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August 28, 2014 | 2nd Elul 5774

Rabbi Yoffie's remarks to the Executive Committee of the URJ

September 12, 2011

First, a word about chickens: As Paul Reichenbach told me, he thought that he had seen everything. But then, this summer, a group of boys participating in our Israel program purchased a live chicken at the Machane Yehudah open market in Jerusalem. After a while it occurred to them that this was not, in fact, a good idea, and they tried to return the chicken to the vendor. He was not interested. The boys then liberated the bird to seek its own Zionist destiny. As Paul said: "If you pullet, it is no dream."

Paul assured me that the boys were spoken to by the staff. I hope that it was to congratulate them on the most creative mischievous act of the summer. We older folks do not always appreciate what our young people do, but speaking for myself, at least, I have once again been reassured that our kids have not lost their adventurous spirit.

Second, a word about our transition: We have spent much of our time yesterday and today hearing from Rabbi Jacobs and Rabbi Pesner about the work of transition. What we saw was this: Our transition is in very good hands. It is being done in a way that is thoughtful, professional, and inclusive; and we heard from Rabbi Jacobs a vision for the Union that is ambitious, exciting, and inspiring. The period of transition will not pass without some disruption and some pain - because that is the nature of transitions - but our Union will emerge revived and renewed.

In a few weeks we will sit in our synagogues on Yom Kippur and hear the words of the Book of Jonah. And what we will learn is that like Jonah, we can wake ourselves from our collective sleep and carry the message of repentance and change. That is both a good personal lesson and a good communal lesson for us as Movement leaders. And as we have heard, it is one of the guiding principles of Rabbi Jacobs and his team.

As to the substance of the transition, I will simply say that I met briefly with the transition team last month. While I won't repeat all of my remarks, I will share with you the heart of my message to them. If there is a danger, I said, it is not that we will change too much or act too boldly. If there is a danger, it is that we will change too little.

Third, I need to say a word about the fact that with this meeting, our Executive Committee passes into history. It will be replaced by an Oversight Committee that will be more streamlined and efficient and better able to meet the governance needs of our diverse Movement in a time of upheaval. It was right and important to make this change, and our board was wise to do so.

Nonetheless, I admit to a certain sense of wistfulness on this occasion and a certain feeling of loss. The Executive Committee was a structure that was part of our Union for many years, that engaged a significant number of our leaders, and that was a critical forum for debates and decision-making Even as we note that structures appropriate for one age become inappropriate for the next; that nothing is as it was; that values are eternal but bureaucratic arrangements are not; even as we do all this, I express my sadness at the passing of something that for so long has served us so well.

And finally, I would like to say a few words about 9/11.

On Thursday I represented our Union at a national gathering of religious leaders to commemorate the terrible attacks of a decade ago. If you would like to read the text of my speech it can be found online, but for now let me summarize its message. I suggested that for religious people, the meaning of 9/11 is to be found in two basic lessons, and the key is to remember that those two lessons must go together.

The first lesson is that religious extremism is a reality, and religious communities must confront the extremists in their midst; if we cower in the face of fanatic minorities, we are lost. This is true for Muslims, and it is true for us all.

The attacks of 9/11 were acts of unmitigated evil, carried out by men who polluted religion by coupling it with violence. As religious people, we know something about this; after all, the connection between religion and violence is set out in the story of Cain and Abel at the very beginning of the Biblical story of humankind.

Liberally-inclined religious people sometimes miss this, and we, after all are liberally-inclined religious people. Sometimes we can be blind to evil intentions. Sometimes, we are so anxious to see the good in the world that we unconsciously divert our eyes from the bad.

But I would like to believe that we don't do that in the Reform Movement, because while we are liberally oriented, we are also rooted in reality. And we know, better than anyone, that there is no such thing as murdering your way to salvation; we know that ruthless acts, calculated to produce shock and outrage, are an affront to God and to everything we hold dear; we know that whatever explanations might now be offered, the only ones responsible for this evil are those who chose to kill in God's name.

On 9/11 ten years ago, I was at the Hebrew Union College, not far from the site of the tragedy, and I was asked to say a few words to the students. My message to them was that as Reform Jews we need to preserve our liberal values, but at the same time, we need to gain a better appreciation for the power of evil in the world.

And now I come to my second point, and it is no less important than the first. And we have to be equally as insistent on asserting it. And it is that we must resist with all of our might the view that the extremist fringe that carried out and supported this violent act is the voice of Islam in American.

To give you a sense of how difficult this is, permit me to say a few words about what is happening here. (The situation in Canada is somewhat different.)

The events of 9/11 and other events since, such as the Park51 controversy, opened a door that some have been quick to rush through. Ten years after 9/11, negative views of Muslim Americans continue to rise. Ten years after 9/11, it has somehow become respectable to verbally attack Muslims and Islam in America. Vital distinctions are being blurred by people who should know better. I am referring to distinctions between the radical, fanatic version of Islam, held by a tiny minority of Moslems, and centrist Islam; I am referring to distinctions between the moderate majority and the extremists on the margins.

There are very real consequences when entire populations are represented in the public imagination by their worst elements, when the sins of the few are applied to the group as a whole.

I have watched in astonishment as prominent politicians, including candidates for President of the United States, have found it politically opportune to peddle divisive anti-Muslim bigotry.

And if all of this were not enough, we have been witness to a paranoid fantasy about Sharia law taking over America by stealth. In the last year, more than two dozen states have proposed legislation outlawing the use of Sharia law in state courts. Louisiana, Tennessee and Oklahoma have already approved such measures, which I do not hesitate to call anti-Muslim.

When I hear such things, I can barely contain myself. What if a state were to put forward a bill that referenced Jewish law or Canon law in a similar way? Jews and Catholics would be outraged, and rightly so. To say that these laws are unnecessary is an understatement of monumental proportions. Have these lawmakers not heard of the First Amendment, which already prohibits courts from adopting any kind of religious code as law of the land?

These laws serve only to do two things: single out Muslims as second-class citizens and undermine the Constitution of the United States.

And therefore we will oppose them. Because this is what we do in the Reform Movement. Because it is the right thing to do, and our rabbis and synagogues know that.

This is a difficult time for America. Politics is inherently divisive, and never more so than now. But when everyone is shouting; when every voice on talk radio or cable news is trying to be the loudest and the most shocking; when it seems that our problems are too great to solve and our hatreds too deep to cure, it is the task of religion, and of Reform Judaism, and of our Union, to offer healing and a sense of the common good.

And the way to do that, by the way, is not with theology, and not with endless interfaith babble, but with personal friendships, and with concrete, grassroots, hand-on projects that bring us together. And that is exactly what we have been doing, and what we will continue to do.

And so what is our task as Reform Jews? It is to say that we will not permit fanaticism to grow or prejudice to harden; that in looking back on 9/11, we honor the memory of those who died by teaching our children to honor life; and that even as we are fully aware of the reality of extremism and the evil intentions of our enemies, we refuse to grant a victory to those who work to divide us.

As Reform Jews, as leaders of this Union and of the synagogue, our task will be we what it has always been: to renew our coalitions of decency and to reclaim our common moral heritage.

Thank you for being here and for joining with us. Peter and Joan and Amy and I and Rick and Susie wish you a sweet, healthy, and joyous year. And we look forward to seeing you at the Biennial in December.

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