Joel Hoffman
Rabbi, Teacher, Columnist

Moses Was Not Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform

According to the Torah and its commentaries, Moses observed Jewish Law, studied Torah twice daily, studied Kabbalah, frequently meditated, was concerned for his fellow Jews and made self-sacrifices for their benefit, respected the differences in tribal customs, was environmentally conscience, passionately desired to live in the Land of Israel, and yearned for the Messianic Era.

[In reading this essay one is assured to gain several insights into Judaism. The essay’s structure includes briefly relaying background on the different movements, and then proceeding to my thesis about the same mistake each of the movements make, why this is a problem, and what can be done about it — all in under 900 words.]

Fast-forward to the 1700s: scholars have described Eastern European Jewry as being in a state of spiritual melancholy. Therefore, the Baal Shem Tov spread kabbalistic (mystical) teachings to the masses, for whom this understanding made performing Jewish practices more meaningful. The Baal Shem Tov also emphasized the mitzvah of always being b’simcha (joyous), he taught how to daven (pray) with kavvanah (focus/attention), and stressed the importance of the mitzvah of Ahavat Yisrael (unconditional love for every Jew). This approach to Judaism was the basis of Hasidism.

Parallel to Hasidism was the Mussar approach, which emphasized intensive learning of the Talmud and focusing on improving one’s character traits.  For today’s heirs, think Monsey, NY, Lakewood, NJ, and the yeshivas of Ner Yisrael (Baltimore) and the Mir (Jerusalem), among others; and their current identity is referred to as the “yeshiva world.”

By the late 1800s, Jews who were not a part of the richness of Hasidism nor of the yeshiva world were challenged by the Enlightenment.  The nexus of this was in Germany. The response was the creation of movements which reinterpreted Judaism for modern times. Their strategy was, and still is, to propagate only a portion of Judaism as being relevant in hopes that what it posits will not be perceived by the masses as being “too burdensome.”

For example, both the Reform and Conservative movements got rid of anything remotely mystical (they called this aspect of Judaism superstitious), either nullified or modified Jewish religious law, changed the focal point of Judaism from the home to an aesthetically grand synagogue, and by the late-1900s community service became the most important Jewish practice taught in Hebrew schools.

Additionally, a movement that came to be called Modern Orthodoxy also arose in Germany in the 1800s.  Its primary teaching was the permissibility of immersing in the secular world such as going to university, going to the theatre, etc., while continuing to practice Traditional Judaism; and it promoted the philosophy of religious Zionism.

Due to common knowledge and space considerations, please accept by apology for my very generalized and simplistic explanations of the various groups.  Never-the-less, if Moses was alive today which group do you think he would join?

MY THESIS IS: any group that does not teach the totality of Judaism gives its members a warped perspective of Judaism that hinders members’ spiritual growth, and, overall, hinders Jewish continuity. 

Imagine if one medical school didn’t teach the circulatory and respiratory systems, another didn’t teach the digestive and excretory systems, etc. But this is exactly what the movements do with Judaism.

To cite just one important statistic as partial support for my thesis: the 130+ year experiment of Conservative and Reform Judaism in the United States has resulted in a 71% intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews.

THEREFORE, the leaders of the various movements, rabbinical schools, Jewish educational organizations, and schools need to look deep inside our tradition to see what the totality of Judaism contains, and to relay the comprehensiveness of our heritage rather than positing a limited version of Judaism.

In particular, our day schools and Hebrew schools need to help our students come up with a working draft of a personally meaningful answer to the “Why do Jewish?” question.  Furthermore, in our teen programs, Hillels, and adult education classes, we need to expose the participants to as much of our Jewish heritage as possible because one never knows what will capture one’s heart, mind and soul.

For example, classes on how archaeology illuminates the biblical text; the poetry and personal development messages in the Psalms; analytical Talmud study; probing the depths of one’s soul, the universe and God through studying Kabbalah and Hasidut; spirited Carlebach davenning; Jewish meditation; “hike & learns” where Jewish texts about nature are studied in the context of a forest; the phenomenology of Jewish history and survival; and, of course, community service opportunities. These are all exciting and spiritually meaningful topics which few synagogues offer, especially the ones which are seen to be inappropriate for one’s movement.

If our rabbis are not offering such classes, then we need to ask them to do so.  And, if our rabbis will not, or cannot, then we should find rabbis who will and learn from them.  

Moses was not an Orthodox Jew, a Conservative Jew, nor a Reform Jew. These are all man-made creations which divide Jews and limit the parameters of one’s engagement in Jewish life and learning. Moses was Jewish because he was born with an additional soul called a Nefesh Elochut, colloquially translated as a “Jewish soul,” and the religion that he practiced was Judaism — all of it!

A wise rabbi once quipped: “labels are for suits.”

About the Author
Rabbi Joel E. Hoffman has been an educator for 22 years which has included teaching, administration, developing innovative programs and curriculum, research, writing articles, facilitating workshops, and speaking nationwide. Links to most of his 35+ published writings can be found on his Linked-In page at
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