The movement is generally referred to as Reform Judaism, Liberal Judaism, or Progressive Judaism, and was originally founded by a small group of laymen, and later a small group of liberal Orthodox rabbis, who felt there was a need to reform Judaism to bring it more in line with the modern world as they understand it. In their attempt at reformation, the early Reform movement held several conferences where a committee voted on what exactly would be changed to be more in line with the changing times. Among the first changes that would be accepted as binding on the new Reform movement were altering their siddur so that it would reflect their theological and doctrinal deviations from traditional Judaism, changing the actual language of the prayer services from Hebrew and Aramaic to German (or perhaps to Yiddish originally, which is a form of German, though after several different versions were used through history the modern Reform movement adopted their current siddur and services in a combination of the local language and Hebrew), abandoning the belief in the coming of the person of the Messiah in fulfilment of prophecy in favour of believing that there would be a Messianic Age where all humanity would live in freedom and peace (which is also a fulfilment of prophecy), abandoning the belief that the Third Temple would be constructed in fulfilment of prophecy, abandoning the belief that the Exiles of Israel would be gathered in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) in the End of Days in fulfilment of prophecy, the Biblical doctrine of the ingathering of the Exiles was replaced by the idea that their "Zion" was whatever country they were born in, the Torah (both Oral and Written) was no longer viewed as being given directly from G-d but was viewed as being Divinely inspired but nonetheless the work of men who were writing for their own time and not for future generations and the study of mitzvot was abolished, the Torah came to be regarded as reflecting a power struggle between different sects of Judaism (specifically the Pharisees and Sadducees of the Second Temple era) and not as the word of G-d, and the acceptance of a form of progressive revelation to the extent that their reforms to their religion were viewed as the result of Divine inspiration and not rebellion against Judaism. Later Reform innovations include a rejection of the Talmud, interfaith marriages were permitted as long as the children were raised as Jews, there was a movement to institute Sunday as the new Shabbat (since observance of the Shabbat was almost nonexistent among the early movement) though this only had a few congregations that accepted it, there was a movement to abolish circumcision though this was met with mixed feelings, the Kol Nidrei prayer was abolished (it was originally put in place to absolve people who were forced to take anti-Torah vows and convert to Christianity of their anti-Torah vows), the second day of festivals was abolished since few in the early movement kept those days anyway, the privileges of the Kohen were abolished, the belief in the resurrection of the dead was abandoned, the abolishment of the ketubah (the Torah mandated marriage certificate and ceremony) and the abolishment of the get (the Torah mandated divorce document) in favour of civil marriage and divorce, more congregations eventually adopted a Sunday Shabbat and it actually became the norm in most of the movement but later the movement changed back to a Saturday Shabbat with the advent of the Saturday-Sunday weekend in the US, and shofar use during the High Holy Days was abolished only to be readopted 70 years later with the shofar modified in a way that made it halachically un-kosher. As the movement grew progressively liberal in theology and observance, they began to develop a more secular worldview and form of religion and it often was difficult to distinguish who was a Jew and who wasn't if the adherents of the Reform movement were among non-Jews in public. This eventually worked against them in Europe because one of the official reasons for Nazi anti-Jewish sentiments was this fact, and Hitler used this combined with an ancient European anti-Semitic sentiment to turn the masses against Jews. The 20th century saw the Reform movement eventually abandon their previously held doctrine against the ingathering of the Exiles and adopt Zionism as the reality of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael eventually became a reality. The movement began to stress Jewish nationhood, ritual observance, and tradition in opposition to their previous positions on these topics, though these were viewed as only being voluntary. Bar mitzvah eventually was readopted, which displaced the confirmation the movement formerly held which was based on the Christian ritual of confirmation. The ritual usage of the talit gained popularity again in the 1960s, a previously unimportant topic in the movement since mitzvot were not studied. This was all done to combat the early Conservative movement that had spawned from the Reform movement. In 1972, the first female Reform rabbi was ordained. In 1977, the Torah prohibition against same-sex intercourse was declared to be only applicable to the Pagan practises at the time the Torah was written, which led to the ordination of the first openly lesbian rabbi in 1988, the full marital equality of same-sex unions in 1990, and guidelines for same-sex marriages in the Reform movement being published in 1997. In the 1950s, the British Reform movement voted to accept children born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother as Jewish (patrilineal Jewish descent), and the American movement followed in 1983. In 1999, after a long debate and after 6 rejected drafts, the Reform movement accepted a document with a new set of guiding principles that affirmed the belief in the "Oneness of G-d" to combat the Humanist movement that spawned from the Reform movement, and advocated the resumed study of the mitzvot as they might be able to be reinterpreted to the movement today, in yet another reversal of previously held doctrine and practise. After reviewing all of this, I don't think it would be insensitive of me to point out the obvious fact that the Reform movement abolished almost everything Jewish just to later readopt some of it in an effort to retain congregants who were leaving to return to traditional Judaism and to combat the other "splinter" movements that branched off of the Reform movement. This fact makes me question just how seriously the Reform movement takes their progressive revelation doctrine.
