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If a Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist Jew asks an Orthodox Jew, "What is the difference between Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist and Orthodox Judaism? Who says that Orthodox Judaism is the correct one to follow?"

How should an Orthodox Jew politely answer without making the person feel like two cents or making a chillul Hashem?

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    Those are other branches of Judaism. Do you only want to know about those three you mentioned? And why not add various Hasidic groups, too? Or, if you are hasidic, maybe you'd want to argue against mitnagdim. I'm just confused by these monolithic Jewish identities you are implying. – Charles Koppelman Jan 11 '15 at 4:01
  • related: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/18386/… (I knew this was out there) – Charles Koppelman Jan 11 '15 at 4:39
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    kiruv-outreach? – Double AA Jan 11 '15 at 5:31
  • My understanding is that the single most fundamental difference is the way Orthodox Jews regard the Talmud/Chazal and their place in defining what the Torah is (and what it's not) including practical laws and general perspectives (hashkafah). In terms of explaining such an idea and making it palpable to a non-Orthodox person... lets see what people answer. – Gavriel Jan 11 '15 at 20:22
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When I was shopping for a synagogue and a rabbi I was pretty methodical about it. I didn't want to judge just based on what I'd heard people say about different communities. After I'd visited a bunch and started to narrow things down, I met individually with local rabbis from the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements. (We didn't have any local Reconstructionist rabbis.) Among my other questions I asked each of them: What makes your movement different from the others? Why is yours the correct one?

This was rather a while ago, but fortunately I took notes. The Orthodox rabbi I met with, who was quite well-regarded in the community, told me the following:

  • Orthodoxy holds that the torah is the word of God. (Well duh, I said -- who doesn't?) Reform, he said, holds that the torah was written by men. He said that Conservative does too, though this was later disputed.

  • Observance is a journey and a goal, not all-or-nothing. There are pious and less-pious Jews (in all movements), and just because you can't do 100% doesn't mean you can't do anything. Choose a movement based on what you believe, not what you are able to practice today. You're welcome in Orthodoxy even if you aren't doing everything you should yet.

  • Orthodox Judaism makes demands of you, sometimes uncomfortable ones. Other movements are less demanding; if you're looking for a community that will make you feel good rather than one that will make you work, Reform may be a better fit for you.

Based in part on that experience, I think the key points to cover would be:

  • theology differences, particularly with respect to the written torah
  • the oral law: binding (Orthodox), binding but with more power for the rabbinic council to interpret (Conservative), not binding (Reform)
  • practical p'sak: ask your rabbi who will apply halacha (Orthodox), ask your rabbi who will apply one of possibly multiple halachic interpretations (Conservative), study and decide for yourself or ask your rabbi (Reform)
  • views on egalitarianism: Reform doesn't make gender distinctions; some Conservative synagogues do and some don't
  • Another key point of difference, in my opinion, is that only the Orthodox synagogues have a mechitza, or otherwise separate men from women while praying. – Gary Jan 11 '15 at 16:07
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    @Gary I considered getting into some specific differences in observance, but if we're going to talk about the mechitza we should also talk about Shabbat (not driving, electricity, work, etc), kashrut, prayer obligations, negiah, and other things. I understand the question to be asking at a higher level, but if the OP clarifies I'll try to respond. – Monica Cellio Jan 11 '15 at 18:07
  • I was just looking at the question and answer so far, and yes, there's plenty of variance in specific observance points among the non-Orthodox that can be listed...well, not forever, but for quite a while... but the first thing ANY non-Orthodox Jew is going to notice when he steps inside an Orthodox synagogue for prayer is that his wife and daughters are going to be separated from him...so, in answer to the question, the Orthodox guy would start with "Well first of all, your wife and daughters pray on the other side of a barrier or in a separate gallery".. – Gary Jan 12 '15 at 4:59
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    @Gary but the question isn't asking specifically about synagogue experiences or prayer. The first thing a non-Orthodox Jew notices about the Orthodox will depend on the context in which he's encountering them, and "at shul, for services" is only one possible context. – Monica Cellio Jan 12 '15 at 5:04
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I once was asked to speak to a conservative bar/bat mitzvah class to introduce Orthodox Judaism. The other 3 rabbis had already spoken in previous meetings. Shavuot was approaching. After I finished, the Chazan (conservative) got up and made a fascinating comment, before opening the floor to Q&A. "isn't it interesting that the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis spoke about what Mitzvot they do [and/or don't do] yet the Orthodox Rabbi did not mention that at all. Why Rabbi?" I answered The main issue of Orthodox Judaism is the belief that we have been handed down, from generation to generation, father to son and rebbe to student, the Torah and the Mesorah (traditional explanations). Once we have a firm belief in believing that the Torah and Mesorah are the word of haShem, THEN we do our best to keep the words of haShem. Another time, asked to speak to the parent body of a nondenominational school, I shared a point that I heard from one of my Rebbeim, Rabbi Yisroel Miller, currently of Edmonton, Canada."After 120 years, I can hope to have one solid 'excuse' for not excelling in keeping all the Mitzvot. "If I would have had more time, I would have made it! It's not my fault that the generation of the flood caused our days to be shortened!" "And that will work," said Rabbi Miller. "But that excuse will only work if haShem pulls out 'His celestial computer' and computes that you would actually have made it and not gone deeper into the morass!!" At that point, I stopped and posed the following question: "which is better: to accept 50% of the Torah/Mitzvot and keep all 50% or to accept 100% of the Torah/Mitzvot and aim for 100% and keep only 10%? Everyone agreed 10% of 100% is better than the entire 50% and no more.

