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Q: How do Orthodox and Reform practices differ?

A: The differences in the manner in which Reform and Orthodox Jews practice their tradition is grounded in their view of the Hebrew Scripture (Bible) and the status of other sacred texts, such as the Mishnah and Talmud. There are also law codes, such as the Mishneh Torah (by Moses Maimonides) and the Shulchan Arukh (by Joseph Caro) which guide the life of Orthodox Jews. For Orthodox Jews, the Hebrew Scriptures is a divinely-authored text and therefore every commandment contained therein must be obeyed. The Mishnah and Talmud are considered to have virtually the same status and are called Oral Torah. Reform Jews, however, understand the texts to have been written by human beings -- our ancestors. In my personal opinion, the texts are certainly divinely inspired and reflect our ancestors' best understanding of God and their covenant with God, as well as their view of God's will, but that is not the same as being divinely-authored. Hence, Reform Jews read the texts through the spectacles not only of a religious person, but those of the scholar as well. Some institutions are considered to be a product of the cultural milieu and societal norms of the ancient Near East when the Hebrew Scriptures were written down, and do not speak to our lives today. In addition, Reform Jews do not ascribe to the Mishnah and Talmud the same authority which Orthodox Jews do. While the Talmud and law codes guide the lives of Orthodox Jews, it is more accurate to say that they inform the lives of Reform Jews.

These differences in perspective can be seen in every aspect of life: how holy days and festivals are celebrated, how kashrut (the laws of keeping kosher) are kept, how the prayer service is organized and conducted, etc. But it is not accurate to generalize and say "All Orthodox Jews do this..." or "All Reform Jews do that..."

To learn more about the Orthodox perspective, I recommend to you the books of Rabbi Maurice Lamm and Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin. To learn about the Reform perspective, I recommend the following books published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis: Gates of Mitzvah (life cycle) Gates of Shabbat (observing the sabbath) Gates of the Seasons (holy days and festivals)

In addition, if you are interested in the perspective of the Conservative Movement on these same issues, I recommend Rabbi Isaac Klein's "A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice."

Written by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, Columbia, MD

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Q: What is the most fundamental difference between Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism? How does this difference then manifest itself in the ways these two respective groups live their lives in response to God?

A: The fundamental difference is the approach to Torah and the implications of that approach. The Orthodox believe that it comes directly from God and so cannot be changed. All we can do is "understand" (they wouldn't even say interpret) it, and the right to do so has devolved upon rabbis, descendants of the Pharisees who probably began teaching during the Babylonian Exile. The "authentic" understanding of the Torah is encapsulated in the "halachah," the law (literally, "way"). God is thus the law-giver whose literal words must be obeyed. From this comes the concept of MITZVAH, which means "commandment."

For Reform, the Torah is the God-inspired attempt by Hebrews/Israelites/ Jews to understand their surroundings and their relationship with God. While it is a holy document, the Torah is rooted in the past, and we can even sometimes discern the circumstances under which certain sections were written down. Reform thus sees development in Judaism, not just through the biblical period but thereafter as well, so that we can continue the process of helping Judaism evolve by coming to our own understandings. We also recognize that Jews in various places developed varying customs and understandings, again proof to us that Judaism is not and never was monolithic. When Reform Jews relate to God, they do so on a more personal and less mechanistic level than one would through halachah, though I must add that I am sure that many Orthodox Jews also have a very "personal" relationship with God, and many Reform Jews do feel that God demands certain behavior of them. The fact is, Judaism has never really imposed a "belief" on people, though obviously the halachah system implies a specific understanding of God.

Written by Rabbi George Stern, Temple Beth Torah, Upper Nyack, NY

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