Who are the Jews?
Judaism is what we can call an ‘ethnoreligion’. This means that some Jews define themselves as Jewish by their beliefs, (which includes converts to Judaism who are seen as fully Jewish), while some identify as Jewish due to birth into a Jewish family, heritage and ethnicity. It is not an ‘either/ or’ system as for some Jews, both of these are equally important.
We cannot assume that all Jews believe the same thing, for example, that all Jews believe in G-d or understand ideas like the messiah or the land of Israel in the same way. Some Jews see themselves as Jewish without holding any beliefs about G-d at all. They describe themselves as ‘cultural’ or ‘secular’ Jews. Being Jewish might be about living out the religious commandments for some, it might be about belonging to a community for others, it might be about a cultural identity for others, or a combination.
Within the global category of ‘Jews’ there are certain named groups, although these are internally diverse. These terms describe both geographical roots, and religious approaches. We will start with the religious groups found in the UK.
Branches of Judaism
This group is recognisable due to their style of dress. Men often wear black coats, black hats, beards and sidelocks. Haredi women wear extremely modest dress including hair coverings for married women. Halacha (Jewish law) is seen as given directly from G-d and totally binding. It governs every action taken throughout the day. Many communities will also follow the teachings of a particular Rabbi. Haredi Jews embrace traditional values and reject many modern ideas such as changes in gender roles. Women have a very traditional role, running the home and usually having many children but some also do run businesses or work.
To protect community members from outside influences, Haredi Jews avoid media like television and do not often mix with non-Jewish people. Some speak Yiddish as a first language. Haredi life is focussed around study of traditional Jewish teachings, observance of Sabbath and festivals and in sharing joyous family events such as weddings.
The meaning of ‘Haredi’ is ‘trembling one’ (Lawton, 2016, p. 135). This group is also called ‘ultra-Orthodox’ or ‘Strictly Orthodox’ but Lawton suggests they should simply be understood as ‘differently Orthodox’ (Lawton, 2016: p. 7). A group within Haredi are the Hasidim, meaning ‘righteous ones’ (Lawton, 2016 p. 135).
Reference: Lawton, C (2016) Judaism GCSE Religious Studies: the Definitive Resource, Board of Deputies of British Jews
Orthodox (including Modern Orthodox)
Orthodox Jews are the largest group of Jews in the UK. Orthodox Judaism teaches that the Torah is the direct word of G-d given at Mount Sinai and each word is holy. This includes the oral law that was told to Moses at the same time to explain what is written in the Torah. Sinai is a region of dessert between Israel and Egypt. In Jewish pre-history, after G-d helped the Hebrew slaves to escape from Egypt, the Torah was revealed in Sinai, as the Hebrews travelled to the land of Israel.
The Torah contains 613 commandments, or laws. These 613 laws form the basis for everyday living. They are seen within Orthodox Judaism as eternal with Rabbis called upon to decide how to apply Jewish law to modern day life. Traditions vary depending on where Orthodox Jews come from in the world, but they are united in the essential belief in Torah given on Mount Sinai.
Men and women have different ritual roles in Orthodox Judaism, based on the commitments required by Jewish law. For example, only men can be Rabbis and lead synagogue services. Both men and women are leaders and teachers in Orthodox communities.
Masorti is Hebrew for ‘traditional’. Masorti Jews are committed to halacha (Jewish law) and believe halacha should gradually evolve to meet the needs of a changing world. Masorti Judaism teaches that Jews should be inclusive and welcoming, questioning, and open-minded.
Masorti synagogue services use traditional prayers said in Hebrew. Most Masorti synagogues are egalitarian, offering equal opportunities for women and men to lead and take part in the service. Women are recognised as Rabbis across the Masorti movement. Some communities choose to have more traditional, male-led services.
Jewish learning is one of Masorti’s highest values. Every Jewish person should have the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of Jewish thought, history and culture, and to develop the ability to read and explore Jewish texts for themselves.
Reform Judaism started around 1810 in Germany and 1840 in the UK. It aimed to help Jews balance their Judaism and full citizenship in a modern society.
Differences in Reform synagogues included changing some prayers, saying prayers in English and men and women sitting together for services. Later, women Rabbis were introduced and people with only Jewish fathers were counted as Jewish. In recent years, there has been a strong focus on equality, human rights and looking after the environment.
Reform Jews see the Torah as inspired by G-d but written down by humans and therefore not the exact ‘word of G-d’. Torah study and debate are considered very important and the Torah is read and discussed during Shabbat services.
Reform Judaism values both tradition and text as well as knowledge of the wider world. Both should help people create their own opinions and make informed choices about their Jewish practice. This allows Judaism to be relevant to each new generation.
Liberal Judaism was founded in 1902, by a community of people with a strong Jewish identity who wanted to connect their Judaism with their modern lives. It is innovative and always thinking about the present and the future, with a focus on justice, social action and equality. As an organisation, Liberal Judaism engages with society as it finds it and plays an active role in building collaboration across the Jewish community and with other faiths and causes.
Liberal Judaism encourages members of their communities to make decisions about how they live their own Jewish lives today, whilst taking Jewish tradition and history into account, so that they can be fully active participants in their own Jewish journeys.
Liberal prayerbooks have updated the language used in prayers and blessings to be inclusive of everyone, including when referring to God. They also published guidelines for LGBTQ+ weddings before they were legalised in the UK.
What’s the Difference?
