Religion

Rabbi Eric Yoffie is retiring


Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism will retire in two years.
Jonathan Sarna has a nearly glowing review of Yoffie’s tenure at The Forward. The final point of Sarna’s piece is:

In confronting these challenges, will the URJ look to a leader who champions, as Yoffie consistently has, Torah, prayer and the practice of mitzvot? Or will it, in keeping with American Jewry’s larger outward turn, select a leader who will take the movement in a new direction, perhaps seeking to expand Reform Judaism’s involvement in projects of tikkun olam? Whatever happens, the Yoffie era will go down as an important period in the history of the Reform movement. At a “critical juncture in Jewish history,” he made Reform Judaism more Jewish.

Lets ignore the final sentence of this and move on from my aneurysm. I do have some appreciation for what Yoffie has done. Despite Sarna’s point about him growing NFTY (I’m not prepared to give him credit for that anyway), he’s also been openly dismissive of NFTY presidents and overseen the total demolition of the URJ’s college programming and said stuffy nonsense like (I’m paraphrasing here) if you don’t wear a suit to a Reform congregations, you’re a putz.
So I don’t think too highly of him.
But at this point we’ve got a great opportunity to talk about what the right replacement for Yoffie will be like. Sarna’s article explores two possibilities: someone like Yoffie or “a leader who will take the movement in a new direction, perhaps seeking to expand Reform Judaism’s involvement in projects of tikkun olam.
The new president needs to be able to do two things, neither of which involve being an ideological dogmatician.
Leave tradition and social action to a team of experts and let the new president be the face of a more well-written message. So the first thing the URJ needs is a charismatic salesperson who can tell American Jews why Reform Judaism is good because the URJ has a message/marketing problem.
Meanwhile, the administrative, structural and technological functions of the URJ have to come to forefront of the job of the president of the URJ. The URJ is teaching congregations how to blog, it’s tweeting, it has its own (dysfunctional) blog and it needs someone who understands these things and knows how to grow the URJ with these tools. It needs someone who can be like @daroff with his or her own heavy twitter presence. Last year, the URJ underwent a major restructuring effort. The next president of the URJ has to be an administrator to continue reconsidering the bloated infrastructure of the URJ.
Thoughts?

29 thoughts on “Rabbi Eric Yoffie is retiring

  1. As someone who has left the Reform movement for an “open orthodox” shul, I can say that I only learned his name from those letters he would send out in the 90s about making Shabbat more meaningful. Needless to say, I figured out what works for me Mr. Yoffie: actually keeping shabbos according to the customs of my ancestors, not according to the customs of Scarsdale.

  2. Well, I certainly won’t go as far as you, bp, but I will say this. For Yoffie, getting more Reform Jews to do Shabbatastic things meant gimicky shit like the Shabbat deck of cards giveaway. As far as I know, it never meant a URJ-wide text study initiative.

  3. In confronting these challenges, will the URJ look to a leader who champions, as Yoffie consistently has, Torah, prayer and the practice of mitzvot? Or will it, in keeping with American Jewry’s larger outward turn, select a leader who will take the movement in a new direction, perhaps seeking to expand Reform Judaism’s involvement in projects of tikkun olam?
    If people still think that (from a Reform perspective) tikkun olam is something distinct from “the practice of mitzvot”, then clearly Rabbi Yoffie’s successor has his/her work cut out for him/her.
    Lets ignore the final sentence of this and move on from my aneurysm.
    Eek! I second your aneurysm.

  4. bp writes:
    actually keeping shabbos according to the customs of my ancestors, not according to the customs of Scarsdale.
    What if your ancestors came from Scarsdale?

  5. That’s great bp. The Open Orthodox movement is probably the most promising Liberal Judaism i’ve seen so far, assuming it can survive it’s eventual excommunication from an increasingly machmir and isolationist Charedi Judaism.
    Everybody knows what the Reform movement needs, and it’s some freakin education. “I don’t do X, because I’m Reform.” Yes, but why? Do you have a halachic reasoning? A secular philosophical reasoning? Or is it just, “X is inconvenient for me, and I don’t feel any pressure to do it, because X is not something anyone in my community really does.” The third answer is at least honest, if troubling, but it’s a lot better than “because I’m Reform” which makes anyone within the Reform movement who does X feel excluded, and encourages people in the movement not to think very hard about their Jewish practices.

