The Union of American Hebrew Congregations The Synagogue Arm of Reform Judaism
Rabbi Eric Yoffie's Comments to the UAHC Executive Committee February 2, 1998
Members of our movement are continually confronted, knowingly or not, with the need to answer two questions. The first question is: Why be Jewish?
I answer that question by saying that to be a Jew is to be a member of the people of the covenant. It is to be an heir to one of the world's most ancient, enduring, and awe-inspiring faiths.
It is to be committed to a way of life that has earned the admiration of the world.
And it is to be committed to certain 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.
To be a Jew is to believe that if only our children would come to know and experience this tradition; if only they would know the drama of Jewish history, the richness of Jewish life, the grandeur of Jewish ethics, and the majesty of Jewish faith; if only they would know these things, they would not hesitate to choose Judaism as their own.
I realize that members of our movement may often be unable to articulate what connects them to Judaism, but my experience is that most of them, in the deepest recess of their inner selves, retain an instinctive sense all of this, and of what ties them to the chain of tradition. And our synagogues at their best foster this awareness by helping their members to hear the voice of God, to do the work of redemption, and to embrace the Jewish people.
But we come now to the second question that confronts the members of our movement, and that question is: Why be a Reform Jew?
Do our people have a good sense of what the response to this question might be, even on an instinctive level? For that matter, do they even appreciate the importance of this question?
I am concerned about these issues because I have recently returned from a three-day visit to PARR - the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis. PARR is by far the largest of the regional rabbinic gatherings; more than one hundred and twenty-five Reform rabbis were present. I addressed two sessions, together with Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman and Rabbi Paul Menitoff. The intention of the program was to introduce the PARR membership to the new leadership of Reform Judaism.
From my perspective, the visit was a great success. Our presentations demonstrated the desire of Reform leaders from the different branches of our movement to cooperate closely, and they demonstrated as well our substantial agreement that we have on so many important issues of the day. Our interaction with the rabbis present was intense, high-level, and productive.
But one aspect of our discussions was troubling - that part that focused on what it means to be a Reform Jew. There seemed to be a general consensus that the members of our synagogues have little sense of what a Reform Jew is, or even why it is important to be a Reform Jew at all; and more than a few of the rabbis present acknowledged that even they would have difficulty giving a clear answer to this question.
At one point, a respected colleague rose and said, "Let's admit that we live in a postdenominational era," a comment that elicited a positive response from more than a few people in the room.
I cannot agree with this claim, as I said then and repeat to you now. No one is more committed than I am to the idea of K'lal Yisrael - the idea that we Jews are a single people, a covenanted people that shares a destiny, language, and faith. I do not believe that we have become an undifferentiated religious mass; I do not believe, as is sometimes argued, that at most you have Orthodox Jews on one side and everyone else on the other; I do not believe that as Reform Judaism has incorporated more ritual observance and Hebrew language into its worship, we have become indistinct from Conservative Jews and Reconstructionist Jews and all manner of others Jews.
If such a feeling has taken root in our synagogues, then we must combat it with reasoned argument and education, because - it seems to me - such feelings reflect a dangerous trend and a diminished image of ourselves.
Why might it be that so many of our members have no clear sense of what it means to be a Reform Jew?
First, as I have often stated, we are victims of our own success. Take any Reform congregation in this country, and you are likely to find that well under fifty per cent of the board members grew up in a Reform temple; some come 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. A half century ago, Reform Judaism was still primarily a Midwestern movement; and while classical Reform had its deficiencies, Jews of that time had a clear sense of who they were and how they were distinct from others. But as we have expanded our reach, that sense of our uniqueness has been inevitably dulled.
Second, American Jews, particularly today, are not inclined toward systematic thinking when they make religious choices. (I am less sure about Canadians in this regard, so I leave them out.) Americans choose their synagogues because they are 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. They rarely ask what is the belief system to which the synagogue subscribes or the philosophy to which it adheres. Third, our communal leadership is rarely comfortable with denominational differences fearing that communal unity will be disrupted and fund-raising affected. As a result, communities tend to speak a language of unity - a too-often bogus language that blurs religious differences even when they need to be sharpened. But communal leadership should learn what religious leaders already know: that in most cases, the passionate particularism of religious life does not weaken our communities, it strengthens them.
I know that not everyone agrees with this, even in our own camp. And so they ask: Why not let Reform be a broad umbrella under which all can take refuge? But it is precisely this religious mushiness that has caused us the problem in the first place. Yes, we are a pluralistic movement, encompassing a variety of practices and beliefs. But if in the final analysis there is nothing to distinguish us from synagogues of other movements down the street, if we are truly in a postdenominational era, why should North American Jews be expected to seek us out, to support us, and to remain loyal to us? As much as they welcome our diversity, Jews of this continent do not want a Judaism of practicality and of sameness and of conformity; they do not want a movement devoid of vision and of dreams. What they want and expect from us is a commitment to a core of distinctively Reform religious principles.
And what might these principles be? I would suggest that there are five:
First, we are committed to a Judaism that changes and adapts to the needs of the day. Our changes must be thoughtful, of course, and 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; a Judaism frozen in time is an heirloom, not a living fountain.
Second, we are committed to the absolute equality of women in all areas of Jewish life. We have yet to fulfill this commitment, to be sure, but I would like to believe that there can no longer be a debate in our ranks on its wisdom. A Judaism that diminishes the equality of women is a Judaism that degrades our dignity and besmirches our soul.
Third, we are committed to social justice as the jewel in the Reform Jewish crown. Yes, now more than ever we embrace ritual and prayer and ceremony; but 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. In these self-indulgent times, too many turn inward; but we know that there can be no Reform Judaism without moral indignation; and we know, too, that a Reform synagogue that does not alleviate the anguish of the suffering is a contradiction in terms.
Fourth, we are committed to the principle that when we draw the boundaries of our community, we do so with the intention of being inclusive rather than exclusive. There are boundaries, of course; this is obvious and self-evident. But we have little patience with those who spend day and night trying to define precisely where the boundaries are to be drawn so as to keep the maximum number of people out. What a waste this is! Far better to spend time filling our Jewish world with experiences that will draw people to Knesset Yisrael - that is, to the indivisible collectivity of the Jewish people.
Finally - and this is a point that Shelly Zimmerman has made so often - we are the only Jewish movement in which a true partnership exists between rabbinate and laypeople. Rabbis have their prerogatives, as they should and as they must, and we defer to their scholarship. But we have come to understand that holiness and religious insight are not the monopoly of any one segment of our community. And so we neither flatter one another nor refute one another, but, 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? Absolutely nowhere.
We have no reason, of course, not to respect the other religious movements in Judaism and not to join with them wherever possible in common cause; but we also have no reason not to assert our own uniqueness. The CCAR has begun work on a new platform, which should advance this purpose. And our own Department of Jewish Education will need to do much more than it has done. We can best serve the members of our movement and draw upon the springs of their Judaic spirit if they understand - truly understand - what it means to be a Reform Jew.
And by the way, in the final analysis, the welfare of both Union and College-Institute will depend on the success of this effort. Loyalties built on organizational ties alone are notoriously ephemeral; loyalties built on principle and commitment are not. Historically, our greatest support has always come from those who know in their gut the splendor of Reform Judaism, and who see us as the means to advance our movement's stake in history. At the World Zionist Congress last December, members of our delegation wore buttons that said: ANI YEHUDI REFORMI GAY'E - I am a proud Reform Jew. They wore them to demand Reform rights and as a protest against Orthodoxy's legal monopoly.
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.