There is a question about the religious significance of the existence of various sects, but I was wondering whether the sects tend to reflect differing national or cultural backgrounds. Within Christianity, for instance, it is commonly observed that the Protestant Reformation spread largely among people who spoke Germanic languages, whereas the Catholic Church retained influence among speakers of Romance languages—so presumably something about the language or culture favored one sect or another.

Are there any such tendencies among present-day Jewish sects? For example, would you expect Jews (or descendants of Jews) who had historically spent time in a particular country to belong to a particular sect today? (I am an American, so I am sort of familiar with Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism; I'm really not sure whether those differences are significant worldwide.)

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    When you say "sect" do you mean "groups with different underlying understandings of the role and authority of laws and our relationship to the divine" (which would call forth your examples of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform) or do you mean "groups which share a common philosophy but differ in presentation, rite and traditions"? This latter formulation would call forth jewfaq.org/ashkseph.htm
    – rosends
    Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 10:22
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    the link between languages and religious tendencies are interesting. I am wondering if there is also a similar spliting among philosophic or psychoanalytic tendencies. For Judaism, the culturalism is very hard to know, because of a great instability of place, language and social status through time.
    – kouty
    Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 10:35
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    @kouty, I probably should have said something like “Germanic cultures” or “Romance cultures,” but that didn't sound right. (As a linguist I would be skeptical of claims that language in itself caused religious or even cultural changes.)
    – adam.baker
    Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 10:43
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    this might help jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/…
    – rosends
    Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 10:47
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    Much more significant, in my opinion, is the distinction between Jews who lived in the Muslim Empire, (in particular, Iraq, North Africa, and Southern Spain), such as R. Saadya Gaon, and Maimonides, along with Jews of Provence, (who were highly influenced by their Spanish co-coreligionists), and the Christian lands, particularly Northern France. The former tended to be highly rationalistic and placed great value of philosophical pursuits, whole the latter tended to be anti-rationalistic, and ambivalent to, or even opposed to philosophical study. This obviously mirrors the sentiments of [cont.]
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 13:49

1 Answer 1


Jews who came from Muslim lands tend to keep kosher, even if they're not super-affiliated. (There wasn't much more to eat in their Muslim surroundings.) This is why Paris has more kosher restaurants than New York City: the average somewhat-affiliated Jew in New York City is of European ancestry, and doesn't demand a kosher restaurant. The average somewhat-affiliated Jew in Paris is of North African ancestry, and expects a restaurant that's kosher.

More broadly, in parts of the world that didn't experience the Enlightment/Reformation the way that Europe did, the predominant brand of Judaism is Orthodox. Many don't affiliate, and don't attend, but if they did attend synagogue, it would be an Orthodox one! (Not unlike, say, the Catholic Church in much of Latin America. There are yes-Catholic-church-goers and non-churchgoers-to-Catholic-churches, but not a ton of Unitarians.) Sephardic Jews come from non-Enlightenment countries, and thus it is very rare to find a Sephardic synagogue whose official rite is anything other than Orthodox -- e.g. there will be separate seating for women.

Otherwise, yes the look, feel, sound, and practice varied depending on where you were. Lo and behold, the Hebrew used by Hungarian Jews sounds more like Hungarian, while the Hebrew used by Yemeni Jews sounds more like Arabic. (Given that it's a Semitic language, the Yemenites are probably right.) Jews in Christian lands banned polygamy long ago; Jews in Muslim lands, much, much later if at all. There are plenty more variations, ranging from legal perspective to culture. But this is more about Ashkenazic vs. Sephardic than Orthodox vs. Reform.

Even within Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe, you tend to see a split between Hasidic Jews' attitudes to the mystical spiritual qualities of their "grand rabbis", vs. non-Hasidic Jews' stress on their rabbis' expertise -- not unlike Catholic (where my priest performs ritual for me) vs. Protestant (where my minister is someone whose expertise and judgment I appreciate). Hasidic Jews focused more on "joy", non-Hasidic on study. Interestingly, in Hasidic lands (e.g. Romania), the recipe for traditional gefilte fish called for sugar, they liked it sweet. In non-Hasidic lands, bah, this isn't dessert! -- it's made with salt and pepper instead.

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