Skip Navigation
October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776
Home  /  About Us  /  Union for Reform Judaism  /  Leadership  /  President Emeritus - Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie  /  Biennial Sermon Minneapolis 2003  / 
Biennial Sermon Minneapolis 2003

Sermon by Rabbi Eric Yoffie at the Minnesota Biennial

Lech L'cha:
Go Forth and Discover
Union for Reform Judaism
67th General Assembly
November 8, 2003 - Minneapolis, MN

In recent months, some have expressed concern about the decision to meet for our Biennial convention in the frozen northlands of Minnesota. They need not have worried. First, because Minneapolis-St. Paul is a stronghold of Reform Judaism, and our hosts have embraced us warmly and welcomed us graciously; and second, because when we join together with men and women from over 700 congregations, we have a dynamic assembly of Jews to keep us warm. Standing as we do upon thousands of years of Jewish tradition, a palpable glow emanates from this sacred community. And how can your spirit not soar when you add your voice to thousands of others in singing the Sh'ma ?

Drawing comfort from one another is a particular blessing at this moment. The two years since our last gathering have been tumultuous, for us and for the entire Jewish people.

A mere ten years ago, we felt confident that anti-Semitism was no longer a significant threat. But we were wrong. Most of us have been exposed to more anti-Semitic discourse in the last two years than we have seen in our entire lives.

We note with horror the monstrous canards that continue to circulate in the Arab and Muslim worlds, including the charge that Jews rule the world and are to blame for the Twin Towers bombing. And in Europe, which bears the mark of Cain for its complicity in the Holocaust, the Arab-Israeli conflict has become a means of removing it. In turning Israelis from victims into Nazis, they seek to cleanse their consciences by casting their sins upon us.

We see yet again that, of all forms of racism, anti-Semitism is the most tenacious. It is also the most promiscuous, adapting itself without difficulty to every conceivable ideological system. We find it today in right-wing nationalism and left-wing anti-globalism, in radical Islam and reactionary forms of Christianity.

In our tradition, anti-Semites are identified with Amalek who ambushed the Children of Israel from behind as they fled from Egypt . The Torah commands us to remember Amalek at all times, but also to blot out his memory-that is, to make perpetual war against those who hate us, to destroy their works, and to give them no victories.

But even as we embrace this task, we worry about our community. Yes, we must march, donate, and protest, and we ignore anti-Semitism at our peril. But some of our communal leaders have lost their way. It is almost as if they welcome the crisis we face and are most comfortable on a war footing. And convinced that anti-Semites lurk everywhere, they urge us to forget about others and take care only of ourselves.

But we Reform Jews see things differently. As serious as the threat is, we know that we respond to it from a position of strength unparalleled in our 4,000-year history. There exists a sovereign Jewish state with a powerful army to protect the lives of its citizens. And here in North America , our community is at the height of its influence. Who would have imagined even a few years ago that a traditional Jew would be a serious candidate for president of the United States and that half of the other candidates, or so it seems, would have some Jewish connection in their family tree?

Reform Jews know that our community is ill served by the embrace of narrow tribalism. We will not withdraw into a ghetto of our own making. The best way to combat anti-Semitism and to defend Israel is to build more and better bridges. As our enemies construct coalitions of hatred and terror, we will construct the broadest possible coalitions of decency. And this work must begin now.

In the 1950s and -60s, Reform Judaism was at the forefront of a lay-driven interreligious dialogue in North America . But in recent decades, interfaith work has declined precipitously. In many communities, little survives beyond Thanksgiving services and model seders.

We know the reasons. Threatened by assimilation, we Jews felt the need to look within and to fortify ourselves internally. And in the '60s and '70s, along with a growing awareness of the Holocaust came greater suspicion of Christianity. And when Israel was threatened with obliteration before the Six-Day War, we were shocked by the silence of our Christian partners. We have been divided on Israel ever since, as many mainstream Protestant churches continue to issue what we see as anti-Israel statements and resolutions.