The Conservative movement's seeds were planted by the liberal Rabbi Zecharias Frankel in the 19th century in what is now Germany and the Czech Rebuplic, but it didn't formally become an official institution until the 20th century in the United States after World War II. Outside of North America it is referred to as Masorti Judaism. The Conservative movement sought more of a return to traditional Jewish observance than their Reform counterparts, though they were in favour of changing the observance and theology of Judaism to some extent like the Reform movement. The first Conservative siddur was published in 1946 and there were some relatively minor changes to the liturgy, like the references to the Temple sacrificial system were changed to the past tense rather than petitioning for the reinstitution of the Temple services and changing a line women say in the morning from "Who has made me according to His will" to "Who has made me a woman". Since observance of Shabbat was low among their congregants, the Conservative leadership opted to permit driving to and from the religious services on Shabbat, and they permitted using electricity on Shabbat. In the 1970s the Conservative movement voted to allow women to count for a minyan (in the Orthodoxy, a minyan is a quorum of ten men needed for certain prayers to be said). In the 1980s women began to be ordained as Conservative rabbis. In 2006 the Conservative movement began the official ordination of LGBT rabbis. Theologically, the issue of the resurrection of the dead remains a divided issue with some who accept it and some who reject this belief. The movement considers the Oral Torah to not be a part of the revelation at Sinai (in opposition to the Orthodoxy) but does view it as a valid necessity and great innovation on the part of the Sages, who are viewed as being Divinely inspired in the Mishnah and Gemara (in opposition to the Reform). Additionally, the movement believes that the Written Torah was Divinely inspired but not given by G-d Himself in the revelation at Sinai (like the Reform movement, but in opposition to the Orthodoxy). Among Hungarian Jewry there is a movement called the Neolog movement that shares its origins with the Conservative movement, and many Conservative rabbis feel that the Neolog movement is a "brother movement" to Conservatism. In general, the Neolog movement is something between Conservatism and Orthodoxy, but I'm not qualified or educated enough to say much more about this movement other than it seems to be found only among Hungarian Jews. There is also a movement that's unofficially referred to as "Conservadox" in the United States and Canada and to a lesser extent in Europe. The Conservadox movement is an unofficial association of more liberal Modern Orthodox and more traditional Conservative congregations, and lies somewhere between the liberal Modern Orthodox and traditionalist Conservative persuasions in terms of observance. For example, women are not ordained as rabbis nor permitted to serve as a shaliach tzibor (the prayer leader) in Conservadox congregations and there is no mixed gender seating (like the Orthodoxy, but in contrast to Conservatism), but there is no mechitzah (barrier) separating the men and women seating areas (in contrast to the Orthodoxy).