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You phrased your question very specifically in that you said "what do you do when someone from the conservative reform movement asks you..." as opposed to someone who is completely unfamiliar with these movements, or someone who is familiar or unaffiliated. Therefore i think your answer should be different and not about "educating" or "explaining" the differences, since it's likely that the person asking you might already know some of these differences. Therefore my answer is as follows:

You should answer why YOU believe in Orthodox Judaism, and answer it focusing it on you, not drawing lines around the other movements. For example, rather than say "The reform movement heretically believes that man wrote the Torah," your answer should be "It's important to me that the Torah was divinely given by God to Moses. If i were to believe that it was written by man then i might find myself nonreligious, or at risk of picking which miswoth/miztvot i wanted to keep and which ones i wanted to discard; which would stop my spiritual and moral growth." In the latter answer, you have answered their question by stating the opinion of Orthodoxy that the Torah is God given, explained why it's important to you, and given an open door for the person you are speaking with to empathize with you, understand where you are at, and respect you for it. You have also managed to not insult anyone nor speak lashon hara, nor committed hillul hashem.

  • "It's important to me... If i were to believe that it was written by man... which would stop my spiritual and moral growth." Your example answer would be an honest response from someone who makes himself "believe" in Orthodox Judaism for some functional purpose rather than because he really thinks it is true. It doesn't seem very suitable for someone who believes in Orthodox Judaism because he actually thinks its tenets are true. – Fred Dec 14 '15 at 3:43
  • @Fred But it's important to him that the tenets are true. For me, it doesn't really matter that the tenets are true, or if all of them are. My icon on this site is a coin with Paleo-hebrew. i don't believe the Torah we have now is the same one as originally given to Moshe, the font is wrong. But all that aside, for my personal walk, the validity of the tenants aren't as important as the ethical growth that the tenents provide – Aaron Dec 14 '15 at 3:50
  • I'm not addressing your personal beliefs. The question asks what an Orthodox person should say, and your answer is not quite applicable to someone with Orthodox beliefs or someone who would defend those beliefs as correct. (Regarding Paleo-Hebrew, by the way, it's an acceptable rabbinic view that the Torah was given in that font). – Fred Dec 14 '15 at 4:11
  • @Fred It's definitely an acceptable belief, especially when you read the Yerushalmi which DoubleAA doesn't cite for some reason. But just because you can prove it, doesn't mean someone won't call you an aphikoros for it :) Maybe a better example would be i don't believe the correct interpretation is not mixing meat and dairy. There's too much ancient historical evidence, and too many communities that predate the talmud that never practiced such a thing. – Aaron Dec 14 '15 at 6:33
  • @Aaron I'm well aware of that Yerushalmi. I think the Bavli I cited is more than sufficient to make it a traditional belief and wasn't trying to give a whole Shiur. – Double AA Dec 15 '15 at 5:04
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As a person in the process of conversion, I am also "shopping" different movements. The interesting thing here where I live is that the local board of rabbis, which includes every movement, asks potential conversion candidates to attend an 18 week introduction to Judaism course. During this series of lectures, rabbis from each of the movements will teach a class or two, and the classes are spread around to different synagogues.

So far, I can tell you that the young, Reconstructionist rabbi ( early 30s) seemed very influenced by 19th century higher criticism, and as such took a critical view of Torah, miracles, and Jewish history. He was also disparaging of "converts", believing that Judaism is an ethnic and cultural religion only. His lecture spawned many calls to the Board who then apologized for his message to some extent and assured the class that his views are not shared by the majority of Jewish thought.

The Reform rabbi ( in his 60s) was more spiritual, spoke at length about God's role in the history of Israel, believed in the Torah and the Exodus and spoke highly of the Talmud. I was expecting a more liberal theological approach, frankly, and was surprised by how "biblical" he was.Pleasant experience over all.

The Conservative rabbi ( late 30s) is very Tanakh-centered, almost Orthodox in his teachings and observances, very spiritual, yet kind and friendly.I think some would call him "Conservadox", as he is by far the most "frum" Conservative rabbi I have met yet. Very impressed with him so far.

I will post back after the next few rabbis lecture, including the Orthodox one, who will be handling the topics of kosher and halacha. But one thing is for certain, there are many different views and approaches within Judaism!

  • Hello Lawrence, welcome to the site! First of all, best of luck with your journey. Regarding this answer, while interesting, it only speaks of the individual rabbis who may or may not be representative of their respective movements. As such, this would be better suited to a comment than an answer. Once you have 50 rep. points (wont take long) you will be able to comment on other people's posts. Hope you stick around the site. – mevaqesh Oct 7 '15 at 4:45
  • Okay, thanks. I did not know that rule. – Lawrence Voltz Oct 7 '15 at 5:01
  • Please remember that the ones you speak of are not valid members of a bais din and anything that they do will not be accepted as a legitimate conversion. If they "convert" you, you will still not be Jewish – sabbahillel Oct 7 '15 at 8:44
  • That is another subject entirely, Sabbahillel. – Lawrence Voltz Oct 8 '15 at 3:52

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