Skip Navigation
October 6, 2015 | 23rd Tishrei 5776

Remarks by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President

URJ Board Meeting June 5, 2005 Cincinnati

For my commentary today I would like to share with you some thoughts on an issue that has been troubling me for some time: the profound ambivalence that exists in North America about the value of religious denominations.

      On the one hand, our own Movement, the largest of the religious streams, is thriving as never before. By most objective standards, we are succeeding in the work we have set out to do, and improving from year to year. The number of Reform congregations is growing, and so is the membership of those congregations. Jews continue to flock to our national Biennial in record numbers, and, with one or two exceptions, our regional biennials also draw an impressive and increasing number of participants. Our summer camps our full, our Israel trips are growing, our educational curriculum is widely used, our regional offices and program departments are busier than ever before, and our seminary, HUC-JIR, is in robust health.

      On the other hand, hardly a week goes by without an article being written for the Jewish press in which some expert, academic, or communal leader announces with great fanfare and self-importance that the era of denominations is behind us and that we have now officially entered a “post-denominational” time. An event intended to serve a “trans-denominational” purpose is seen as being inherently more worthwhile than one that is not. The creation of rabbinical seminaries with a “trans-denominational” agenda is hailed as a great step forward for the Jewish community. I recently read a story about a community-sponsored adult education event held in New Jersey; when the chairman of the event was asked about how the religious denominations had participated in the planning, he responded simply: “Don’t talk to me about denominations. They are not relevant anymore. They are yesterday’s news.” The reporter saw no need to solicit a response from any denominational leader; he simply let the comment stand as a self-evident truth.

      What is going on here?

      The case for religious movements is a case that I have made many times, as have other rabbis and leaders of Reform Judaism.

      Perhaps most important, religious denominations provide us with a theological and ideological framework that enables us to organize our religious life in a coherent way. When we talk about being a Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox Jew, we are using religious classifications that are rough and imprecise but are nonetheless meaningful. There is a particular mix of religious values that we hold as Reform Jews—commitment to an evolving tradition, to social justice, to the equality of women, to flexible boundaries and a warm embrace of the outsider, to a partnership between the laity and the rabbinate – and these values do in fact distinguish us from committed Jews in other movements.

      Religious denominations also provide local congregations with community and support that is otherwise not available to them. This is especially true in the Reform movement, which is blessed with strong national institutions and a tradition of close cooperation among the movement’s major arms. Reform congregations, I have repeatedly said, nurture one another because they need one another. We have learned that we cannot be strong if we are fragmented.

      Another advantage of denominations is that they serve as an agent of vision and change. National leadership can galvanize trends that appear at the grassroots and then prod and encourage congregations to move in a direction that they might ultimately move in anyway, but perhaps at a much slower pace. Outreach, worship reform, Zionism, and the advancement of women are all examples of areas that have been embraced far sooner than they might have been otherwise without the leadership of the Union, the CCAR, and the College-Institute.

      And finally, the most fundamental advantage of a religious movement is that it provides congregations with basic religious services that they desperately need. Religious school textbooks; prayer books; assistance for new congregations; a seminary to train rabbis, cantors and educators; Israel trips for teenagers; youth groups and a youth movement; advocacy in Washington. This is a partial list of those services and programs that are absolutely essential to congregational well-being, and yet in the absence of movements would simply not exist.

      And now the obvious question? If our Movement is doing so well, and if the reasons for having denominational movements are so compelling, why is the hostility to religious movements in the Jewish community so prevalent and, at times at least, so intense?

      To some degree, what we are seeing is the result of broad societal forces that impact us no less than others in North America. For example, privatization is a force that is altering American religion and undermining mainline denominations of all faiths. The second half of the 20th century saw televangelists invade American homes, followed by the expanding impact of cable TV on religion, and now the explosion of alternative religious options on the Internet. New Age spirituality in its infinite expressions allows individuals to participate in virtual religious communities in the privacy of their homes. When we add to this the forces of both globalization and localization, we can see that our culture is not necessarily helpful to us as we work to build denominational identity.

      But there are other factors at work here, all specific to the Jewish community. There are four categories of Jews that I can think of who, consciously or otherwise, are not inclined to be supportive of religious movements and who may contribute to the current anti-denominational outlook.

      The first are disaffected Conservative Jews. Until recently, Conservative Judaism was the dominant religious movement in North American Jewish life. Reform Judaism was in second place, while Orthodox Judaism is so factionalized that it could not accurately be called a movement at all. We are pleased to work closely with the Conservative movement in a variety of areas and their leaders are our friends and allies. Nonetheless, as most of these same leaders will readily admit, Conservative Judaism is in crisis; its numbers are in decline, its goals are uncertain, its halachic ideology under attack. What has happened, as a result, is that a certain number of activists and intellectuals who grew up Conservative, having become disillusioned with their own movement, have become outspoken critics of religious movements in general. I participated once in a think tank session during which most of those present articulated withering criticism of religious denominations. At a certain point I realized that everyone taking this position was a Conservative Jew. When I suggested that Reform Judaism was different, there was little interest; the critics knew nothing of Reform and were speaking from their own unhappy experience.