But we can no longer afford relations that barely exist. And this, too: In recent decades, most Christian denominations have changed their theology on Judaism so as to atone for an inglorious past. They are anxious for a true dialogue with Jews. And Reform Jews are the appropriate partners because we bring to the table a readiness for theological discussion and an ethic of self-criticism, both of which are essential for success.

Therefore, the Union has joined with the Evangelical Lutheran Church , the Presbyterian Church USA, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA , and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in calling for interreligious dialogue between synagogue and church. We have prepared a seven-session curriculum for use in these discussions. I ask this Assembly to recommend that each of our member congregations invite a church in its community to participate in such a dialogue during the coming year. This initiative will require the participation of rabbis, cantors, ministers, and priests but is directed primarily at congregational members.

Part of this dialogue will focus on the study of biblical texts and part on the religious and political questions that surround the State of Israel. There will be nothing easy about any of this, and the second part will be especially challenging. Our members will express their passionate support for Israel in her quest for survival and security and will expect our Christian partners to condemn terror in all forms. Christians, on the other hand, will ask us to recognize the plight of the Palestinian people and their right to statehood.

If we are serious about combating anti-Semitism and helping Israel, it will not happen by talking to ourselves. We must reach out to our neighbors and listen for God's presence in their voice. Only in this way, speaking our fears while hearing the fears of others, will we build a shared commitment to a moral future.

Our other challenge as Reform Jews is to fight the battle against anti-Semitism without letting it define us. We must refuse to put anti-Semitism at the center, or anywhere near the center, of our Jewish identity. The synagogue is a soldier in the war against anti-Semitism, but our primary task is to educate our members to walk proudly with an eternal people. It is to convey the message that Jews have always seen themselves as a people loved by God and not a people hated by gentiles, knowing that the first can be passed on to our children and the second cannot.

So yes, we will fight anti-Semitism with every fiber of our being. But as Reform Jews, we insist that a major part of that fight is to create Jewish families, study Torah, do mitzvot, support Israel , and hear God's voice even when evil threatens. It is to identify with our unique and towering religious tradition and, above all, to continue to live as Jews.


The message of our Movement has been exactly that. And to achieve this goal, recent Biennial Assemblies have adopted a number of initiatives to transform our worship and intensify our study.

With our cantors leading the way, we have revitalized our music and our prayer. Jews are clamoring for transcendence, and we have found ways to help them. Anyone entering a Reform synagogue will find far more participation and worshipers who are truly uplifted. For more and more of our members, prayer is not a duty or a chore but an experience of joy that connects them to ancient wisdom and to their deepest selves.

With our rabbis and educators leading the way, we have improved our schools and put the study of Torah back at the center of synagogue life. We have worked hard to put an end to minimalism in all of our educational endeavors and to become -a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,- which means demanding of ourselves universal Jewish literacy.

Our work is not complete, of course. Enriching our prayer and study are eternal tasks. I therefore wish to offer two proposals to sustain what we have already begun and to further deepen our study of Torah.

Knowing that Torah study is the motor that drives Jewish life, some of us have committed ourselves to regular study, but many others have not, at least not yet. But who among us is so busy that he cannot spend ten minutes a day in the study of a Jewish text? Just ten minutes? Such a commitment would enable us to meet our Jewish obligation to make Jewish study a fixed occurrence. And if the answer is, "I can't find ten minutes," let me suggest that we need to take a good look at our priorities. Desperate to keep up, insecure about what we don't know, we find time to stuff information of every kind into our heads. If we make time to answer our cell phones a dozen times a day and to check our e-mail five times an hour, surely we can find ten minutes to contemplate sacred words that nourish the soul.

Therefore, beginning next month, the Union will offer Ten Minutes of Torah , a daily online study program. It will be available at no cost to every synagogue member, but will be directed especially at temple Board members , whose effectiveness as leaders flows directly from their own knowledge of Torah and their own passion for the covenant.

Everyone who registers will receive study materials five mornings a week-some on traditional texts, some on personal and social ethics, and some on Israel and Jewish issues of the day. Those who participate for two years will have completed approximately 100 hours of study, and a siyum celebrating their achievement will be held at our 2005 Houston Biennial.

