which has also begun a Conservative service and is incorporating the presence of Jewish renewal.

In addition to the synagogues, there are chavurot that represent Jews who choose to organise around more common interests in geographical areas. Of course, like everywhere in the Jewish world, the presence of Jews identifying through Zionism, culture and secular humanist values can also be found.

Anyone coming to Sydney either to reside or visit will be able to find in this open and tolerant community a place for engaging Jewish expression. Judaism exists throughout the world, and the world of Judaism can be found in Sydney.


Of the 13 million Jews in the world, approximately 5 million live in the United States. The Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements are the three major ones in the U.S. today. A fourth movement, the Reconstructionists, can also be included, though this movement is substantially smaller then the others. The ‘traditional’ movements are the Orthodox and the Conservative, and the Reform and Reconstructionists are usually described as the ‘liberal’ or ‘modern’ movements.

The Orthodox movement actually comprises several different groups. These include the Modern Orthodox, who observe halakhah (Jewish law) while largely integrating into modern society; the Chassidim (often erroneously referred to as the ‘ultra-Orthodox’) who live separately and dress distinctively; and the Yeshivah Orthodox, who are neither of these.

All the Orthodox movements believe that God gave Moses the whole Torah on Mt Sinai, and that the whole Torah includes both the Written Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and the Oral Torah (an oral tradition interpreting and explaining the Written Torah).

They all believe that the Torah is true, that it has come down to us intact and unchanged, and that it contains 613 mitzvot (commandments) binding upon Jews but not upon non-Jews. However, even though they hold similar beliefs, there are subtle differences between them that may be difficult for the non-Orthodox to understand.

Reform Judaism believes that the Bible was not written by God, but rather by separate human sources and redacted together. Though retaining much of the values and ethics of traditional Judaism, along with some of its practices and culture, Reform Jews do not believe in the observance of commandments as such. As the Reform movement is the most liberal, it attracts many non-observant, nominal and/or agnostic Jews.

The tension existing between Orthodoxy and Reform resulted in the development of the Conservative movement. This movement maintains that the truths found in Jewish scriptures and other Jewish writings come from God, but were transmitted by humans and contain a human component.

The binding nature of halakhah is generally accepted by Conservative Judaism, but Conservative Jews believe that the law should change and adapt, remaining true to the values of Judaism while absorbing aspects of the predominant culture. Conservative synagogues can vary greatly from each other, some being indistinguishable from Reform ones except for the use of more Hebrew, and others being practically Orthodox but for men and women sitting together. Most are, in substance, very traditional. Conservative Judaism is characterised by its flexibility.

A theoretical outgrowth of the Conservative Movement is the Reconstructionism. Reconstructionists see Judaism as an evolving religious civilisation. They do not believe that God chose the Jewish people or that a personified deity is active in history. However, Reconstructionism does lay a much greater stress on Jewish observance than Reform Judaism. Halakhah can be chosen to be observed not because it is a set of binding laws from God, but because it is a valuable cultural document.


Almost 6 million Jews live in Israel today. Even though most Israelis do not formally identify themselves with a movement, Orthodoxy is the only movement that is formally and legally recognised in Israel. Religious councils comprised only Orthodox Jews until very recently, and matters such as marriage, conversions and divorce are controlled by the Orthodox Rabbinate.

The hiloni (secular) group constitutes more than half of all Israelis. About 15-20 percent describe themselves as haredi (ultra-Orthodox) or dati (Orthodox), and the rest describe themselves as masorti (traditionally observant but not as dogmatic as the Orthodox).