The world's approximately 14,2 million Jews fall into three main categories--orthodox, reform or conservative.
Orthodox Jews are those who adhere most strictly to traditional beliefs and practices, who regard the Written Law (Torah) and the Oral Law (codified in the Mishna and interpreted in the Talmud) as immutable. Orthodoxy is the official form of Judaism in Israel, whose Chief Rabbinate wields considerable power and influence.
Reform (progressive) Judaism originated in Germany in the early 19th century, among Jews who questioned the need for such traditions as Hebrew prayers, kashrut (dietary laws) and the wearing of identifiable clothing. The movement has abandoned many Jewish traditions and beliefs in an effort to fit into modern social, cultural and political trends. Issues such as the ordination of women rabbis, the position in congregations of women and single parents, and homosexuality have set reform Jews at odds with their orthodox counterparts.
Conservative Jews fall between the two, seeking to preserve essential elements of orthodox Judaism but allowing for some modernisation.
Comparative figures for US Jews indicate the majority of them are non-orthodox. According to the 1997 World Almanac, whose figures are supplied by the organisations concerned, there are two million conservative Jews (members of United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism); 1,3 million reform Jews (members of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations); and one million orthodox Jews (members of Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations).
"Although nobody on earth has ever become a Jew by becoming a liberal, the majority of American Jews still believe that being a liberal is the essence of "Jewishness".
-- Professor Edward Alexander (B'tzedek magazine, summer/fall 1997)
"History will judge us all by how we respond to this challenge and responsibility each stream of Judaism, without exception, has to come closer and unite for the well-being of the Jewish people."
-- Finance Minister Ya'akov Ne'eman, chairman of a committee seeking compromises to the religious dispute
(The Jerusalem Post, Nov 19, 1997)
"The reform do not belong with Israel. These people should be cast out, vomited out, so that they will not remain in Israel."
-- Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, spiritual mentor of the Shas party
(The Jerusalem Post, Nov 17, 1997)