My second proposal is aimed at eleventh and twelfth graders, young people who are readying themselves for college. While virtually all of our religious school students celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah, more than a third of them disappear from synagogue life after the ceremony, and most of those who remain until confirmation are gone after tenth grade.

But this is the worst possible time for the chain of Jewish learning to snap. The result is that too many of our sons and daughters come to college Jewishly lost. They are uncertain of their practice and beliefs and unable to defend their Jewish convictions. They must face the crisis that college represents without the Jewish armor that might prepare them to meet that crisis.

Therefore, the Union has created Packing for College , a course for eleventh and twelfth graders consisting of nine sessions over a two-year period, including two for parents and one for families. The course covers practical matters, such as how to choose a college and, for graduating seniors, how to develop a personal Jewish action plan. It deals with questions about Judaism that our children are likely to be asked and suggests ways to advocate for Israel . It also helps parents and their college-bound children create a new type of relationship based on shared personal and Jewish expectations.

Those times when we don't always know what to tell our children are the times when we need the synagogue most: to be a place of genuine moral conversation and to offer Torah as a frame of reference in which to build a life. As our children grow up, they will make their own decisions; children always do. But by joining with them in this experience, we can fortify them with Jewish wisdom before they go on their way.


We have thus far focused on issues of God and Torah. But, as we all know, Judaism rests on three sacred pillars: God, Torah, and Israel . And the time has come, I believe, to make Israel , land and people, more central to our Movement's concerns.

In this week's parashah , we read of Abraham-revolutionary and smasher of idols. The words of God to Abraham, as recounted in the first three verses of our portion, foreshadow all of Jewish history. These verses tell us who we are and what we are meant to be.

The story begins with a command from God to Abram to go forth from his native land to a land that God will show him. God does not use the simple Hebrew command Lech --Go--but chooses instead the words Lech l'cha --Go to you.- Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, building on the commentaries of the midrash and the Zohar , suggests that these words mean "Go to yourself" "that is, "Look within yourself, go to the root of your own soul."

And how could it be otherwise? At seventy-five years of age, Abram was undoubtedly set in his ways. The leader of a large clan and comfortably settled in a city, he was suddenly instructed to become a nomad and to leave for the wide-open spaces. How many of us half his age would be so willing to pull up stakes and take off for parts unknown?

Why Lech l'cha --"Go to yourself"? Because our rabbis knew that even Abraham, the most daring of men, could not respond immediately to God's command. First, he had to look within, to overcome his inadequacies and fears, and to see beyond idolatry in all its subtle forms. He had to connect with the holy and contemplate what he truly believed. Only then could he sever his attachments and respond to God's demand. For Abraham and for all of us, religious experience begins with self-questioning; with personal prayer, reflection, and study; and with an inner struggle to understand our relationship to God.

But pay attention to what follows. After God's command to look within, the very next words are, "I will make of you a great nation." The Jew searches his soul and wrestles with God not solely for the rewards it will bring to the self but in order to connect with his people and join his search to theirs. Since the time of Abraham, the Jew has always related personhood to peoplehood. He can know himself deeply only as part of a people; for Jews, participation in sacred community is the path to ultimate meaning.

But we have a problem. American Jews-and I am intentionally excluding Canadians-have less and less feeling for peoplehood. Every study that we have indicates that our ties to the Jewish state and to Jews throughout the world are weakening. This is particularly true of the young, who do not see any reason why they should care about Jews in Minsk , Paris , or Tel Aviv.

Do they have a warm spot in their hearts for Israel ? Yes. Are they appalled by Palestinian terror? Of course. And a certain residual tribalism retains its hold. Yet rarely does it go beyond a kind of nostalgia or a shared feeling of vulnerability. And what happens to Jews in Israel and elsewhere around the world does not seem to be in any way central to their lives.

How do we account for this? Some of this might simply be the parochial quality of American Jewish life. American Jews, after all, are Americans, and we are prone to the self-sufficiency and even arrogance to which all Americans fall prey. As our colleagues in Israel , Europe , and Canada gently remind us, American Jews are not always able to see beyond their own problems and concerns.

