Yoffie: More Shabbat, More Dialogue, More Health Care, More Israel

This week, the lay leadership (and most of the professional leadership) of the Union for Reform Judaism converged on San Diego, CA for the 69th (heh heh) Biennial. Basically, this is the big conference where Reform leaders educate themselves and each other, meet to talk about pressing issues, conduct the business of the Reform movement, and launch new products and initiatives.

Some Biennial news bites:

• Delegates (or, rather, anyone who managed to be at this morning’s Shabbat services) got to take home their own copy of the new siddur, Mishkan T’filah, which is now — after quite a few delays — officially out and available for temples or individuals to purchase. Fully discussing the new siddur would take a separate post, but I think it’s fair to say that most people here are pretty excited about it.

• Michael J. Fox received the Eisendrath Bearer of Light award for his activist work. People seemed to be inspired by his speech. I rode in an elevator with him when he was leaving his hotel to go to the award reception thing. He is, indeed, short.

• URJ Press and the Women of Reform Judaism (the movement’s sisterhood wing) released a new women’s Torah commentary. It is a hefty book and is the product of some serious scholarship. I don’t know who’s going to use it (and for what), but the buzz is that it’s a good thing.

Of course, one of the big highlights was the traditional Shabbat morning sermon from Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the URJ. In these sermons, Yoffie basically picks some big issues that the Union should be focusing on, and then unveils initiatives and programs that the Union is embarking on in order to address them. You can read the whole sermon (which took him an hour to deliver) here, but here are the big points, with some commentary:

1. Shabbat.

Yoffie says that Reform synagogues need to re-focus on Saturday. As it is now, Friday night is when temples celebrate shabbat. In most places, there’s either (a) no congregational Shabbat service, or (b) a small Shabbat minyan. Meanwhile, the congregation holds b’nai mitzvah services that are basically private Shabbat services for b’nai mitzvah kids and their guests.

Yoffie wants to end this trend, and has two ways to do it. First, have congregational shabbat services instead of private b’nai mitzvah services. Second, put immense energy into creating new Reform ways of doing Shabbat, of finding and appreciating real rest. Best lines:

For most of us, it will not mean some kind of neo-frumkeit; it will not mean the Shabbat of eighteenth-century Europe; it will not mean an endless list of Shabbat prohibitions. We fled that kind of Shabbat, and for good reason.

It will mean instead approaching Shabbat with the creativity that has always distinguished Reform Judaism. It will mean emphasizing the “Thou shalts” of Shabbat—candles and Kiddush, rest and study, prayer and community—rather than the “Thou shalt nots.” It will mean expanding our understanding of rest, and defining in new ways what is, and is not, work. It will mean providing Reform Jews with the support of a loving community so that they can feel commanded without feeling coerced.

Yoffie is suggesting that changes happen in a grassroots way, but wants it to be a sort of project that lots of Reform temples undertake together.

2. Dialogue.

Yoffie wants official dialogue with the American Muslim community. He is proposing a partnership with ISNA, the Islamic Society of North America. He addressed their convention in August. The president of ISNA will address the Biennial tomorrow (Sunday). Best lines:

We chose ISNA as our partner because it is the closest equivalent to the Union within the American Muslim community. It has issued a strong and unequivocal condemnation of terror, including a specific condemnation of Hizbollah and Hamas terror against Jews and Israelis. It has also recognized Israel as a Jewish state and supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These statements provide the framework of common values that we believe are necessary for a fruitful dialogue to occur.

We have no intention of avoiding the subject of Israel in our discussions. Some have suggested that we do so, but a Jewish-Muslim dialogue that does not deal with Israel and Palestine would be pointless.

…My friends, we enter into this dialogue with our eyes wide open. We know that there are not a lot of Muslim Zionists, and that ISNA—a large, unwieldy coalition—contains some elements that cause us discomfort. We also know that while we have had extraordinary success with dialogue in Great Neck, St. Louis and Omaha, so too have we had our share of failures.