      The second group is made up of a particular category of communal leaders. In the last decade, elements of our communal and federation structure have worked hard to bring into being partnerships between the federation and synagogue worlds, and have cooperated with the religious movements to make this happen. This is a welcome development in every way. But there are still those in the communal leadership who view the religious denominations with distrust. They are turned off by the passionate particularism of Jewish religious life. They are worried about the growing gaps between the religious movements, by the increasingly strident tone of religious debate, and by what they see as the radicalism in all camps. They dream of a communal model where religious differences, if they must exist at all, are minimized and expressed in polite and deferential tones.

      But what these leaders fail to understand is that the vigorous exchange among our religious movements is precisely what makes our religious life vital. It is the foundation of the religious revival that we see all around us. Indeed, the dilution of belief into a vague, inoffensive “spirituality” alienates far more Jews than it attracts. These communal leaders also do not understand that the religious unity that they yearn for has never really existed, and that when communal leaders start talking the language of religious unity, they always seem to be talking about something that is right-wing and Orthodox. So, by all means, religious movements should treat each other with respect. But religious homogeneity is not a goal; it is a nightmare.

      The third group consists of a very small number of major philanthropists who never fail to proclaim that while Orthodoxy may have succeeded, Reform and Conservative Judaism have simply failed. Therefore, they say, what we need is a new, post-denominational approach that will be vibrant and creative where Reform and Conservative Judaism are not. As you have heard me say before, this is a view rooted in ignorance and ego by people who do not know the Jewish world very well. They are wealthy and generous and have done much good, but they have convinced themselves that they can be the heroes of Jewish life by spending their money on quick fixes and trendy experiments rather by doing what needs to be done: pouring dollars into the underfunded, understaffed North American synagogues—Reform and Conservative as well as Orthodox.

      The fourth and final group is made up of the freeloaders of Jewish life. These are the rabbis and lay leaders of synagogues that never affiliated with religious movements or affiliated for a while and then walked away. They do their best to offer a sophisticated rationale for why denominations are no longer necessary or why their particular synagogue is so unique that it has no need for any movement’s services. Yet they do not hesitate to hire the graduates of the movement seminaries, to purchase movement textbooks, and to make use of other movement resources that are generally available at little or no cost on the Internet. These are the people who, to be perfectly blunt, want the benefits that denominations provide but do not want to pay their way.

      What are we to make of all of this? As I have suggested, the arguments against denominations are hardly compelling and often reflect a narrow, self-interested view of Jewish life. Still, at a time when the voice of post-denominationalism is so loud and so persistent, this board should be especially proud of its accomplishments. We have responded to the kvetchers and complainers with facts on the ground. Ours is a strong, healthy, and growing movement that serves our congregations well. Our synagogues understand the benefits of movement and we work hard to meet their needs.

      But at the same time, none of this justifies either complacency or triumphalism. The fact is that our success as a movement is the exception in North America. And it runs contrary to much of what passes as conventionalism wisdom, at least in elite circles, even if this conventional wisdom is wrong. What this means is that we can take absolutely nothing for granted. We must continue to compete in a marketplace where there are many who are hostile to idea of movement that we stand for. We must continue to do all that we are now doing and yet do it better. And we must continue to be introspective and self-critical and open to change.

      But I am an optimist in these matters. The glory of Reform is our ability to reinvent ourselves to meet new spiritual situations. We have gotten to where we are by teaching that the true message of Torah is not only a message of tradition, but also a message of newness and renewal. Seeing Judaism as both modern and eternal, we are able, in a way that others are not, to connect the dots of Jewish memory and assure the creative survival of our unique Jewish destiny.

      Residing in this city, Isaac Mayer Wise knew 132 years ago that Jewish life would not be sustained without a strong Reform movement at its core. Building that movement was the ideal that animated Wise’s life, and maintaining it and advancing its cause is why we are here.

      And we do this not out of a sense of crisis, but from a genuine conviction that Reform Judaism matters, that it is a precious possession of the entire Jewish people, and that it falls to us to hand it on to the next generation. And on this board we do not shrink from that challenge; on the contrary, we welcome it with all our hearts.

      Thank you for joining us this weekend. Have a wonderful summer. We look forward to seeing you in Houston in November.


Comments left on this website are monitored. By posting a comment you are in agreement with Terms & Conditions.

URJ logo

Donate Now



Multimedia Icon Multimedia:  Photos  |  Videos  |  Podcasts  |  Webinars
Bookmark and Share About Us  |  Careers  |  Privacy Policy
Copyright Union for Reform Judaism 2015.  All Rights Reserved