Social Structure and Institutions

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Branches of Judaism

The different denominations of Judaism are usually distinguished from one another on the basis of their approach to Jewish teachings, their interpretations of the Torah and Talmud, as well as the level of observance of Jewish law. Judaism can be loosely divided into five religious streams: , Reform, Conservative, Haredi (ultra-) and Reconstructionist.


The Jewish tradition considers the Torah to be the divine word passed down from God to Moshe (Moses). As such, the details of the Torah are considered to be unchanging and binding. Judaism also observes a strong adherence to interpretations of Jewish law as described by rabbinic authorities over the centuries. This includes weekly observance of Shabbat, observing Jewish dietary laws and recognition of male-only rabbis. For many Jewish people, Judaism is understood as an all-encompassing system that defines their social, cultural and religious life.


Reform Judaism (also called Liberal or Progressive) is the largest affiliation of Jewish people in America. Reform Jews tend to emphasise ethical principles (such as tikkun olam) over ritual aspects of Judaism. The general view of Reform Judaism is that the Jewish tradition is adaptable to the modern world. For instance, females are able to become rabbis. For some Reform Jewish people, Judaism is understood more as a culture or heritage rather than an all-encompassing worldview.


Conservative Judaism arose as a reaction to the Reform stream. Conservative Judaism has often been thought of as the midpoint on the spectrum between and Reform Judaism by interpreting some laws less rigidly while maintaining an line in other instances.

Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi)

Those who identify with the ultra- tradition (also known as Haredi in Hebrew) are deeply committed to a strict interpretation of Jewish laws. There are many sub-groups within the ultra- tradition, such as Chabad-Lubavitch.


Reconstructionist Judaism generally views Judaism as an ever-changing process of Jewish people, culture, laws and rituals. The founder of the Reconstructionist movement, Mordecai Kaplan, is known for stating that Jewish tradition has “a vote but not a veto”, meaning that Jewish tradition should be consulted, but not dictate, how contemporary Jewish people live.

Jewish Mysticism

The Jewish mystical tradition is diverse, with some more intellectual in nature and others more focused on the experience. Some common activities of the intellectually focused streams include studying the Torah and performing mitzvot while simultaneously foregrounding the mystical significance of these practices. Practices from the experientially focused streams include meditation and chanting as an attempt to experience a unity with God. Traditional mystical concepts are found throughout Jewish thought. The most famous stream of Jewish mysticism is Kabbalah, which focuses on a commentary of the Torah known as the ‘Zohar’.

Secular Judaism

There are some streams of Judaism that are based on political, or cultural Jewish identification, rather than a religious affiliation. Those who are Jewish tend to have a vague identification with Judaism through culture or . One example is Humanistic Judaism, which allows Jewish people to celebrate Jewish culture, history and events through a non-theistic interpretation (i.e. without reference to God).

Social Structure

The social structure of a Jewish community is generally expected to be able to provide for all the members’ spiritual and physical needs. This means that many Jewish communities may have specific buildings, institutions and professions dedicated to the Jewish community. Some examples include a synagogue, Jewish schools, a court, doctor, teacher and ritual slaughterer or butcher (to help the community abide by dietary laws). Local synagogues are often at the heart of the Jewish community.

Organisational Structure

The organisational structure of Judaism is not hierarchical, which means there is no figurehead who presides over the entirety of the religion. There are numerous different roles within a Jewish community related to services held at a synagogue:

  • Rabbi: A rabbi is a person sufficiently educated in Jewish law and tradition to spiritually guide the community, answer questions, resolve disputes and officiate life-cycle events. Although a rabbi holds considerable authority within their respective stream of Judaism, a rabbi is usually thought of as a teacher, not a priest. Some streams of Judaism indicate that only males can become rabbis, while some permit both men and women.
  • Chazzan: A chazzan (cantor) is the person who leads the congregation in prayer. Any Jewish person with thorough knowledge of the prayers and songs can lead the prayer service, though in more conservative synagogues the role of cantor is reserved for a man. In some synagogues, members of the community may lead some of the prayer service. In smaller congregations, the rabbi may act as both the rabbi and the chazzan.
  • Minyan: The term minyan refers to an assembly of ten or more Jewish men (or adults depending on the tradition). The presence of a minyan is required for public worship.

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