But none of this deters us. We will not be like those in the Jewish community who assert a willingness to talk to Muslims and then find a thousand reasons not to do so. Our plan will be simple: We will not feed each other pabulum, and we will assert our convictions with passion, even as we remain respectful of our disagreements.

And we do this because of our deep conviction that America is different, one of the very few places where the promise of true pluralism is not too wild a hope; and because we know as religious Americans that in this great country, we are stronger and safer when we transcend our fears and work together, rather than apart.

3. Health Care

The Reform movement thinks that providing health care to everyone is a moral imperative. He talked for a while about this issue, but it all boils down to his insistence that our politicians need to work on a solution to this crisis now, not later.

4. Israel

Reform Jews must renew their dedication to the Zionist cause, even if we disagree with Israeli politicians. Not much chiddush here, but Yoffie used some strong words to describe the movement’s dedication, to denounce Jewish anti-Zionists, and to insist upon moderation.

5. More Activism.

This was part of the health care part of the speech, but I think it stands alone. The money lines say it all:

In recent years, there has been a feverish conversation among communal leaders about how to connect young adults to Jewish life. We all agree that they need Torah study, Jewish ritual and connection to Israel. But all of this has not been enough.

Well, here is my suggestion to these leaders about what they need to do next: They need to speak up for justice. They need to speak up loud, proud and unafraid.

Because our young people are very wise. They know that a Judaism that ghettoizes itself has no real mission and therefore no real purpose. They don’t understand how Jews can pray for the sick every day and then do nothing to get health care to those who need it. In the end, if the Judaism we offer our young does not speak to the great moral issues of the world and of their lives, it will fail to capture their imagination or their hearts.

That’s all for now. If I have a sec, I’ll post some thoughts on the ISNA president’s speech tomorrow.

25 Responses to “Yoffie: More Shabbat, More Dialogue, More Health Care, More Israel”

  1. “it will not mean an endless list of Shabbat prohibitions. We fled that kind of Shabbat, and for good reason”

    I *like* the “shamor” elements of shabbat as well as the “zachor” elements. I get that that doesn’t work for everyone, but that’s an awfully negative attitude.

    My first reaction was: “that’s why I’m not reform.”
    My second reaction: “wait, I have reform identified friends who like the “shamor” stuff too. though I can’t imagine they appreciate that attitude either. “


    sarah m · December 15th, 2007 at 11:37 pm
  2. Michael J. FOx and shabbat. Hmmm.


    Kol Ra'ash Gadol · December 15th, 2007 at 11:42 pm
  3. (note– the above comment is actually mine, not sarah m )


    rebecca m · December 15th, 2007 at 11:42 pm
  4. URJ Press and the Women of Reform Judaism (the movement’s sisterhood wing) released a new women’s Torah commentary.

    So is anyone going to compare and contrast this with the Artscroll women’s siddur? :)


    BZ · December 16th, 2007 at 5:38 am
  5. Well, I must say that after recent events, I was prepared to disagree with Rabbi Yoffie’s speech, but upon reading it, I can put my claws away and say yasher koach!

    The emphasis on universal health care gets major props. I understand that the URJ, as a religious organization, can’t endorse specific political candidates, but in 2009, when we have a new president (who will it”h be a Democrat, and all of the major Democratic candidates are proposing some sort of health care plan), I hope the Reform movement (through its lobbying arm, the RAC) follows through and lobbies for the strongest health care legislation possible, and doesn’t let the new president and Congress chicken out.

    As for the Shabbat part, I agree with Rebecca M that the “shamor” elements of Shabbat are essential, even if one understands these as a different list of prohibitions from the 39 melachot listed in the Mishnah. Liberal Jews shouldn’t abdicate “shemirat shabbat” to someone else and retain only “zachor”. But I think Rabbi Yoffie says that too a few paragraphs earlier: “But we are asked to abstain from the work that we do to earn a living, and instead to reflect, to enjoy and to take a stroll through the neighborhood. We are asked to put aside those Blackberries and stop gathering information, just as the ancient Israelites stopped gathering wood. We are asked to stop running around long enough to see what God is doing.”