Another factor is that we live at a time when individual religious experience is emerging as a primary value. This is positive in many ways. But for some, this privatization of Judaism has come to mean a turning away from collective commitment and communal attachments.

But the real problem is that we no longer understand what Jewish peoplehood means. Peoplehood is a difficult concept in all cases and is especially difficult when applied to the Jews, who defy all conventional classifications.

Most scholars would tell us that a people is defined by race and common origin; by a common language; by a common culture; and by the existence of a national state and a common territory. The problem is that these criteria apply very imperfectly to the Jewish people.

Jews have biological ties, to be sure, but for millennia we have welcomed converts from all racial groups. So Jews are clearly not a race.

Jews have a language, Hebrew, which is the language of our prayer book and sacred texts. But Hebrew is not the language of the Jewish people in the same way that French is the language of the French people. For most of Jewish history, Jews did not speak Hebrew, and even today the majority of the Jewish people speaks neither Hebrew nor Yiddish nor any other Jewish language.

Jews have an ethnic culture that is identified with certain foods, folk songs, and styles of humor and artistic expression. But this culture is diffuse and almost entirely borrowed from our neighbors; in most cases, it is difficult to say what precisely is Jewish about it.

Finally, while we thank God for the State of Israel, for most of our history the Jewish people has not been concentrated in a single territory and no independent political framework has existed.

So, what is it then that defines the Jewish people? The answer is simply this: Judaism defines the Jewish people. Judaism unites us. Judaism gives us our unique character. Judaism makes us a people.

And what is Judaism? It is not only a religion. It is a complex, many-splendored thing wherein peoplehood, faith, and ethics interact. But Torah is its central pillar. Without Torah, the whole structure collapses.

We are not Jewish because we like bagels or borscht belt humor. It is Jewish learning and religious practice that make us Jews. To be sure, ethnicity and culture, gastronomy and nostalgia, language and biology-these are all aspects of our Jewish identity. But they are the superstructure, while the foundation that drives it all is Torah, covenant, and faith.

More than a thousand years ago, Saadyah Gaon said it plainly, Israel is a people only by virtue of its Torah.


The relationship between peoplehood and religious tradition suggested in this week's portion was confirmed at Sinai. There we learned that our greatest challenge is not to ascend from earth to heaven through the journey of the soul but to bring the Divine Presence from heaven to earth and share it with others. But this is a collective task. No individual-and no group-is capable of doing it on their own, which is why the covenant at Sinai was made not with individuals or tribes but with the entire Jewish people.

Since that day, every religious Jew has understood that she cannot fully observe Torah and reclaim the holy moment at Sinai unless she does so as part of K'lal Yisrael .

The Jew who flees to Meah Shearim and closes the door on the Jewish world is being unfaithful to God's covenant. So, too, is the Jew in New York or Los Angeles who thinks that his Jewish concerns extend only as far as his, or his synagogue's, front door. There is no such thing as Lone Ranger Judaism. It is right to search for spiritual meaning in your life, but if your Judaism is exclusively personal, it is not Judaism at all.

When our commitment to K'lal Yisrael falters, it is because we have lost the connection between peoplehood and Torah. For many, helping the Jewish people has become nothing more than a humanitarian task; it is just one more worthy cause, not much different from the dozens of other worthy causes that claim our attention and resources.

Make no mistake: We strongly support the communal agencies that help Jews in need. Our people are an extended family, and our family is under siege; it cannot exist in the absence of food, clothing, and physical security. But, as a great religious Movement, we know that ultimately our extended Jewish family is only as strong as its shared religious heritage. Therefore, our primary task is not humanitarian work. It is to support synagogues and to promote religious life wherever Jews are found.

Our responsibility as Reform Jews is especially heavy. We are the largest religious movement in the Jewish world. And because we are strong and live in freedom, we have a special duty to world Jewry and Jews in distress. We must lift our voices on their behalf and help them wherever we can.