The Reconstructionist movement began in 1955, "splintering" off from the Conservative movement to pursue a more theologically liberal course. It's really very hard to say exactly what the movement agrees on in terms of doctrine and practise, but I'll do my best to fairly and accurately represent the Reconstructionist positions. Halachah (Jewish law) is not considered binding but is seen as a method of maintaining a Jewish cultural identity. It's not clear to me what exactly this means, but it seems to me that they will keep only the points of halachah that they want to keep because it makes them stand out as Jews or feel Jewish. When halachah and contemporary morality (as defined by secular, Western culture) conflict, halachah is rejected since it's viewed as being nothing more than folk traditions. In Reconstructionist theology, G-d is not a personal Being in the sense that He is not a consciousness, rather He is the sum of all natural processes that help humans come to self-fulfilment. In short, G-d is more of an idea than an actual reality, and He is an ambiguous "Power in the cosmos that gives human life the direction that enables the human being to reflect the Image of G-d" (according to the founder of the movement, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan). As such, most Reconstructionist Jews are Deists rather than Theists. Judaism is seen as a religious civilisation that must constantly evolve to ensure the future of the Jewish people, and each generation must define Jewish civilisation for itself. According to Reconstructionism, there is no such thing as Divine intervention since G-d isn't really a person, so the Torah is seen as the product of the evolution of the Jewish civilisation's social and historical development. The concept of revelation is outright rejected in light of G-d not being believed to be a person, and revelation is believed to be nothing more than outdated cultural superstition. The movement is and has always been completely egalitarian, with any position of leadership open to anyone regardless of gender or sexual orientation/identity. The movement permits their seminary students and rabbis to be in an interfaith relationship, and in 2016 there was a group of 19 Reconstructionist rabbis who publicly announced that they will leave the movement and form a new group as a result of this.
In 1963 Humanistic Judaism was founded in the United States by a "splinter" group of Reform congregations who wanted a secular, humanist lifestyle that was enriched by some aspects of Jewish culture. In general, the movement has no theology since it is completely nontheistic in the sense that individuals are not encouraged to believe in G-d. The movement does meet for Shabbat and holidays, but these aren't religious occasions as much as they are meetings of people who want to live a secular lifestyle expressed through Jewish culture. They place no importance on circumcision, but members generally do not circumcise their sons. In place of a brit milah (circumcision ceremony), they hold baby naming ceremonies for boys and girls. The movement is fully egalitarian and anyone can be educated to be a Humanist rabbi or cantor regardless of sexual preference or gender identity. In the movement, Jewish identity is ambiguous in the sense that anyone who identifies as a Jew is accepted by the movement as a Jew, regardless of family history or formal conversion.
The Jewish Renewal movement is a movement that found inspiration in Kabbalistic and spiritualistic sources (both Jewish and non-Jewish) and wanted to form a version of Judaism to reflect that inspiration. It formed in the 1960s as an alternative to what was perceived as a rigid, dry, and unspiritual Orthodoxy in the United States. Initially it was more in line with the Orthodoxy, but has since moved more liberal in practise and theology. The movement has incorporated ecstatic practises like meditation, chanting, and dancing into itself over time and has openly drawn on Sufi Islam, Buddhism, and other religions for practise and doctrine, some Sufi and Buddhism prayers and meditations have also been translated into Hebrew for use in Renewalist communities. Initially, several communities tried to establish communes similar to the communes of the hippie movement that was active at that time. As a result of all of this, it has been referred to as "New Age Judaism" and this is certainly a well earned reference. The movement has an egalitarian leadership, ordaining women as rabbis as well as men. The founder of the movement, Rabbi Zalman Shechter-Shalomi, was a proponent of feminism and LGBT equality. When he heard that the Orthodoxy opposed some of his views and work, he replied that what is sinful can also be G-d's will.
The Jewish Science movement was founded in 1916 after it "splintered" from the Reform movement, and is seen by many as the Jewish equivalent of the Christian Science movement, and was originally intended to counter the Christian Science movement. The movement views G-d in a manner similar to "the Force" in the Star Wars universe in the respect that G-d is within everyone and everything guiding us toward betterment. The movement emphasises affirmative prayer (focusing on the expected outcome of the prayer and basically ignoring the situation that prompted the prayer) as a method of reaching the Divine Power within the individual and using it to shape reality. The movement is heavily based on the New Thought (or "Higher Thought") movement and on psychology and seeks to help an individual reach self-fulfilment. The movement rejects the traditional concept of the personhood of Divinity, but instead emphasises that we are all inherently divine in nature. As a result, there isn't an idea of a single G-d because everyone and everything is G-d. In this respect, the movement is very pantheistic.