  6. bp & Shmuel — nice points.
    @bp — eloquently stated: “I figured out what works for me…actually keeping shabbos according to the customs of my ancestors…” Amen. Sometimes the best answers are the simplest ones.
    @Shmuel — This is a genuine question: How would one, theoretically, justify decisions like not keeping Shabbos or Kashrus based on halachic reasoning? I have a cursory knowledge of the philosophical/theological/societal impetuses and rationales of the reform movement, but do not understand how one could argue for reform practices from a halachic perspective.
    I ask this because I’ve had this conversation with people who argue that reform observance is just as valid halachically as being shomer mitzvos. And I’ve ended up in somewhat circular arguments. So I’m curious about other people’s perspectives, without wading into the morass of value judgments about whose observance is more authentic/etc.

    1. reluctant Jewschool fan writes:
      How would one, theoretically, justify decisions like not keeping Shabbos or Kashrus based on halachic reasoning? I have a cursory knowledge of the philosophical/theological/societal impetuses and rationales of the reform movement, but do not understand how one could argue for reform practices from a halachic perspective.
      Clearly very cursory, or you would know that the Reform movement has never advocated for anything that it called “not keeping Shabbos”.
      I ask this because I’ve had this conversation with people who argue that reform observance is just as valid halachically as being shomer mitzvos. And I’ve ended up in somewhat circular arguments.
      Of course your arguments are going to be circular (at best) if you start from the premise that “being shomer mitzvos” is definitionally something other than “Reform observance”. And of course Reform observance can’t be justified halachically if that’s the view of halachah you’re starting with.

  7. Everybody knows what the Reform movement needs, and it’s some freakin education
    Is this the consensus in Reform circles? What if people don’t want to learn? Isn’t that why they’re Reform, so they don’t have to do all that stuff? I’m not Reform, just wondering.

    1. Anonymouse writes:
      Is this the consensus in Reform circles? What if people don’t want to learn? Isn’t that why they’re Reform, so they don’t have to do all that stuff? I’m not Reform, just wondering.
      There is a difference between Reform Judaism as a religious ideology and that which is practiced by most people who identify or affiliate as “Reform”, many of whom are ignorant of Reform ideology (and likewise for Conservative Judaism).

  8. Shouldn’t bridging that difference be a priority for the next Reform leader, instead of trying to sell people?
    So the first thing the URJ needs is a charismatic salesperson who can tell American Jews why Reform Judaism is good because the URJ has a message/marketing problem.
    That’s like saying that Israel’s Gaza policy is a message/marketing problem.
    But I’m on the outside, looking in.

  9. BZ — Why are you so condescending? “Clearly very cursory…” Seriously. What what grade are you in? It comes off as very insecure and immature. Make your point instead of all of the posturing and innuendo.
    I’m asking for information in an open and honest manner and engaging in open dialog and all you seem interested in is trying to prove how sophisticated and advanced your reasoning is. Kudos, we’re all very impressed BZ.
    Now maybe you could try to answer my incredibly ignorant question regarding reform Shabbos and Kashrus practices?

    1. RJF writes:
      I’m asking for information in an open and honest manner and engaging in open dialog
      Can you see how the tone of your question, whether or not this was your intent, might come across as something other than “asking for information in an open and honest manner”? It’s like asking Sephardi Jews who eat kitniyot “How would one, theoretically, justify decisions like not keeping Pesach based on halachic reasoning?”. Would you like to restate your question?

  10. I love people who repeatedly use the phrase “of course.” I mean, it’s so OBVIOUS, how could someone NOT get it, of course you’re wrong and I’m right. Of course.

  11. At least when I was part of the movement, the Reform movement did not claim to be following halachah. The movement as I understood it believed in extracting the timeless, ethical principles of Judaism (or what they called “ethical monotheism”) and practicing those (along with some basic ritual). Jewish texts and law were used as a source of information, but not as a binding theology. Reform Jews that I knew might observe Shabbat in certain traditional or eclectic ways because Shabbat was a central Jewish principle, but not because of halakhah as it is traditionally understood.

  12. Yeilah — Thanks for your thoughtful response. That echoes what I’ve heard as well.
    I’m wondering whether hallacha is binding law for reform Jews?
    And if it is then, how are certain practices (i.e. making fire on Shabbat or eating prohibited foods) justified?
    If it’s not, then what is the deciding factor wrt to keeping certain mitzvot?
    (And no, I’m not looking for the response that even “orthodox” Jews pick and choose which mitzvos to keep. That doesn’t answer my question.)