    Major props also for his courage to trash the Shabbat morning primarily-bar-mitzvah services that are common at many Reform congregations. Highlights: “Bar mitzvah is the occasion, symbolically at least, when a young person joins an adult community of Jews. But you cannot join what does not exist.”

    Rabbi Yoffie proposes “an integrated service—a service in which the child joins the congregation and the congregation does not merely watch the child; a service in which the child’s obligation is not to perform, but to lead the congregation in prayer; a service in which parents are encouraged to reshape their speeches as blessings; a service that remains truly meaningful for the bar mitzvah family without feeling like a private family event.” I would have gone further and taken the focus completely away from the bar mitzvah and made it just something incidental (if at all). But I understand that he has to deal with political realities, and doesn’t have the luxury that we bloggers have of just envisioning whatever we want. (I actually don’t have a problem with private bar mitzvah services existing, as long as I don’t have to go to them, and as long as I have somewhere else to pray. But if the reality continues that bar mitzvahs take place in the main Shabbat morning service at most Reform congregations, then I can see how this “integrated service” is the best solution.)


    BZ · December 16th, 2007 at 6:34 am
  6. Another highlight I forgot to mention: “In fact, our camps, youth groups and Israel trips have created a whole cadre of young people who are open to observing Shabbat as Reform Jews. Our challenge is to make sure that they don’t have to go elsewhere to do it.” Finally someone is paying attention.


    BZ · December 16th, 2007 at 9:07 am
  7. About Rabbi Yoffie’s remarks on Israel….I
    We have alot of cogitive disonance from our leadership….
    1) Rabbi Yoffie is the guy who when the second intifada hit cleaned house in the NFTY in Israel office. Just because of a year or two of hardship staff people with vast intitituional knowledge were let go. Not very forward thinking.
    2) Congregations like Yozma in Moddiin are struggling for cash or a loan to mantain the rights to build on land to build but the theme of buliding Reform intitiutions keeps coming up in speeches but no significant funds are being redirected that creates a real impact on the ground in Israel.
    3) We call for Israel to speak to all its enemies and pursue peace but when Rabbi Yoffie was to meet the former President of Israel he chose personal publicity over the greater good when Rabbi Yoffie refused to meet with because Katsav refused to welcome him as ‘Rabbi” . I would have preferd the story about how Rabbi Yoffie went to the Beit Hannassi and railed to Katzav about pluarality and openness and tld him to open the treasury to allow bulidinf of progressive institutions.


    Simeon Wolf · December 16th, 2007 at 10:06 am
  8. Given the emphasis on universal health care at the 2007 Biennial, maybe it’s no mistake that the 2009 Biennial is in a place where they already have it :-)


    crammed · December 16th, 2007 at 1:34 pm
  9. The more I watch this rabbi, the more certain I am that Rabbi Yoffie is the man. The Conservative Movement is so fucked. They will NEVER be the voice of the Moderate Left as long as Rabbi Yoffie is in charge of the Reform Movement, and they will never recapture their position as the moderate-right. The Modern Orthodox have that wrapped up lock stock and barrel.


    DK · December 16th, 2007 at 4:42 pm
  10. R’ Yoffie is on to something with his call to put down the Blackberries. Growing up, the only Shabbat NO was NO television. That made all the difference in creating a family day. It sounds like he’s testing the waters for a Shabbat Internet ban. Something like: “Turn off. Tune in. Shabbat!”


    Reb Yudel · December 16th, 2007 at 4:50 pm
  11. Simeon Wolf, you wrote,

    “1) Rabbi Yoffie is the guy who when the second intifada hit cleaned house in the NFTY in Israel office. Just because of a year or two of hardship staff people with vast institutional knowledge were let go.”

