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social sciences

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The history of Judaism spans thousands of years. It is comprised of many different denominations, and adherents hold divergent opinions about almost every issue. Therefore, to understand the place of glbtq people within Judaism, one must understand these divisions.

First of all, Judaism is divided ethnically into Sephardic Jews (those who trace their ancestry back to Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East) and Ashkenazic Jews (those who trace their ancestry back to Germany and Eastern Europe). Additionally, there are Yemenite Jews (those who trace their ancestry to the historic Holy Land), Ethiopian/Beta Israel/Falasha Jews (from Ethiopia), and Jews who have historically lived in Asia (particularly India, China, and central Asian former Soviet republics). These regional divisions have resulted in groups of Jews with different language traditions, different holiday practices, and different versions of the scriptures.

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Additionally, there are denominational differences. These differences are most pronounced in the Jewish communities of the United States and Canada (with some appearance in Israel among those who have moved to Israel from North America), where the Ashkenazic background is predominant.

Jewish Denominations

The major denominations are the following: Orthodoxy, Conservatism, Reform, and Reconstructionist.

Orthodoxy refers to a form of Judaism that follows all of the commandments and regulations of traditional Jewish scripture (including the Torah, or Old Testament, and the Talmud, or Rabbinic commentaries). These regulations include rules of holiday and Sabbath observances and dietary laws. Within Orthodoxy there are a number of subdivisions, including the Modern Orthodox who follow these commandments within the confines of a modern life (wearing contemporary clothing, for instance) and the Chasidim who wear the clothing of eighteenth-century Eastern Europe and worship in a musical, ecstatic style.

Conservatism aims to strike a balance between traditional Judaism and the demands of the modern world. For instance, the Conservative movement encourages the maintenance of Jewish dietary laws, the use of Hebrew in study and worship, and the maintenance of traditional worship formats, while allowing the use of cars and electricity on the Sabbath and insisting on equality between men and women.

Reform emphasizes the importance of individual decisions about commandments and observances and the need for continuing change and revision of practice and belief over time. Although now many reform congregations practice a more traditional style of worship (with perhaps more English and instrumental music than Orthodox or Conservative congregations would use), historically they have been assimilative.

Reconstructionist focuses on Jewish spirituality. This movement treats Jewish scripture as the work of people rather than of a supreme power (and does not take it literally in most cases), and de-emphasizes the historic notion of the Jews as the chosen people. However, Reconstructionist Judaism does believe that certain traditions, for instance dietary laws, are worth preserving.

There are also some smaller and lesser-known denominations, including the Karaite Jews, who practice a form of Judaism that does not believe in any rabbinical interpretations of the Torah, and Humanistic Jews, who treat Judaism as a secular culture and the scriptures as a human literature to be studied.

Judaism and Glbtq People

Given such an incredible diversity of practice and opinion within Judaism, how do we begin to understand the relationship between Judaism and glbtq people? Different denominations have vastly differing opinions on both the inclusion of glbtq people into their communities and the tolerance that should be accorded homosexual acts.

The only mention of homosexual acts in the Torah is in Leviticus 18:22, which reads "[d]o not lie with a man as you would with a woman, since this is an abomination." This statement does not refer to homosexual acts among women. Although this passage does condemn male homosexuality, it is merely one sentence in the entire Torah. Under all but Orthodox interpretation of the Torah, many single sentences are treated as relics from an earlier time that need to be reviewed in light of modern experience. Additionally, the Hebrew term translated as "abomination," to'eva, is used in many other contexts, including the eating of shellfish.

Orthodoxy, in its strict textual adherence, views homosexual behavior as immoral. The denomination's teachings condemn homosexual acts, although lesbian acts have historically been less condemned than gay male acts.

Glbtq individuals can not be ordained within the Orthodox movement. Even within Orthodoxy, however, the homosexual act is an individual sin for which the individual him or herself must atone. Many congregations practice a "love the sinner, hate the sin" attitude, though they oppose civil rights protections for glbtq people (including civil commitment ceremonies, the acceptance of gays into the Boy Scouts, and equal opportunity employment laws).

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