All of these modern movements have one major connection that I feel is worth pointing out, and that connection is that they all came about because of the Reform movement's departure from Orthodoxy. In truth, the Reform movement was heavily influenced by the haskalah, the so-called "Jewish Enlightenment" of Europe. It began as a desire among some Jews to assimilate into the secular and non-Jewish culture while still retaining some of the ancient traditions that Jews have historically practised. In essence, the original intent of the non-Orthodox versions of Judaism was to fit in with their non-Jewish neighbours by not being religiously observant themselves. They basically no longer wanted to be Jewish because they saw it as a barrier that kept them from having a wealthier and more secular life, but they wanted to retain some of the cultural traditions of their former lives in Judaism. Anyone who wants to do any kind of research on these movements will be met with the undeniable fact that these movements only took place within the context of Ashkenazi forms of traditional Judaism, similar to how the Chasidic movements began, but the difference between Chasidim and the non-Orthodox movements is that Chasidim maintained Orthodoxy in theology and observance of Torah and based their teachings on valid, ancient, Jewish Kabbalistic sources like the Zohar and Bahir, though Chasidic Kabbalah is generally heavily influenced by the book of Tanya written by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (called the Alter Rebbe, the founder of the Lubavitcher movement who served as the first Chabad-Lubavitcher Rebbe). This is not to say that all Sephardi or Mizrachi Jews are fully observant, but it's obvious that the non-Orthodox movements only came about because of the haskalah that took place in the Ashkenazi world. There was a push to blend in with the non-Jewish culture of Eastern Europe as a way to have a more prosperous and wealthy life, and many Jews jumped at the opportunity to take a path that would potentially give them greater chances to make money and blend in with their non-Jewish friends. While I don't blame them for wanting a better life, I don't think that sacrificing authentic Judaism and Jewish spirituality is the best way to do it.
But the purpose of this article is to present a case for why Jews in these movements should return home to Torah observance, so I'll present my case and let the reader do with it what you will. All of the non-Orthodox movements have committees that vote on issues and decide what to do and teach as a movement. In my opinion, the second we start voting on what we want to keep as a Jewish community of faith, we remove G-d from the equation completely, especially if those issues that are voted on results in a vote to violate the Torah.
The Torah tells us that the Jewish people gathered together at Mt. Sinai and actually heard G-d speak the Torah to us, and every Jew there had the same experience. There are some who believe that perhaps the entire nation was hallucinating at the time the Torah was given at Sinai, and if this is true, it would be the only time in history that two people have hallucinated the same event. In fact, science tells us that it's not possible for two people to hallucinate the same thing, and there were over 3 million Jews at Sinai who all saw and heard the same thing, so the hallucination theory is scientifically and statistically impossible. Those over 3 million Jews later heard the Torah repeat the event that they themselves witnessed at Sinai and none of them tried to correct the story. Let's be honest, Jews rarely agree. Where there are two Jews, there are three opinions, right? We've all heard that, and it's a funny joke because of how true it is. You can bet that if one person who heard Moses repeat the Sinai experience to the entire nation or who later read it in the Torah that disagreed, he would have spoken up, but nobody ever did. We aren't exactly quiet about things this important. So we can say with absolute certainty that the Sinai event happened exactly as it's written in the Torah, and none of the people there were sharing an hallucination. There are some who believe that Moses staged the whole thing and had someone pretend to be G-d and give the Torah. But if that happened, why did the guy who pretended to be G-d never expose the event as a fraud? Also, people were more devout then than even the most strict and traditional Jew today, who would be so brave as to pretend to be G-d?
Since we were all there and heard it, and nobody ever disputed the event happening or claimed that Moses told him to pretend to be G-d, Ockham's razor tells us that the revelation at Sinai has to be the real deal. Since it really was G-d giving the Torah to us, and He told us countless times in the Torah that it was for us and our children forever, we don't have the authority to override G-d and do our own thing.