We turn our attention in particular to the State of Israel, which has a special hold on our soul. Israel is the very essence of our being. The Torah that spells out for us a way of life and a religious destiny also binds us to a Land, and Jewish life cannot be sustained without Israel at its core. As Alex Schindler always reminded us, Israel 's pain is our pain; her safety, our gladness. God forbid that Israel 's current difficulties should blind us to the dream and the magic of the Zionist enterprise.

Located in a bad neighborhood, Israel is concerned right now with the safety of her citizens. But the day will come when Israel will not only save Jews but save Judaism. The day will come when the State of Israel will become the classroom of the Diaspora, teaching us lessons in Jewish identity and practice. And Israel must begin to prepare for that day now. Because threats to security need religious responses as well as military ones. In a period of prolonged unrest, those who face ongoing terror eventually ask: "Why do I risk my life here?" And ultimately, the only answer to that question is a religious one that talks of the holy community that our tradition requires us to create there and of the eternal ties that bind all Jews to that place.

I am proud to say that our Movement is playing its part in bringing this holy community into being. We offer Israel a Judaism that is egalitarian and accessible, a Judaism that speaks the language of both ritual and justice, of both modernity and tradition.

Some claim, of course, that the majority of Jews in Israel are destined to remain secular. What nonsense this is! Are we expected to believe that they constitute the first Jewish community in our history that has no religious needs; that they alone, after 4,000 years, are beyond the reach of prayer, Torah, and Jewish ritual?

But of course they are not. Like all other Jews, they need synagogues, and as synagogue Jews, we will therefore do what we do best. In Israel and everywhere else, we will teach Torah and create synagogues, and then build communities around synagogues. We will embrace our people and invite them into our congregations. We will nourish their souls and cloak them in the values of Jewish tradition. In this way we will strengthen Jewish peoplehood in the only way that really works: by reviving the religious ideas on which it is based.


And how will we begin?

It is hard for me to say this, but I will say it nonetheless: We must follow the example of Chabad. I disagree with Chabad about practically everything, and I am appalled by the messianic fervor that has flared up in their midst. But I envy the selflessness of their young men and women who fan out across the world to serve Jewish communities in distress. We must foster among our members the same sense of mission and spirit of service to the Jewish people. We, too, in our own way, must provide teachers, Torah, and spiritual sustenance to Jews who require them.

Therefore, I propose that we call upon every member congregation of the Union to adopt a specific project of support for a Reform Jewish community in Israel or in Eastern Europe .

A small percentage of our synagogues already do this, thanks to the efforts of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and ARZA/WORLD UNION, North America . These extraordinary organizations have sustained Reform Judaism throughout the world and deserve our support. In addition to their work in Israel, they have participated in one of the great miracles of Jewish history in the former Soviet Union; in a community rediscovering its roots after 70 years of Communist oppression, they have established in a few short years 100 Reform congregations, a network of summer camps, and an institute to train Jewish paraprofessionals. But they cannot do their work alone. The time has come for the Union to help them. We therefore call on all of our congregations-every single one-to strengthen our people and fulfill our religious mission around the world.

With the blessing of our international Movement, I propose to this Assembly that our Union adopt three projects-two in Israel and one in Eastern Europe-and that each of our synagogues select one of the three. Selecting a project will mean not only fund-raising but also relationship building, education, and person-to-person contact.

The first project will support two young Reform congregations in Israel , one in Modi'in and one in Mevasseret Zion. Subsisting on shoestring budgets and with no government support, both of these synagogues have created thriving programs that appeal to young, native-born Israelis. Both offer nursery schools, youth activities, and adult education. And both are served by dynamic rabbis: Modi'in by Kinneret Shiryon , Israel 's first female rabbi, and Mevasseret Zion by Maya Leibovich, the first Israeli woman to be ordained at HUC in Jerusalem .

If we are looking for heroes of modern Jewish life, we need look no farther than these two remarkable women, who have built their synagogues yesh me-ayin, literally out of nothing, even as they have brought comfort to the afflicted and inspiration to the weary. They are with us this Shabbat, and they deserve our profound thanks. I ask Rabbis Shiryon and Leibovich to stand and be recognized.

