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Jewry's great - and growing - divide

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The fundamental difference between the Reform and Orthodox branches lies in their approaches to the Torah. For the Orthodox, these five books of Moses - as illuminated by the oral tradition now contained in the Talmud - are God's revealed word; they can be studied closely and discussed but must be followed as the inviolable law of God. For most Reform Jews, the texts represent the God-inspired words of the early Hebrews; they are to be respected as unique insights but must be adapted to fit each new modern era. Orthodox are minority among US Jews

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Much of modern Jewish history lies across this fault line. Until recently, Reform or Reform-inspired brands of Judaism had the initiative in competition with Orthodoxy.

In the US, Reform Judaism together with Conservative Judaism - which accepts change but values continuity with the Jewish past and the essence of Jewish law - dominate Jewish life. Orthodox Judaism, which holds unswervingly to traditional teachings, remains in the minority.

''For a long time, we were considered namby-pambies, antiques,'' says Moshe Sherer, president of the American branch of the Orthodox organization, Agudath Israel. ''We weren't taken into account in group decisions.''

Adds Reform Rabbi Gittelsohn: ''We just assumed Orthodoxy was on its way out.''

In Israel, no formal Reform movement took root. Many of the early Zionists rejected religion outright, substituting a faith in work and socialism. True to that vision, when Israel was created in 1948, it was fashioned largely as a secular, Western democracy.

Orthodox Jews were on the periphery of Israel's founding. In numbers, they were and remain only about one-fifth of the Israeli Jewish population. Though they gained some influence through their political parties, which joined government coalitions, the Orthodox were never at the forefront forging the new state.

''Twenty years ago, a religious kid in Israel had the feeling he was inferior , that he didn't participate in Israeli life,'' recalls Avi Ravitzky, a philosophy professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and an observant Jew.

Today, this inferiority complex has vanished. Orthodoxy is experiencing a renaissance, both in the Diaspora and in Israel. It is growing not so much in numbers, but in self-confidence and aggressiveness.

In Israel, the break came in 1967 with the six-day Arab-Israeli war in which Israel ended up occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Some Orthodox Israelis, finding the Jewish state in possession of what they saw as the old biblical lands of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), began using religious justifications to settle there. No longer were the socialist Zionists the pioneers.

''After 1967, the religious suddenly had a psychological opening to become leaders,'' Professor Ravitzky says. ''We could go to the (West Bank) mountains and be the new super Jew.'' Begin's election boosted Israeli Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy's influence became even more pronounced after the right-wing Likud coalition's Menachem Begin came to power in 1977.

''Begin let the Orthodoxy move to center stage,'' explains Janet Aviodad, a sociologist at Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute who specializes in the Orthodoxy and is an activist in Israel's dovish Peace Now movement. ''His interests coincided with their interests, so he used them, and they used him.''

The alliance led to an increase of Jewish settlement on the occupied West Bank. It also meant increased spending on religious schools and greater public observance of the Sabbath - for instance, by stopping Israel's national airline, El Al, from flying on Saturdays. Mr. Begin even introduced a bill in parliament to redefine the term ''Jew,'' following the strictest Orthodox interpretation. This issue resurfaced during this year's election campaign and the political maneuvering that followed.