    Fascinating — tell me more. Who was let go and why exactly?


    DK · December 16th, 2007 at 5:02 pm
  12. DK, I remember him as the rabbi who spoke at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University year before last. I still can’t get the bad taste out of my mouth. Am I wrong?


    cipher · December 16th, 2007 at 5:41 pm
  13. I don’t know about staff being let go. But, the Union (UAHC at the time) did “suspend” a number of Israel trips:

    urj.org/yoffie/archive/tripsuspension/

    I’m not so sure that I can blame them since, in addition to there having been a more immediate safety issue than “normal”, an overwhelming number of participants had pulled out.


    crammed · December 16th, 2007 at 5:46 pm
  14. cipher,

    Rabbi Yoffie will talk with people he profoundly disagrees with. This is not a bad policy. Why not talk to Falwell’s people? He has a lot of them, and they admire the Jewish people in important ways. I think it was a bold and interesting move.

    A lot of poeple on this blog take a hard-line against the Christian right. I believe it is more complicated than that.


    DK · December 16th, 2007 at 7:02 pm
  15. DK, I think I’ve told you – for me, the line of demarcation is salvific exclusivism. They think we’re going to hell. I can’t get over that.

    I’m told Israel needs their political and monetary support. Perhaps it’s true, but, if it is, I hate that it has to be that way.

    I don’t want to have anything to do with them; I certainly don’t want to take money and favors from them. However, I can understand doing it out of necessity. But no Jew has ever said to me, “Yes, they’re crazy, and their beliefs are offensive, but we need them – so don’t make trouble.” Instead, what I hear constantly is, “WE don’t believe it, so what do you care?” About once or twice a year, I’ve said here – I don’t understand this attitude.

    The reason I bring it up is this – it’s one thing to accept their help, reluctantly, out of necessity. It’a another to go to their home turf and to pretend that we’re friends.


    cipher · December 16th, 2007 at 7:26 pm
  16. DK – I will not provide details and I might have overstated R.Yoffies direct involvement …BUT under his leadership we let down people in URJ (UAHC) Israel office just becasue numbers were down for overseas programs in Israel someone chose the expediency of the bottom line instead of beign supportive and understand fully that in Israel evn the worst of times pass.


    Simeon Wolf · December 16th, 2007 at 10:23 pm
  17. I’m not sure I agree that Yoffie’s comments reject the “Shamor” aspect of Shabbat. Rather, I think he’s advocating for a redefinition of what “Shamor” would mean in a liberal context, and frankly I really like it.

    I’ve often thought about Shabbat this way myself, as a self-identified “observant liberal Jew.

    For example, I do spend money on Shabbat for food or restful experiences (eg. a movie, coffee with a friend) but I refuse to “go shopping” out of respect for the idea that Shabbat is a time-out from materialsm. I aspire to turn my computer off on shabbat to refrain from “work,” but feel its important to be able to speak with my family and distant friends who I love (a part of my community) so I use the phone. These choices are just as “shamor” to me as traditional restrictions.


    ahavatcafe · December 16th, 2007 at 11:54 pm
  18. I always feel befuddled when I hear about more this and that for and about Israel. Never been to Israel, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever afford the trip. I was raised Jewish but not Zionist (the upshot was that I could choose to embrace my Jewishness everywhere, even at home). I’d like to hear more about making Jewish life in the place where we live, rather than getting SO involved in Israel’s affairs that we don’t have energy to deal with what’s going on at home.

    I liked Yoffie’s comments about more Shabbat. You wanna be Jewish? You wanna DO Jewish? Start with Shabbat. At home, with your family and friends. Of course. It’s so basic and so spot on. I’d love to see and hear more on this from the Reform movement.


    beth · December 17th, 2007 at 10:47 am
  19. Ahavat cafe– yeah, and that makes sense to me.

    what bugs me is that the impression I got from Yoffie’s statement is that any more traditional interpretation of the shamor stuff is backwards and oppressive, and who in their right mind would choose it?

