Monday, December 12, 2011

Tribute to a Reform Rabbi

I don’t know Rabbi Eric Yoffie - the retiring head of the Union for Reform Judaism. But as the head of the flagship institution of his denomination, I can safely say that he and I do not see eye to eye on religious theology.

Reform Judaism as most people know was created by people who rejected the Torah’s requirement to follow Halacha. For over a century this movement did everything it could to assimilate its members with the surrounding culture. It might be an over-simplification to say this but I believe the rationale for their abandonment of Halacha was as follows. Acting in accordance with Halacha was what God chose for His people to do so that they would be ethical. Once those ethics are understood Halacha was no longer required and could be discarded.

The history of the movement is one of not only abandoning Halachic observance but in most cases forbidding it. It may not have started out that way but that is how it eventually evolved. As recently as the early sixties many Reform Temples forbade wearing a Kipa in their sanctuary.

In our day the Reform Movement has done a 180. Well, not exactly a 180. Let’s call it a 160. Instead of rejecting Halacha, the Reform leadership is now embracing it. They are returning to ritual. They too are ‘moving to the right’.

This is not to say that they are becoming Charedi. Nor any other version of Orthodoxy or even Conservative. They still maintain that Halacha is not binding. But they are now pursuing it. Many Reform rabbis now encourage keeping Halacha and see it as fundamental to Judaism. Apparently one of the prime movers behind this change has been Rabbi Yoffie. Here is an excerpt from the Forward:

Within Reform circles he will be remembered as the leader who emphasized Torah study and renewed synagogue worship, who spoke about the Sabbath and kashrut, and who expanded summer camps to embrace a new generation of Reform Jews…

Rabbi Yoffie (emphasized) “Torah at the center” (of) a “worship revolution.”…

Services in too many Reform synagogues had become “performance-oriented, and didn’t speak to people’s spiritual needs,” he said. “I wanted to give expression to the desire to connect with the transcendent.” His emphasis on bolstering Sabbath services, particularly on Friday nights, has been well received.

Less so was Yoffie’s call, announced two years ago, at the last biennial, for a commitment to “ethical eating” — he stopped short of saying that Reform Jews should keep kosher — in which he asked rabbis to formulate new guidelines for their communities. Evidently, that was taking tradition too far.

“It would be accurate to say that it created a lot of interest among a small number of people,” was the best spin he could put on it. Why? “It’s almost definitional — to be a Reform Jew is to put kashrut aside. It has a resonance that is hard to understand. I didn’t take this into account sufficiently.”

There have been other initiatives that were also less than successful. His push for more Reform day schools and his plans to increase Hebrew literacy did not yield much fruit.

Needless to say these innovations do not render them in any way Orthodox. The very fact they say that Judaism does not require Halachic observance – that it is only voluntary - places them completely outside the sphere of Orthodoxy.

Even more than that is their innovation of patrilineal descent as one defining component of who is a Jew. Clearly that contaminates the pool of Jewish genealogy. According to Orthodoxy only matrilineal descent can define that. And a Reform conversion to Judaism has no connection at all to the requirements of Halacha. Furthermore there exists the old guard of Reform that still completely rejects any observance at all as anathematic the principles of the movement… although I think they are losing the battle.

That said it is still an amazing accomplishment to have caused this sea change in how Reform Judaism sees itself today versus how it saw itself when it was created. And it appears that at least one of the prime movers in this direction is Rabbi Yoffie. Under his tutelage the movement as gone from being one that was defined by going OTD to one that can almost be looked at as a Kiruv movement. That should not go unnoticed, in my view.

Although the jury is still out on the future of Reform - and the impact all this will has on secular Jews I think it is safe to say that the Reform movement’s change in direction may have given some impetus to the notion that they are ripe for outreach. Had there not been any innovation like this, I would have predicted their complete demise in very short order – perhaps even in my own lifetime. Judaism devoid of any ritual observance is merely a secular movement for social justice. Rabbi Yoffie saw this. And he worked to change direction – pushing the envelope as far as he could.

So on this on issue my hat is off to him. However, my Kipa stays on.

One final note. That there is tremendous opportunity for outreach now is something I believe we Orthodox Jews need to take full advantage of it. How to do that is above my pay grade. But there is not a scintilla of doubt in my mind about a wasted opportunity that was the result of an Agudah Moetzes ban. Whenever I see a story like this, I am reminded of it. I’ve mentioned it in the past. Many times.

The missed opportunity was in the form of a project a project by Rabbi Yosef Reinman, a Charedi Rav. He collaborated with a Reform Rabbi on a book designed to expose Reform Jews to Orthodoxy. The book - and a book tour with that Reform rabbi were banned after one appearance together. Imagine the inroads he could have made into a population that seeks spirituality in their lives unlike at any other time in their history. By his own admission Rabbi Reinman had begun tapping into the hearts of those Jews. How many Reform Jews were bereft of that influence after the ban? Let us hope that this will not deter others from trying.