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I'm asking purely in a da ma l'hoshiv context. I grew up frum (Orthodox) and currently work for a Jewish organization that hires a lot of non-jews as well as Conservative and Reform Jews.

One of the questions I get asked pretty often is, What is the difference between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform?

I know a lot of practises that are different (i.e. Women being rabbis). but what is the theological reasoning that divides the movements?

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duplicate? judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/8035/… – Menachem Aug 8 '12 at 20:50
@Menachem that question asks about practices. This about theology. – Charles Koppelman Aug 8 '12 at 23:22
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Orthodox: torah, both written and oral, was given by God at Sinai. This includes the rules to apply the law. Chain of authority is per Avot 1:1. We don't make/revisit law today because that requires the Sanhedrin. (Of course, we do continue to interpret law to account for new situations, but we don't overturn existing law.)

Conservative: torah at Sinai (some say divine inspiration rather than divine authorship); process, authority as above. However, we can derive law today even without the Sanhedrin, and even if it contradicts existing law, to take into account new information. For example, the need for a second day of yom tov comes from calendar uncertainty that we no longer have, so we don't need to keep it. A community follows its rabbi, as for Orthodox, but there can be more variation because the law body supports minority opinions.

Reform: opinions about Sinai vary, ranging from "happened as written" to "some sort of divine encounter that Moshe tried to put in words afterwards" to "literary device/metaphor, didn't happen". The ethical mitzvot are completely binding, per the prophets. Individuals and communities have informed autonomy but are not supposed to pick and choose at whim. There is probably more variety in this movement than the others in what people do and believe.

In all of these I've described what movement leaders hold and teach. When I was shopping for a synagogue, I asked rabbis of each movement what distinguished their movements and this is pretty much what they said. This is the "theory"; the practice of individual Jews can vary (less so in Orthodoxy).

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Don't many Conservative scholars accept variations of the Documentary Hypothesis? Which would make their idea of Torah from Sinai very different from the Orthodox one. – Dov F Aug 8 '12 at 21:23
Many a Conservative will tell you -- "Torah inspired by G-d but written by man." – Shalom Aug 8 '12 at 22:57
The Conservative position you described accounts for much of the leadership and the CJLS but not laypeople, who tend to fall out on one side or the other. But then again, that's true with each of these movements - as they say, "individual results may vary." – Charles Koppelman Aug 8 '12 at 23:20
I've updated based on comments here. (I don't know if DH is officially part of Conservative teaching, but Dov is right that many individual C and R Jews hold that way.) – Monica Cellio Aug 9 '12 at 20:59
Re "However, we can derive law today even without the Sanhedrin to take into account new information and issues.", contrasting with Orthodox: this is imprecise. Orthodox rabbis take new issues into account obviously, as they come up, such as ruling on electricity on Shabas, IVF, DNR, and a host of other issues. I think what you probably meant was "However, we can derive law today even without the Sanhedrin to take into account new information.", though to a much lesser extent Orthodox rabbis do even that. – msh210 Aug 9 '12 at 22:25

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