Members of our Movement are continually confronted, knowingly or not, with
the need to answer two questions: Why be Jewish? And Why be a Reform
Our members know instinctively the answer to the first question. To be a Jew
is to be a member of the people of the covenant, an heir to one of the world's
most ancient, enduring, and awe-inspiring faiths. It is to be committed to
values to which Jews have always been committed: to love of family, to
education, to philanthropy, to individual righteousness, and to the idea of a
unique Jewish destiny.
But when the members of our Movement are asked the second Why be a Reform Jew
many have trouble articulating an answer.
Why is it that so many of our members have no clear sense of what it means to
be a Reform Jew?
First, we are victims of our own success. Take any Reform congregation in the
country, and you are likely to find that well under 50 percent of the board
members grew up in a Reform temple; some came from Orthodox homes, some from
Conservative homes, some from non-Jewish homes. They do not possess the positive
associations or childhood memories of Reform that were common in an earlier era.
Second, North American Jews, particularly today, are not inclined toward
systematic thinking when they make religious choices. They rarely ask what is
the belief system to which the synagogue subscribes or the philosophy to which
it adheres. More often, Americans choose their synagogues because the location
is convenient or because they like the rabbi; because they want a cantor or they
don't; because they want more singing or less; because they want two days of
religious school or three.
Third, our communal leaders are rarely comfortable with denominational
differences. Fearing that communal unity will be disrupted and fund-raising
affected, they tend to speak a language of a too-often bogus language that blurs
religious differences even when they need to be sharpened. Communal leaders
should learn what religious leaders already know: that in most cases, the
passionate particularism of religious life does not weaken our communities, it
And so, our members ask, what are the religious principles that distinguish
Reform Judaism? I suggest five.
Reform Jews are committed to a Judaism that changes and adapts to the
needs of the day.Since its earliest days, Reform Judaism has
asserted that a Judaism frozen in time is an heirloom, not a living fountain.
Changes must be thoughtful, of course, and must be rooted in the history and
traditions of our people. But we assert Judaism's innovative character, and we
assert, too, that a stubborn failure to change will make Judaism an irrelevance.
This willingness to adapt has brought new vitality and strength to a Jewish
community that is fully integrated into North American culture.
Reform Jews are committed to the absolute equality of women in all areas
of Jewish life.We were the first movement to ordain women rabbis,
invest women cantors, and elect women presidents of our synagogues. While we
have not yet totally fulfilled this commitment, there is no longer any debate
that a Judaism that diminishes the equality of women is a Judaism that degrades
our dignity and besmirches our soul.
Reform Jews are committed to social justice. Even as Reform Jews
embrace ritual, prayer, and ceremony more than ever, we continue to see social
justice as the jewel in the Reform Jewish crown. Like the prophets, we never
forget that God is concerned about the everyday and that the blights of society
take precedence over the mysteries of heaven. A Reform synagogue that does not
alleviate the anguish of the suffering is a contradiction in terms.
Reform Jews are committed to the principle of inclusion, not
exclusion.We understand clearly the need for boundaries between
Judaism and the society around us, but we have little patience with those who
spend day and night trying to define precisely where the boundaries are to be
drawn in order to keep the maximum number of people out. Far better to spend
time filling our Jewish world with experiences that will draw people in to
Knesset Yisraelthe indivisible collectivity of the Jewish people.
Reform Jews are committed to a true partnership between the rabbinate and
the laity. Of course, rabbis have their prerogatives, and we defer to their
scholarship. But Reform Jews have come to understand that holiness and religious
insight are not the monopoly of any segment of our community. And so we neither
flatter one another nor refute one another; rather, most of the time, we decide
together. This is not how it is done elsewhere in the Jewish world. Elsewhere
the grand rabbis decide, or the Seminary decides, but we Reform Jews prefer
shared insight and learning.
Where else does such a constellation of principles exist in the Jewish world?
The power and uniqueness of Reform Judaism does not in any way demean the
other religious movements, which we respect and with which we join in common
cause whenever possible. But we can best serve the members of our Movement and
draw upon the springs of their Judaic spirit if they truly what it means to be a
At the World Zionist Congress last December, members of our delegation wore
buttons that said: ANI YEHUDI REFORMI GAY'E
Here in North America, we need to wear such buttons as well, not actually but
in the symbolic sense. However, we need to do so for a different reason: to keep
our great Movement strong and to affirm, to our community and our children,
Reform Judaism's unique and powerful legacy.
Ken yehi ratzon. May it be God's will.
Editor's note: These remarks are excerpted from Rabbi Yoffie's speech to the
UAHC Executive Committee, February 1998.