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What is the Difference Between Orthodox and Reform Judaism?

Malcolm Tatum
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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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

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:

  • Gender separation. Orthodox Synagogues hold services with men and women seated in separate sections. This separation is imposed in order to maintain modesty and attention. Reform synagogues allow for the mixing of its congregants.
  • Female Rabbis. In the Orthodox tradition, the prominent religious roles like that of Rabbi and Cantor are reserved for men. The Reform movement has female Rabbis and Cantors.
  • Music during services. Instrumental music is not permitted during Synagogue services in the Orthodox movement, but it is permitted and common in Reform services.
  • Skullcap. Because of the Orthodoxy's literal interpretation of Jewish law, more Orthodox men (the observant ones) regularly wear skullcaps (or kippot or yarmukle). In general, fewer Reform men wear kippot and are more likely to do so in Synagogue but not in their regular life. Female Reform Jews may wear yarlmulke as well as other religious items like prayer shawls (tallitot) that traditionally was only worn by men.
  • Definition of a Jew. The Orthodox hold the traditional definition that requires one to have a Jewish mother or complete an Orthodox conversion to be considered a Jew. Reform Jews also hold those with Jewish fathers who were raised Jewish to also be considered a Jew.
  • Dietary laws. Typically, Orthodox followers better adhere to Jewish dietary laws (kashrut), which includes among many things not eating dairy and meat together, and eating only certain types of animals slaughtered in accordance with halacha. The Reform position permits the individual to determine whether and how much to observe it. As a result, Reform Jews vary from a strict adherence to kashrut to only avoiding pork to not following it at all.

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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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum , Writer
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including Language & Humanities, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.

Discussion Comments

By anon991626 — On Jul 05, 2015

The Reform movement surfaced in Germany before the World Wars. It was designed to cater to the assimilated Jew. They threw off the yoke of "Divine Commandments" and obligations, thus, denying Divine authorship of the 'Torah' and Divine origin of all the laws etc. This by definition labels them as heretics. But, most all of the congregants of a Reform congregation are ignorant in Torah law and authentic Judaism etc. so they are not to blame. They are victims of assimilation, and secularism etc. The Reform movement is a different world from the Judaism of more than two thousand years.

By anon262487 — On Apr 19, 2012

@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!

By anon262247 — On Apr 19, 2012

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.

By anon145508 — On Jan 23, 2011

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.

By anon124341 — On Nov 05, 2010

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!

By anon123230 — On Oct 31, 2010

Thank you. It was very informative.

By anon103706 — On Aug 13, 2010

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

By anon59532 — On Jan 09, 2010

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!

By anon57752 — On Dec 27, 2009

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

By anon43994 — On Sep 03, 2009

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.

By anon40390 — On Aug 08, 2009

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.

By anon29234 — On Mar 29, 2009

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.

Malcolm Tatum

Malcolm Tatum

Writer

Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
Learn more
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