Broadly speaking, the difference between the ‘traditional’ groups, such as Orthodox and Haredi, and ‘progressive’ groups, such as Reform and Liberal, is a view of revelation. The traditional groups understand the Torah to represent one divine revelation at Sinai, which is complete. The revelation has been passed on in an unbroken chain through the biblical prophets and kings, and later the Rabbis. The progressive groups see revelation as an ongoing process in the world. They acknowledge that the prophets had to interpret the divine word, and humans will always have to interpret divine guidance for each new age.
Differences may be seen in whether someone keeps to the Jewish food laws (kashrut) or not, whether women have leading and teaching roles in the community, how they keep shabbat (ie how to define ‘rest’), and whether a group accepts someone with a non- Jewish mother as Jewish.
Geography and Culture
Jews are geographically and culturally extremely diverse, but there are broad geographical groupings.
The word Sephardi comes from the Hebrew word for ‘Spain’; ‘Sefarad’. Sephardi Jews migrated to Spain and Portugal from Israel. The Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE and Jews were exiled from the land of Israel, many groups settling in Spain and Portugal. They lived there for centuries, becoming a thriving community. This land was controlled by Moorish (Muslim North African) rulers for centuries and Jews took part in the rich and productive cultural life of Moorish Spain. A language called ‘Ladino’ developed, which is a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew, blended with Arabic and Portuguese words.
In 1492 Spanish Catholics re-took the land from the Muslim Moorish rulers. At that point they perceived Sephardi Jews to be a threat and expelled them from Spain.
The word ‘Ashkenazi’ is taken to mean ‘German Jews’, but actually comes from the name of a grandson of Noah in the bible, Ashkenaz. In Genesis 10 the sons and grandsons of Noah are described as spreading out and founding new regions after the flood. After the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE Jews were forced to spread around the world, finding new places to live. The communities that settled in Germany and Northern Europe were associated with Ashkenaz, one of the 10 descendants of Noah who settled new regions.
Today the term Ashkenazi describes Jews who settled in Germany as well as Central and Eastern Europe, particularly Poland. They moved to Northern Europe from the Middle East around the 8th and 9th Centuries. These communities grew and flourished, focusing on education and developing a rich cuisine and culture. The language spoken by Ashkenazi Jews is Yiddish; a mixture of German and Hebrew, with some Aramiac words (the language Jesus spoke). A system of religious education produced well-educated Rabbis who interpreted and analysed Jewish religious texts. Their work in making sense of and living by the Torah underpins forms of Ashkenazi Judaism today. Jews in the UK and USA are largely Ashkenazi-heritage.
Mizrachi Jews are Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent. The term “Mizrachi” means “Eastern” in Hebrew, and refers to Jews who come from countries such as Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Morocco, and Egypt, among others. Mizrachi Jews have a rich cultural heritage that includes unique customs, music, and cuisine. They also have their own religious traditions and practices that sometimes slightly differ from those of Ashkenazi Jews, who are Jews of European descent. Mizrachi Jews have faced discrimination and persecution throughout history, but have also made significant contributions to Jewish culture and society. Today, Mizrachi Jews can be found all over the world, and continue to maintain their unique identity and traditions.
For example, Mizrachi style food, such as kebabs and flatbreads, is popular. Yemeni silversmiths create beautiful pieces that Jews all over the world value.
Watch this video on Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews from the Jewish Museum: https://jewishmuseum.org.uk/schools/asset/sephardi-voices-curator-talk/
Indian Jews are a small but significant Jewish community in India. The community is made up of several distinct groups, including the Bene Israel (from Mumbai), Cochin Jews (from Kerala), and Baghdadi Jews (originally from Baghdad, who settled in port cities in India). The Bene Israel are believed to be one of the oldest Jewish communities in India, and have a unique history and culture. The Cochin Jews have a long history in the southern Indian state of Kerala, and have developed their own customs and traditions over the centuries. The Baghdadi Jews, who came to India from Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries in the 18th and 19th centuries, have had a significant impact on the Indian Jewish community, and have contributed to the development of Jewish life and culture in India. Today, Indian Jews continue to maintain their unique identity and traditions, while also integrating into the broader Indian society. Most Indian Jews migrated to Israel in the 1950s.
Ethiopian Jews, also known as the Beta Israel (the ‘House of Israel’), are a Jewish community that has lived in Ethiopia for centuries. They found their way to Ethiopia following trade routes from the 1st to the 6th Centuries CE. The Beta Israel have a unique history and culture and Jewish religious practices can be influenced by Christian Ethiopian customs. For example, over the centuries, small orders of Jewish monks have arisen. Monastic orders are not really found in Judaism but are prevalent in Christian regions. Beta Israel traditions have been passed on orally, whereas Jewish communities usually have high levels of literacy and rich written traditions.
The Beta Israel have faced discrimination and persecution throughout history, and many were forced to flee Ethiopia in the 20th century due to political instability and famine. A word used in Ethiopian culture for the Beta Israel, ‘falashas’ translates as ‘landless’ or ‘wanderers’. In the 1980s and 1990s, Israel launched several operations to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel, where they could live freely and practice their religion without fear of persecution. Today, there are around 140,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, where they continue to maintain their unique identity and traditions while also integrating into Israeli society.
Check out this video, ‘20 Jewish faces’: https://vimeo.com/coussins/20faces
This image library and information source from the Jewish Museum reflects the huge diversity of Jewish people: https://jewishmuseum.org.uk/schools/in-the-classroom/inclusive-judaism/