Unconventional wisdom

Unconventional wisdom

In eight years I have written over 400 of these columns, and among the American-Jewish leaders I have mentioned most is Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who will retire this week after almost 16 years as president of the Union for Reform Judaism. (See Related Article.)

That is in part because he lives in New Jersey — Westfield, to be exact — and we have a soft spot for a landsman. I may also have been drawn to Yoffie’s words and deeds due to my own Reform upbringing. Although I haven’t belonged to a Reform synagogue since my teens, my Jewish journey remains a wrestling match between autonomy and authority, between liberal ideas and conservative (and Conservative) ritual. Put it this way: I keep kosher and observe the Sabbath, although I am convinced I shouldn’t.

What I’ve always liked best about Yoffie is his ability to challenge people — allies and foes alike — on their own turf. I once called him American Jewry’s Daniel, boldly strolling into lions’ dens as diverse as Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America. He stood up to Israel’s since-fallen president, Moshe Katzav, who couldn’t bring himself to call the leader of America’s largest Jewish denomination “rabbi.” And he challenged his own rabbis and lay people to define themselves by the things they do, not just by the things they don’t do.

Like any good public religious figure, Yoffie was at his best when he made his audiences feel uncomfortable. In his Liberty University speech he warned its evangelical students that “government coercion generates resentment, not godliness.” He reached out a hand in friendship but without relinquishing the principles that put the liberal Reform movement at loggerheads with conservative Christians.

In his speech to the Islamic society, Yoffie was forthright and pointed when he warned that “surely no religious cause can ever justify murdering the innocent or targeting the uninvolved.” He managed to acknowledge “dignity for the Palestinians” while reminding his audience that “Muslims will need to accept the reality of Israeli vulnerability, including the vulnerability of that tiny nation’s ever-threatened borders.”

Within his movement, Yoffie led a new consideration of the role of ritual, including traditions long de-emphasized or abandoned by Reform Jews. You see his influence in the increasing number of yarmulkes and tallitot spotted in Reform synagogues, and the number of articles in Reform Judaism magazine celebrating rituals like shiva and mikva.

Sometimes Yoffie tried to lead his followers to places to which they refused to go — a sign of a brave leader. In a 1999 address he urged synagogues to undertake programs of adult Hebrew literacy, challenging those who felt that the increased use of Hebrew in prayer was contrary to Reform principles. While new Reform prayer books include more Hebrew, the laity largely resisted his call for study.

Ten years later, he asked the movement to consider what it means to “eat Jewishly.” He didn’t call for a return to kashrut — at least as defined by Halacha and enforced by certification agencies. But he did speak of the need for “our own definition of what is proper and fit to eat…. Let’s find a way to eat that is right for the farm workers, right for the planet, right for our bodies, and right for our souls.”

For many Reform Jews, this sounded uncomfortably like keeping kosher, and Yoffie said subsequently that he hadn’t fully taken into account how “definitional” its rejection is to so many within his denomination.

I didn’t always agree with Yoffie, and more often than not I was moved to write about him when I disagreed. But he was always worth talking about because he was willing to mix things up. His speeches to the URJ biennial were events, because you never knew whose ox he’d gore. He was an antidote to Jewish complacency.

Yoffie’s successor, Rabbi Richard Jacobs, inherits his unfinished business. Reform is America’s largest Jewish denomination, but its future is uncertain. While interfaith families have found a welcoming home in its synagogues, it is not at all certain that their grandchildren will identify as active Jews. Demographers and planners have placed their bets on “maximalist” Judaism — that is, Judaism will best be transmitted by those who make the most pro-active ritual, worship, educational, and lifestyle choices.

For folks to the right of Yoffie and his movement, it is tempting to praise him for bringing his movement more in line with theirs. But that was never Yoffie’s goal. He wasn’t urging his movement to submit to the “authority” of Jewish tradition, but rather to embrace the responsibility of their own decision-making. “Let this Movement do what it has always done: welcome diversity, encourage community, and join ancient tradition with cutting-edge culture,” he said in that same “eat Jewishly” address. “Let us create Torah, embrace Torah, and search out the unfolding word of God, wherever it may be found.”

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