Jews today are more deeply divided than at any time in the past on the theory and practice of their religion. The divisions are visible in the existence of a multiplicity of synagogues in some towns, all proclaiming that they hold the key to true Judaism, and in occasional acrimonious disputes that have sometimes given rise to violence, particularly but not exclusively in Israel.
To understand these divisions it is necessary for us to look more closely at Jewish history over the last couple of centuries, and also at some of the main theological principles involved.
The French Revolution, with its demand for equal rights for all, symbolically marks the re-entry of the Jews into an active role in history. In fact the struggle for equal civil rights was to take a very long time, and in some countries it is still not over. Conversely, the ideas of the Enlightenment, which gave rise to this demand, had been around, and had been permeating Jewish society, for a long time before the Revolution. However, it is convenient to see the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth as an important watershed in Jewish history. In a sense this was the end of the Jewish Middle Ages, at least in western Europe.
The Jewish communities of the Middle Ages were essentially self-governing entities, with very little social, cultural or religious contact with their environment, although the various communities were attached to each other in a far-flung network.