Excerpts from Rabbi Eric Yoffie's Comments to the UAHC Executive Committee February 5, 1996
Last month I began a series of town meetings. Three have been held so far, each in a major city. I speak about my plans and my vision, and I hear the concerns of our leaders. Initially, I was somewhat worried that these meetings would turn into kvetch sessions, but that has not happened. If anything, the problem has been the opposite. There has been in each case an enormous outpouring of good will and support, both for me and much more important for our Union. Our members want us to succeed, to lead, and to help them with their religious quest. I have been moved and gratified by the response.
...My other comments relate to an article that appeared in the January issue of Commentary magazine. This was an important article and I hope that some of you have seen it. The thrust of this article was to say that Reform Judaism was ignoring the needs of serious Jews; that it was denuding Judaism of its particularity; that it was unwilling to make demands, a nd was in fact obsessed with making the peripheral Jew and the intermarried Jew feel comfortable; that it was denying the distinctive, tribal characteristics of Judaism in favor of liberal universalism.
Now, attacks on Reform Judaism are not exactly new. What makes this attack particularly significant and disturbing? First, because it was written by three very prominent professors in Jewish life: Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Charles S. Liebman of Bar Ilan University, and Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew University.
Second, because these professors were speaking not only as individuals; a few months ago, they gathered together a group of very prominent North American Jews to create a platform and to lobby for their positions.
And third, because these men are all well-connected in the Federation world, and they are advancing a very specific agenda, which says: community resources at this moment must go to the already committed to the yeshivas, and the day schools, and those whom we would define as in some sense observant. On the other hand, they claim, the community does not now have the time or the resources to concern itself with the marginal Jew, the peripheral Jew, the intermarried Jew.
So how will we respond? We will begin by acknowledging that, if you read their platform, these professors are saying some perfectly reasonable things.
Yes, religion is the key to Jewish survival.
And yes, synagogues, summer camps, day schools, youth groups, and campus programs are essential transmitters of our religious heritage. They are correct in stressing that Jews are a unique people, different from others in their acceptance of God s covenant and embrace of God s mitzvot. They are right that no outreach program can succeed if synagogues do not offer Jewish substance and religious depth. If a synagogue is not a place to study Torah, celebrate sacred moments, and observe ancient rituals and traditions, why would anyone wish to be a part of it? But how in heaven's name does this lead to the conclusion that Jews on the periphery of the community can be abandoned? Do they truly believe that in 1996, the answer to the problems of Jewish life can be found in tribalism? So I feel that this attack must be taken very seriously. It is the opening salvo in what clearly will be a major battle of ideas, as well as a battle for community resources. But I must tell you as well that on a certain level I welcome this battle, because it will challenge us as Reform Jews to articulate to the community what we believe.
And what we believe, of course, is that we are not prepared to give up so quickly on those of our children who are not yet deeply committed Jewish life, or who have chosen non-Jewish spouses. What we believe is that the nature of the covenant at Sinai forbids the exclusion of any Jew, however wayward, from our people s collective destiny.
What we believe is that there will always be tension between support for programs directed at peripheral, unaffiliated, and intermarried Jews, and programs directed at those already engaged in Jewish life. But in the final analysis we are capable of doing both. Because what we lack are not the resources, but the will which means confidence in our ability to rekindle the eternal spark of Yiddishkeit that dwells in the heart of every Jew.
Let Professors Cohen, and Wertheimer, and Liebman talk about tribalism and yeshivas, but we Reform Jews will remain committed to collective rather than selective survival.
And we will do what we have always done: bring our message to affiliated Jews and unaffiliated Jews, to core Jews and marginal Jews, and to everyone who remains tied, however tenuously, to our shared destiny as a holy people.