But even Kinneret and Maya can do only so much. They cannot serve their congregants while meeting in private homes and prefabricated trailers, and they cannot ask young families in an utterly devastated economy to provide all the funds for desperately needed buildings. Therefore, we must help them to build the structures that they require. And we must do this because these congregations, and others like them, are literally our Movement's future in the Jewish state.

Our second project will support Israeli students at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem , both before and after their ordination. More than ever before, Israelis are flocking to our rabbinical program. The thirty-five students now enrolled will lead a religious revolution in the Jewish state. But while the presence of so many students is a blessing, it is also a challenge: They need our help. Therefore, we will offer scholarships to students in their final two years of study, and, after ordination, we will support them for two years while they establish new Progressive synagogues or serve populations now beyond our reach.  Together with the Rav L'Rav project of the CCAR, which provides funds for rabbinic salaries in Israel, we will begin to provide the support that our Israeli rabbis need and deserve to do their vital work.

Our third project will nurture Reform communities in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union , where there is burgeoning Jewish consciousness but little infrastructure and few professional leaders. Our task, therefore, is to help those volunteers who want to create a congregation but don't know how. We will do this by sending rabbis, cantors, and educators to conduct three training programs in which local leaders from Eastern Europe will learn the Jewish and practical skills required for synagogue life. And we will bring young people from these communities to a summer program at Camp Kutz , where they will study Torah and learn how to establish youth groups back home.

How will we pay for these new projects when congregational budgets are already severely strained? We do not want a single penny to come from temple funds. What we ask is that every Reform congregation make a decision to participate and then choose the project it wishes to support. The next step will be to request that each family or individual member contribute $18 a year to the project selected.

Surely we can do this. Surely we can ask our members for $18-about the cost of two movie tickets. Surely we can make the case and convince them to contribute. Yes, times are tough here. But they are far worse in Israel and Russia , where meeting the desperate religious needs of our congregations costs only a fraction of what it costs in North America .

I am confident that with the affirmation of this Assembly, the overwhelming majority of our congregations will participate. And I am confident that most will become builder congregations-the honor role of those that collect $18 a year from at least half of their members.

I believe that over the next ten years this Movement-wide, grassroots campaign will change the face of the Jewish world; it will also energize our Movement in North America and renew our sense of shared kinship and shared fate.

Reform Jews are ready: ready for a single vision and a shared future; ready to advance the cause of Israel and our people; ready to affirm the unity of the Jewish people across time and space.


We come now to the third charge of God to Abraham, "Be thou a blessing," God says, "and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed."

First, Abraham is to study, pray, and look within. Then he is to embrace his people, who are to become a great nation. And finally, he is to be a blessing to all humankind. All peoples are to be blessed in him and he in them.

And how are we, bound by Abraham's example, to be a blessing to all humankind? Surely it means that we refuse to be reconciled to the world as it is. It means that we lose our humanity if we tolerate the intolerable in the society around us. It means that we must summon America , this great country in which we live, to a higher vision of its meaning and destiny.

Torah, it turns out, has quite a bit to say about how we do this. It does not tell us to be Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals. But it offers us firm values and clear guideposts. It warns us, in the Book of Samuel, against the tendency of government to expropriate property for the public good. At the same time, it insists, according to rabbinic law, on open access to those things that give life fundamental value-the means of subsistence, sufficient capital to marry, education, and health care. In the Jewish tradition, these are communal responsibilities to be met by public funds.

These needs exist today in painful and obvious ways. The great majority of Americans make less than $50,000 a year; half make under $32,000. And the middle class has seen median income decline for the second straight year. The number of Americans without health insurance is increasing, and the number of children living in poverty is increasing even faster. State governments are cutting back, and unemployment remains distressingly high. Our synagogues are feeling the strain, our members are feeling it, and the Jewish poor are feeling it most of all.

Add to all of this the cost of reconstruction in Iraq . Members of our Movement were divided about the wisdom of the war. Some were for and some were against. Some were sympathetic to its goals but said that our government overestimated what it could do by itself; they reminded us that diplomacy and coalitions are not signs of weakness and that wars against terrorism and tyrants cannot be waged unilaterally. Still, I think it is fair to say that few believe we can now simply walk away. If we can help Iraq to become a democratic, multiethnic, and multi-religious state, it will be a blessing for America and the world, and worth the sacrifice.