    No denomination has a monopoly on arrogance.


    rebecca m · December 17th, 2007 at 2:30 pm
  20. This doesn’t make the statement ok, but from a political perspective, it seems to me that that line (as well as the line about how Isaac Mayer Wise was pro-Shabbat) was intended as a shield against the inevitable response of “OMG this means the Reform movement is turning Orthodox!!! What happened to prophetic Judaism?”.


    BZ · December 17th, 2007 at 2:53 pm
  21. Regarding the return to Saturday congregational activity:

    1) I did not realize that Jews went to shul on Saturday until I was in college.
    2) I had my bat mitzvah on a Friday night.
    3) Others in my congregation who had Saturday bar and bat mitzvahs did invite the whole congregation. Saturday life events in reform temples don’t have to be “private.”
    4) I now go to a trad’l egal minyan where the Friday PM and Saturday AM crowds tend not to have much overlap.
    5) It is hard to encourage nonobservant young adults to go to shul on Friday night when they could be at the movies or a party.


    Siviyo · December 17th, 2007 at 3:27 pm
  22. 3) Others in my congregation who had Saturday bar and bat mitzvahs did invite the whole congregation. Saturday life events in reform temples don’t have to be “private.”

    I don’t think he meant “private” mamash. Yes, it’s standard procedure that the whole congregation is “invited”, and anyone who wants can come, but if the service is focused on the bar/bat mitzvah kid from start to finish, then if you don’t know the kid, why would you want to?


    BZ · December 17th, 2007 at 3:50 pm
  23. I was there for it. The sermon took an hour? It had me so engaged that I was hardly aware of its length. It was terrific.

    I have not always been sure Reform was right for me. But attendance at this Biennial, and specifically the message by Rabbi Yoffie–has me feeling more and more at home.

    Now, if only our congregations will follow through…

    Oh, and the new prayerbook (finally it exists!) looks great.


    AviShalom · December 17th, 2007 at 10:10 pm
  24. What is wrong with today’s Jews?
    A perspective of a moderate Muslim.

    When Muslims criticize Jews chances are it’s Islamists. You rarely see moderate (an I do mean real moderate, not Islamists like CAIR who claim to be moderate) Muslims saying unflattering things about the Jews. So, normally, when I see the Jews do dumb things i.e., supporting an Islamist congressional candidate because of partisanship (American Jewish World’s support for Keith Ellison) or providing utilities to a terrorist enclave (Gaza), I try to keep my mouth shut. For obvious reasons. But not this time.

    I thought I’ve seen everything: Cuban missile crisis, fall of Berlin wall, 9/11. Until recently, I thought that the father of modern terrorism getting awarded a Nobel Peace Prize was the most peculiar event in my lifetime. But a recent, largely unnoticed event, could take the cake in peculiarity contest.

    On December 15, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism (one of the largest Jewish organizations in America), gave a sermon in San Diego in front 5,000 Jews in which he announced URJ’s alliance with Islamic Society of North America (ISNA – one of the largest Muslim organizations in America).

    As a part of the sermon, Rabbi Yoffie stated that “[ISNA] has issued a strong and unequivocal condemnation of terror, including a specific condemnation of Hizbollah and Hamas terror against Jews and Israelis. It has also recognized Israel as a Jewish state and supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” But has it really?

    Read more: muslimsagainstsharia.blogspot.com/2008/01/what-is-wrong-with-todays-jews.html


    Muslims Against Sharia · January 31st, 2008 at 5:59 pm
  25. [...] week in Toronto, the Union for Reform Judaism held its biennial convention, and as in past years, URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie delivered a sermon laying out goals and initiatives for the next [...]


    Rabbi Yoffie endorses flexitarianism, the “kashrut establishment” | Jewschool · November 10th, 2009 at 3:03 pm

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik