Consortium of:

Diversity of the Jewish People and Historic Overview of Differences and Divisions of Judaism

  August 14th 2020

Photo Illustration by Ondrej Bocek on

On July 8, 2020 ICRS continued with the third day of the workshop on Judaism. Rabbi David Rosen discussed the diversity of the Jewish people and provided an overview of historic divisions and differences within the Jewish community. The two primary divisions within the Jewish community today are Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi Jews. The divisions relate to the varied customs and culture within these two communities due to their different encounters with Islam and Christianity. According to Rosen, the Sephardic Jews get their name from the Hebrew term farad which simply means Spain. In the 10th century, most Jews lived in the Iberian Peninsula, which at the time was under Muslim rule. 

Ashkenazi refers to the Jews under the Roman Empire who were expelled from Palestine by Rome, moving to Europe and later the United States, regions which would become predominantly Christian. The different contexts of these groups have resulted in minor differences in cultural and religious practices. However, in the modern world, both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews are united in Israel and other areas around the world. According to Rosen, Judaism has been enriched by encounters with many traditions including those of Persia, Greek philosophy, in addition to Islam and Christianity. Each has brought various influences on the Jewish faith and people. 

Rosen also discussed Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, and noted that it is one of the core essences of Judaism. Mysticism, after all, is the goal of every religion. That is, mysticism serves to bring us closer to God as creator. Kabbalah contains a particular theological and cosmological understanding, one that is influenced by Judaism’s encounters with other traditions. Kabbalah calls Jews to contribute to shaping the world in which they live. This mystical approach within Judaism concerns the ethics of life and how believers should impact the world, one which is viewed as horrifying, threatening, and violent. Kabbalah ought to lead Jews to have a universal impact without relating directly to the non-Jewish society. This may seem to be a paradox, but this is part of the richness of the Jewish mystical tradition’s approach to the world.

Rosen also shared that the Jewish community is divided in relation to mastery and knowledge of Jewish tradition. The knowledge and mastery of Jewish literature, heritage, and traditions is not a simple matter. The Rabbi, as a scholar in Jewish tradition, is expected to become an expert in major works of Judaism in order to give advice. Rabbis cannot simply speak their mind or argue from personal opinion claiming divine revelation as no one would take them seriously. Rather, rabbis should cite the literature and show the basis for their statements based on the literary tradition. Access to the literature of the Jewish tradition and different contexts play important roles in the emergency of spiritual movements within Judaism. For example, Hassidic Jews, known for their piety, find it important not only to pay reverence to God in the mind but also in the heart. The purpose of life, for them, is to serve God with joy. The rabbinic group, however, are more like teachers or ulama, the Hassidic more like Sufis in their mystical approach. 

Meanwhile, for Rosen, the most interesting and challenging encounter for Judaism is the encounter with modernism and the Enlightenment because it made Jewish people become more critical toward their own identity, heritage, culture, tradition and values which are the legacy of their ancestors. The encounter with modernism also became a challenge for Jewish people, because they are expected to be able to not only understand their religion but also to present their religion in the new era. One movement in the Jewish tradition which is known as closely related with the Enlightenment is Haskalah. This movement tends to do scientific study of Judaism and also to seek  Jewish cultural renewal in the context of modernism. The renewal must be undertaken so that Jewish tradition can be respected and admired. There are also groups who see that there is a need for renewed cultural values, but still find value in the historic traditions. These groups are somewhere between Reformed and Orthodox Jews, Rosen placing them under the rubric of “modern orthodoxy.” This group wants to modernize but not necessarily to change aspects of Jewish tradition. Rather, they want to demonstrate how the Jewish tradition and lifestyle is appropriate for the modern world. Contrary to this, there are groups which refuse to change, believing everything is good within Judaism. They choose to isolate themselves from the modern world. This group is known as Haredi Jews or ultra-orthodox. 

Another important issue in relation to Judaism’s encounter with modernity is that of Zionism. Though rooted in Jewish tradition, Zionism is a secular movement borne of a desire for people to return to their former lands, identity, and tradition. The movement believes that in order to give Jews security, hope, and protect against anti-Semitism, they should develop their own culture in their own land. A majority of Jews see Zionism as a vehicle to bring back the Biblical hope of God’s eternal promise of the land and the realization of all people living according to God’s commands.