But the question is: Who will do the sacrificing? Our troops on the ground, of course, and we are deeply grateful to every man and woman who serves in uniform. But what about the rest of us? Who is to pay the bill?

The answer, so far, is sad, and somewhat shocking: Our government is the first in the history of our country to ask the sons and daughters of working men and women to risk their lives in war while asking the wealthy to pay less in taxes.

I am not an expert in economics, but I know a danger when I see one. And the danger is that this never-ending campaign to reduce the taxes of the wealthy has ceased to be an economic matter and has become a crusade, a religious principle, an eleventh commandment so sacred that it is more a matter of theology than of public policy. Consider this: Those at the top of the income ladder already receive a bigger slice of the income pie than at any time in the past sixty years. And if the administration were to do nothing more than freeze the tax cut for the top 1% of Americans, it would generate enough money to cover the $87 billion needed to rebuild Iraq .

Our tradition teaches that in times of crisis and hardship, the wealthy are expected to set an example of public generosity and communal leadership. So let me suggest that this is not the time to make the temporary cuts permanent. The last thing that this country needs right now is another big tax cut that makes the rich a whole lot richer than they are already, compared with everyone else.

And I don't want to hear another word about how helping the rich will eventually benefit the poor, and about the virtues of self-reliance. Self-reliance is an important value, but so too are justice and fairness. And no matter how self-reliant the Jews in Egypt might have tried to be, it took the active intervention of God to free them from slavery and point them toward freedom.

To our nation's leaders we say: This is a time to pursue a policy of national unity and social solidarity. This is a time to affirm that we are all in this together. This is a time for a patriotism of sacrifice and not of rhetoric, of mutual aid and not of symbolic displays. This is a time for real patriotism, which means foregoing a measure of privilege in the name of the greater good.

We have other issues on our minds as well.

We are deeply concerned about the growing threat to a woman's right to choose. Reform Jews are not pro-abortion; our tradition permits abortion in some cases and prohibits it in others. But Reform Jews are emphatically pro-choice; we see women as moral agents who must be free to consult their religious principles and their conscience and then decide for themselves. And to all those who oppose this right, let me remind you: More than 200,000 women now serve in the armed forces of this country. They command ships, fly bombers, and pilot combat helicopters. If it is okay for women to serve in uniform and to fight and die for their country, then it is okay for them to make decisions about their own bodies.

We are concerned, too, about the state of our civil liberties. Yes, the dangers of terror are real, and fighting terror may require wider government power, but this power must be balanced by wider judicial and political review. Our government should never have the right to imprison American citizens indefinitely without them knowing the charges against them. And if anyone is held by my government on suspicion of terrorism, I want to know who he is, not only because I am concerned about his rights but because I am concerned about my own. Let's not forget: Absolutely nothing in the Constitution limits our rights in wartime. So let's proceed with caution, and if anti-terror laws are to be called the Patriot Act, let's remember that patriotism, first and foremost, is love of constitutional principle.

Finally, a word on the search for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

In the two years since our last Biennial, Palestinian forces have continued their relentless campaign of terror against Israeli civilians. While Israel 's army asks how it can limit the loss of civilian life, Palestinian terrorists ask how they can kill as many innocents as possible. We watch in dismay the parades in Gaza that celebrate the murder of Jewish children; not since the horrors of Nazi Germany have we seen a people publicly lionizing the killers of Jews.

Arafat has shown himself incapable of making peace. We remember his rejection of the Barak-Clinton peace initiative and his constant encouragement of so-called martyrdom. And we remember too that the words "Jewish people" and "Jewish state" never pass his lips.

At this terrible time, we are deeply grateful to the Bush administration for its support of Israel . It has put its prestige behind pushing a peace process. It has rejected the vile falsehood that Palestinian murder is somehow Israel 's fault. While much of the world tolerates Palestinian attacks on civilians, Mr. Bush does not. He refuses to rationalize terror and he tells the Palestinians that they cannot bomb their way to respectability. For this president, one man's terrorist is another man's terrorist.