    1. I’m wondering whether hallacha is binding law for reform Jews?
      Yes. However, halachah is not seen by Reform Judaism as a monolithic and static list of laws (and I know the other denominations don’t see it that way either, but this is a popular (mis)understanding of halachah), but as an ongoing discourse that evolves over time, with multiple positions in each era. Furthermore, each individual has both the authority and the responsibility to study halachah and interpret it for him/herself to determine precisely what is binding. Some thoughts on Reform halachah are here, here, and here.
      If it’s not, then what is the deciding factor wrt to keeping certain mitzvot?
      (And no, I’m not looking for the response that even “orthodox” Jews pick and choose which mitzvos to keep.

      The proper analogy here isn’t that some Orthodox-identified Jews pick and choose among the mitzvot that Orthodox Judaism believes are obligatory, but that Orthodox Jews (all of them, as far as I know) don’t observe the mitzvah of the pesach sacrifice. They wouldn’t say that they’re “picking and choosing” mitzvot, or that their non-observance of this mitzvah means that halachah is not binding; they would say that this mitzvah doesn’t apply in the present time (when there is no Temple). Similarly, some Reform Jews would say that the Torah’s dietary laws don’t apply in the present time (though I don’t happen to share this position).
      So the answer is that all mitzvot that apply in the present time should be observed (though the specifics of observing these mitzvot evolve over time, and in any given time, there are different positions on those specifics).

  13. BZ — no, I’m not as sophisticated as you and my Jewish knowledge and education are not at a level at which I can formulate questions in a manner that is acceptable to you.
    So keep it moving bro, you’re not interested in dialog, you just want to push your agenda and show off you your friends. Pretty cool dude.

  14. Wow. Thanks, now THAT is an informative answer that explains the position. I will check out the links. Thank you.

  15. To be clear, my criticism was not toward any particularly Reform practices, only that I have found that it is common among Reform laypersons that they have little knowledge of why certain things are done or not done. For example, there are historical and philosophical reasons why a Reform Jew may keep Pesach 7 instead of 8 days. That is fine with me. What’s not fine with me, is a Reform Jew doing that, and then not understanding why, and simply saying it’s “because I’m Reform.” That makes for an incredibly weak liberal Judaism.

  16. I’m wondering whether hallacha is binding law for reform Jews?
    That depends on your definition of “binding” and “law”.
    I would argue that halacha is neither binding, nor law, for any Jews.
    But that would depend on my definition of “halacha”.

  17. You’re the one who focused the conversation on his replacement and future planning, which is the right conversation, instead of track talking or praising a man on his way out. I’m sure his generous severance package and lifetime achievement award are assured. And maybe he deserves them. Let’s move on.

  18. David As much as Rabbi Yoffie annoys me at times I’m sad to see him go. I can’t think of any viable replacements off the top of my head. I really like the idea of Rabbi Elliot Kleinman becoming the next union prez but, I’m biased after all he was my Rabbi at one point in time. I’m worried I don’t want to see one of the most formative institutions I’ve been a part of deteriorate more then it already has. We need an innovator most likely someone young but the likelihood of that is slim since the union is a bureaucracy.

  19. I’ve always thought it a little weird that the URJ (and USCJ), as the lay people’s branch of the movement, has a rabbi at its head.

  20. Yeah, I’ve often wondered about that. The question is perhaps a little mis-worded. The URJ is the synagogue branch of the movement, not the lay branch.
    So the question is whether the URJ should reflect the non-clergy leadership of synagogues, presidents and executive directors, or whether it should reflect the rabbis. I think it would make more sense for the URJ to have an executive director.
    It would be great for the CCAR to generate the ideology and theology and the ritual and have that be the bastion of the rabbis. In this model, the URJ would be a purely administrative body, seeing to the logistical needs of synagogues.
    Instead, the URJ essentially IS the Reform movement and the CCAR is a professional development organization.

  21. So I don’t think too highly of him.
    Isn’t that a little bit of an overreaction, David?
    I respect Rabbi Yoffie a lot. He’s a great rabbi, a leader larger than his specific movement. I find myself curious about his opinion on a variety of issues, and I am hardly Reform.
    Anyway, shouldn’t you Reform machers be a little more proud of him?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.