I need help figuring out which direction to go to begin my journey back to Judaism. I see many web sites for Conservative, Orthodox, Liberal, Reform Jews, etc., but I am not sure in which category I belong. I would appreciate your assistance.
I'll make no secret of my personal bias: I'm an Orthodox rabbi, so it shouldn't take much thought to figure out which direction I would, deep down inside, like to lead you. Nevertheless, I'll try to give you advice that's as objective as possible under the circumstances.
Judaism, like any religion, is a system that can provide many services. Some people may discover and enjoy its practicality (as an emotional and social support system, for instance, it works); others, the feeling of belonging and purpose; others, the security and fulfillment of being part of something "bigger."
But I don't think all that's of prime importance: after all, there's no shortage of places where you can find belonging and support, so that alone wouldn't justify an attachment to Judaism.
What I think IS important, is a verifiable claim of truth. Does God stand behind this movement? Did He indeed reveal Himself in the manner suggested? Are we, as a people, indeed obligated by Divine decree to participate in certain practices (i.e., mitzvos)?
"Is this system true?" I think that's a reasonable question.
Looking at a confusing Jewish community: your first job might be to clarify a movement's basic beliefs. Do Reform Jews (for instance) believe in an infinite and personal God? Does Conservative Judaism (or most of Conservative Judaism, at any rate) believe in a revelation at Mt. Sinai and that God spoke to the entire nation and gave them the Torah (as is claimed by the Bible - see Exodus ch. 20 and Deut. 31; 24)? How are these beliefs reflected in the everyday lives of the masses of the movement's followers?
If a particular stream doesn't believe in these things, where does that leave its relationship with the Bible itself? Does that mean there are Jewish organizations which believe that the book is a lie (pious or otherwise); expressing as historical facts events which never took place? If the Bible isn't legitimate, what are the underlying principals of its message and from where comes its authority?
I could save you the time and tell you (within a reasonable range) how each movement will answer your questions, but you certainly shouldn't trust me - as I said: I'm biased. If, in the course of your research, you do make contact with organizations, however, I would advise you to avoid selling yourself short and (politely) demand full and direct answers to your questions. Don't give up until you're sure you understand exactly what they believe and how they feel they differ from their "competition."
One thing I can do for you, though, is present (in very brief fashion) one perspective on the Orthodox claim. This approach is based on that of the medieval Jewish scholar, Rabbi Yehuda haLevi in his master work, The Kuzari. The method has been best explained in our day by Rabbi Dr. David Gottlieb in a free e-book called "Living Up to the Truth". I highly recommend you take a look at it.
The first step is to state the Torah's claim (what, according to the Torah itself, was supposed to have happened at revelation). We can then consider how believable it is. Or, to put it another way, had the events claimed to be historical never happened, how likely would it be for a faker to have successfully fooled his unsuspecting audience and passed it all off as the historical truth? If the odds against the success of a fraud are small, yet, still, millions of Jews did accept the claim, we have to seriously consider the possibility that the whole story is real.
We find in the text (Ex. 19; 9): "And God said to Moshe, behold I will come to you in the thickness of a cloud so that the people will hear when I talk with you and also believe in you for ever..."
Thereafter (ibid, verse 19): "And the voice of the shofar continued and (become) very strong and Moses spoke and God answered him with a voice."
There's the claim: That God spoke to Moses and clearly chose him as His prophet; not in a dream or in his private tent, but in front of and in full view of the entire nation! This underwrites every single statement that would later be made by Moses. Years later (shortly before his death) Moses publicly reminds the people of what they had seen (Deut. 5; 4-5): "Face to face God spoke with you at the mountain from the midst of the fire; I stood between God and you at that time to tell you the word of God..."
There's no record of any single Jew standing up and denying any detail...evidence that the millions of Jews who stood at the border with Israel and (the many of them) who had also stood at Sinai acknowledged the authenticity of events they themselves must have seen. In other words, it really happened. Again: God Himself appeared (in some way) before the whole nation and spoke to Moses. That scale and style would seem to utterly preclude "magic."
Now you could say that there were Jews who denied and that Moses chose only to record his version of history. The truth is, that the real answer to that challenge is far too long for this letter (you can find the whole story in Rabbi David Gottlieb's book). But, in short, the fact that there has always been a strong and literate core of observant Jews who accepted the authenticity of the accounts of the Torah means that the absurd claims (three million people survived for forty years by eating manna every day...?) made sense to them.
How do we know this? Because if the book was made up and only published after the fact, why should any intelligent people accept what would have been obvious lies? For example: "Really! If this book is true, and it says (Deut. 31; 24-26) 'and it was when Moses finished writing the words of this Torah in a book until its end; and Moses commanded the Levites, the bearers of the Ark of the covenant of God, saying: Take this book of the Torah and place it...' - then why haven't I ever heard about this book? Where has it been all these years? Why didn't my father tell me about it?"
Or: "Really! If everything you've shown me is true, why didn't I ever hear about the forty year miracle of the manna? Shouldn't I have read about it in school? Shouldn't the subject have come up at home? It's a really big event!"
So the fact that so many Jews accepted and still accept the Torah as it is with all its outrageous claims tells us that all the claims were (in their critical eyes) believable. Or, in other words, that they were true.
That's a very brief overview.