Although many people around the world tend to view Judaism as a single religion, it actually consists of different groups, each with its own characteristics that go beyond a change in nuances. Let us start with the historical definition: Judaism began as the religion of a tribal group that inhabited the area known today as Israel for over 3,000 years. The size of the land occupied by these tribes varied over the centuries and included part of the countries that today border with Israel. However the main region which they inhabited was the area known as Judea (and hence the name of the people “Jews”) that had Jerusalem as its capital. Judaism is considered today to be the first monotheistic religion.
As a result of the concurring of the land by first the Persians and secondly by Romans, the Jews were dispersed amongst nations reaching every corner of the world – from China and India to Holland and Germany, from Bulgaria and Greece to Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In some nations the Jews received a fair treatment and relative autonomy but in most cases they lived their lives under strict rules, the denial of their rights, persecution and harassment. Despite the many difficulties they faced in different communities around the world, Jews managed to create a rich culture filled with writers and intellectuals, men of science and medicine, many of which served as royal court consultants.
Ashkenazim and Sephardim
A major group within the Jewish ethnic group are the Ashkenazi Jews and the Jews of Spain. The Jews of Spain are considered to be descendants of Jews who lived in the Iberian Peninsula and who had been expelled in 1492 by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. These Jews found refuge in the Arab countries and have for centuries had integrated their culture into Arab customs, such that Jews remained in the Arab countries until the situation became too difficult and once the state of Israel was formed the mass migration began. The Ashkenazi Jew is a concept that refers to Jews that were residing in Europe, mainly in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium and who later immigrated to Israel.
Religious and secular
Another group within Judaism is between religious and secular Jews. These two groups are heterogeneous and you can find different levels within them. Amongst the secular Jews you can find absolute atheists along with those who respect religion even if not fully fulfilling its commandments. Amongst the religious Jews you can find on the one hand people that hold an affinity for religion but live an overall secular life partially fulfilling the commandments of the religion. On the other side you will find the Ultra-Orthodox Jews –the Haredim whose entire lives revolves around fulfilling the commandments and nothing is done outside the strictest interpretation of the religious laws.
Orthodox, Reform and Conservative
Ever since its founding, Israel has been governed according to the rulings of their religion as it is conceived by the Orthodox way (marriage, divorce, burial, etc.) and the licenses issued by religious institutions were based on the Orthodox Judaism, However there are other Jewish denominations. The conservative and the reform Jews have a different interpretation of religion and its commandments, not all of which receive recognition from the Orthodox institutions and as a consequence from the government. Although the followers of these denominations are not large they are stubbornly fighting to receive recognition and be incorporated in the religion aspect of life in Israel.