We ask the administration to stay involved. Because even now, at this dark hour, we do not despair of peace. And America 's vision of a two-state solution, with security for Israel and independence for the Palestinians, is the only course that offers hope. Yes, only the warring parties can make peace, but we know from long experience that progress is impossible without America . We hope and pray, therefore, that our government will not lose heart and walk away.

But we also ask something of the government of Israel . We ask that it dismantle illegal outposts and freeze all other settlement activity. The ultimate fate of the settlements will be determined in negotiations, but the Bush administration is right that the growth of settlements prejudges the outcome of peace talks.

On this point, the American people agree with their government. We know, because Reform Jews have argued the case for Israel in communities throughout this country. Most of our fellow citizens see Palestinians terrorizing Israelis and are drawn to Israel 's cause. But these same people are deeply troubled by the settlement issue. They ask us, "If Israel claims that it will make painful compromises for peace, why does it build settlements that make compromise impossible?"

But the primary reason I raise this issue has nothing to do with American pressure or public opinion. It has to do with the threat that settlements pose to Israel 's sovereign survival.

In 1980, there were 5,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza . In 1993, there were 115,000 settlers, and today there are 230,000 settlers. If settlement growth continues, in a very short time the Jewish and Palestinian populations will be so intertwined that separation will be impossible.

Fully aware of this, some Palestinian leaders have begun to promote a one-state solution as the only way to end the conflict. "Settlements are expanding," they say, "and a state of our own is no longer feasible. So let there be a single state from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River in which every person, Arab and Jew, will have one vote and equal rights." They make this proposal knowing that this territory will soon have an Arab majority and that a single state will mean the end of Israel .

This is not a doomsday scenario for the distant future. This argument is being made right now on talk shows and college campuses and is evoking a positive response. Americans see little reason to oppose a single state for Palestinians and Israelis that offers equal rights for all. Yet if settlements continue to grow and we are committed to democracy, we have no convincing response to offer.

It is not our task to say what a final peace agreement should look like. But there will be no final agreement if settlement growth does not stop. I know that there are those who say that terror must end first and that it is too early to consider such a step. But our response is: Get your heads out of the sand. It is not too early; in fact, it is very nearly too late. With every passing day a two-state solution becomes more difficult and a single-state solution more likely.

Not all settlers are extremists. But their leaders are trying to impose an endless war on Israel and the Jewish people. For these zealots, their right to live anywhere in the historic Land of Israel takes precedence over Israel 's democracy and, indeed, over her very existence. But I do not believe now, and I have never believed, that they speak for the Israeli majority.

And so we say to the government of Israel : You did not choose to fight this dreadful war. We know that you yearn for peace. We marvel at the strength and determination of the Israeli people. With your children on the front lines, you have refused to cower in your homes or give in to terror. Your heroism continues to inspire us. We in this Movement have been, and will always be, champions of the Zionist cause. We ask only that you consider the very real dangers that the settlements pose. Surely the Jewish people did not dream of Zion for 2,000 years in order to be a minority in somebody else's state.


As we face this and all the other challenges of our day, I am filled with optimism.

We are, after all, the children of Abraham, confronted with the very same summons to "Go forth." And go forth we will: to enrich our inner lives, to embrace our people, to repair our world. And on the way, we will search out that inner holiness that permeates all of life.

The destination of that journey, begun by Abraham, is always farther than we thought and the route, at times, more treacherous.

But we are fortified by the worthiness of our leadership-by men and women of high motive and serious purpose, who really care. And by the conviction that the message of morality and faith, whose bearers we are, has not outlived its usefulness.

We are fortified as well by the restless hopes and high aspirations that propel Reform Judaism. Ours is a tradition that is rooted in Torah but focused on the dreams of tomorrow-a tradition that casts its steady gaze on a future filled with the promise of a world redeemed.

So we continue our journey no matter what, knowing, sometimes obscurely, sometimes with blazing clarity, that this is what God wants us to do.


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