Hinduism has been compared to the Ganges River, for it has been flowing and evolving over many centuries. In order to extend this metaphor to Judaism, one would need to alter it slightly. Judaism is best compared to the river described in Genesis 2 which flows through Eden and parts into four separate paths. While there is some form of conception point from which all Jews originate, many distinct offshoots have developed since. These numerous groups may be roughly clumped into four paradigms. Although every person has a mixture of these various attributes, one is emphasized within each of us. A community is typically composed of individuals who place an emphasis on the same paradigm. Therefore, while an individual tends to be ambiguously classified, a community is more readily classifiable. At times certain communities do not have the capacity to coalesce and express themselves, but when given the opportunity will spring up again.
A Jewish tradition projects these four trends in Judaism all the way back to the time of the Exodus from Egypt. In a midrash, a homiletic teaching of the Sages on the Torah, the scene of the splitting of the Red Sea is described in further detail. It explains that the Jews divided into four groups when confronted with the blockade of the sea: those who recommended prayer, those who demanded confrontation with the Egyptians, those who suggested jumping in the water, and those who preferred to return to Egypt.
The rabbis who wrote this midrash must have intended the reader to compare their situation to that of the sea. As the threat and subjugation of the Romans intensified towards the end of the second temple period, four distinct groups emerged; the Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes and Pharisees.The Sadducees are comparable to those who desired returning to Egypt. They were the aristocrats who had a comfortable life and were content with serving God in a limited manner by performing rituals in the Temple. They rejected the strict adherence to oral tradition; instead, each leader was able to interpret the written tradition differently. The Zealots demanded confrontation with the Romans in order to regain their status as an autonomous nation. They believed that the way to serve God was through creating a moral and just society, which can only be accomplished in a sovereign state. The Essenes were a loose conglomeration of apocalyptic and pietistic groups who lived in various caves. This group is comparable to the group that suggested jumping in the Red Sea. They created an alternate reality which demands specific behavior that at times is at odds with the accepted reality of society at large.
Unlike these other groups, the Pharisees accepted their situation and did not have a strong idea of what to do next. They prayed, as prayer is an acceptance that some worldly forces are outside our control. It embodies the mentality that although we may not be able to change our situation, but we are able to change our perspective on the situation. The Pharisees realized that their days of freedom were numbered and that their expulsion from Israel was inevitable. They were able to maintain their heritage in these foreign lands because their focus was on intellectual inquiry rather than rote ritual practices, and the works they produced have been an anchor for Jews throughout our bitter exile.
I argue that today these divisions survive, although with different names. The Sadducees are now called Reformists and Reconstructionists, those who are comfortable in the modern world and bend our tradition to fit this world. The synagogue, which they aptly call the temple, serves as the focal point of religious practice and is divorced from the rest of daily behavior. The Zealots are now called Zionists, those who believe in establishing moral order through an autonomous Jewish State. The Essenes are now called Chareidim, mystics and pietists keen on ritual performance who, to a large extent, segregate themselves from the modern world. The Pharisees are now called Orthodox and Conservatives, those who believe in confronting the world without fear of losing faith, as they have a strong grounding in intellect.
These various groups appear to be at odds with one another. They disagree on fundamental concepts, such as the role of tradition, the goal of Judaism, and even who is counted as a Jew. It is understandable that these groups often act antagonistically towards one another, and there is nothing wrong with differing opinions and different traditions — these differences reflect real differences between human personalities. However, there is something wrong when these differences overshadow our commonalities. Those who consider themselves to be Jews are Jews and must be accounted for by any Jewish philosophy. Whether they will be called up to the Torah in your synagogue or allowed to marry your children is a separate matter that every community may determine on their own. What is essential is that we respect one another. We all have something to contribute to our intricate tradition, and fear of losing our own particular worldview is not a sufficient reason to barricade ourselves off from one another. No group succeeds when it is convinced that it is the only right group.
When the Jews were facing destruction at the hands of the Egyptian army, and all that lay in front of them was water, four factions were formed. Moses, unsure of which group was right, was despondent and cried out to God. God chastised him for praying at such a dire time, and commanded him to stretch out his arms. When the leader stretched out his arms, the various factions were reminded of their common fate, and only then were the waters able to part.
Today we have many leaders of specific groups, but there is little communication between these leaders; consequently, there is no hope for one group accepting the leader of a competing group. We are afraid of one another, afraid that we may lose parts of our identity, so we distance ourselves further from on another. Instead we must recognize that each of us are essential. What is right for you is not right for me and vice versa. However, we still have room to learn from one another and develop as a nation. What we need is for individuals to assume this responsibility on their own, to accept but also to challenge the group they belong to. Only then will there be sufficient space for a leader to emerge and remind us of our shared destiny.