So what is the reason that observant Jews keep the Torah today? And why do those in the non-Orthodox movements keep the parts of Torah that they keep? At Sinai, G-d called us to be His people and keep His Torah. So the Torah is a relationship builder that helps us build a proper relationship with G-d. Observant Jews keep the Torah today because we have a relationship with our Creator that transcends logic. We don't know why we were told to keep some mitzvot, and we never knew. We can speculate about why G-d asked us to keep kosher (for example), but at the end of the day, we have no clue what G-d's reason is. But because we have a relationship with G-d and want to keep growing our relationship with Him, we keep kosher, and maybe eventually we will find out why exactly G-d asked us to keep kosher. A good spouse will do what their spouse asks as a way to keep a good relationship between them, it works the same with G-d. If we love Him, we will keep His Torah to keep a good relationship with Him. Non-Orthodox movements keep only some aspects of the Torah and they do it because it's tradition. I like tradition, and there's nothing wrong with tradition, but if you only based your relationship with your spouse on tradition, the marriage is on the fast track to failure. It bothers me to say this because there are some wonderful people in the non-Orthodox movements and they really enjoy their congregations, but a relationship with our Creator that's based only on Jewish traditions has separated the non-Orthodox movements from G-d and caused many in these movements to fail at having a good relationship with G-d. Ultimately what it all comes down to is that observant Jews should be keeping Torah not because it’s tradition or because it’s logical, but an observant Jew should keep the Torah because of a love for the One Who gave the Torah. We have a beautiful G-d, so it’s natural for those who love Him to see the beauty of His Torah.
Please allow me to share a personal story with you that I think shows how beautiful the Torah G-d gave us is. My wife and I are very strict to observe Shabbat and we go out of our way to avoid desecrating it. We don’t do this out of tradition or because we were raised that way, we do it because we love G-d and we enjoy keeping Shabbat and feel that it brings us closer to each other and to G-d. In fact, I’m a baal teshuvah who wasn’t raised observant at all and later discovered the depth of a relationship with the Divine that Torah observance can bring, and my wife wasn’t even born Jewish, she converted because she fell in love with our G-d and wanted to be a part of the Jewish people, so the way we were raised has nothing to do with our Torah observance. Just days after this past Pesach, my wife gave birth to our son. The birth had its share of complications because he was born almost two full months premature, and my wife and son had to stay at the hospital over the Shabbat. She stayed on one floor that was dedicated to taking care of mothers who just gave birth, and our son stayed on the floor below her in the neonatal intensive care unit. Using the stairs to get down to our son wasn’t an option because of security reasons, and using the elevator and using the phone to call into the NICU and ask to be let in to visit our son would both be violations of Shabbat. She was already stressed from the birth and the fact that our son was literally close to death, and now she didn’t know how she would get to him on Shabbat to be with him. I was also stressing out over it, and I turned to my local rabbi for advice about what to do. I explained that getting to our son would require my wife to violate Shabbat, and we talked about it for a few minutes. Eventually, he explained that this was a case of pekuach nefesh (potentially saving a life), and that not only was my wife halachically permitted to violate Shabbat to be with our son, but the Torah required her to violate Shabbat to be with him because it would be beneficial for both of their recoveries to be together. Many people think the Torah is excessively restrictive and doesn’t actually take things like this into account, but these people couldn’t be more wrong. How beautiful and wise is the Torah our G-d gave us! There are laws restricting what we do and don’t do on Shabbat, but these laws can be suspended for legitimate reasons like allowing a mother to comfort her son who was at death’s door. We can see from just this one incident that G-d loves us and wants us to fall deeper in love with Him. What other nation has a god like ours that allows us to temporarily violate very serious laws if there’s a real need? Only the Giver of the Torah could have the foresight to know that these sorts of situations would arise and only He would allow us to be lenient in cases like this. As a side-note, if you find yourself in a similar situation, you should still consult with your rabbi before doing anything so you can be sure that Torah permits it.
The Torah was given to us to help us build a relationship with our Creator, not to restrict us and make us unhappy. As we observe the Torah and our relationship with G-d grows stronger, there’s great joy to be had in keeping the Torah. I encourage you to try it, pick just one mitzvah more than you already do and take it upon yourself to keep this mitzvah. Maybe study some Torah more in depth and just see how it helps build your relationship with G-d. You don’t have to wake up tomorrow and be fully observant, it’s something that most people need to grow into in stages. And here at The Teshuvah Project, we are here to help any way we can, and you can email us if you need to.