Our conventions and theirs

At the recent 68th General Assembly of the Union for Reform Judaism, in Houston, the group's president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, said some important things. He noted that the children of Reform parents have been "told… again and again that Judaism is an all-embracing way of life," and that those youths "expect that their tradition will have something to say" about fundamental moral matters. He also called on all the movement's members to "give our young people love, clear direction and the guidance of our ancestors" and, pointedly, to "show them that we are ready to sacrifice for our Jewish ideals." They were wonderful words to hear, but they stood in disturbingly stark contrast to much of the rest of his speech. Like his admission that "we are not very good at saying no in Reform Judaism," and that "in the realm of personal behavior we are reluctant to ever use the word 'forbidden.'" Similarly discordant with ideas like seeking "the guidance of our ancestors" and a readiness "to sacrifice for Jewish ideals" were things like Rabbi Yoffie's statement that "we do not tell our kids that sex before marriage is forbidden" because, after all, it is "unreasonable to suggest that this traditional standard should be maintained for young people who are adults." Well, which is it to be? Is Judaism an "all-embracing way of life" or are its standards not reasonable to maintain? Should Jews be prepared to "sacrifice for Jewish ideals" or throw in the towel to prevailing social norms? In one fell sermon, Rabbi Yoffie laid bare the inherent inconsistency of his movement. The words are there, the talk about "ancestors" and "tradition" and "sacrifice." Words are important, but when they're empty, they're worthless. ALTHOUGH IT didn't receive much press coverage, another large Jewish gathering took place shortly after the Reform conclave. Agudath Israel of America held its 83rd National Convention, in Stamford, Connecticut. At that four-day gathering Orthodox Jews received direction for their lives from respected rabbinic leaders and discussed a wide range of issues, including the challenge presented by the Internet's invasion of families and homes, worrisome to observant Jews because of the Torah's stress not only on moral actions but on moral thoughts as well. Also addressed was the "tuition crisis" - the economic crunch that is squeezing Jews for whom large families and intensive Jewish educations are non-negotiables. Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, Agudath Israel's executive vice president, pointed out, however, that a great deal was said by that problem itself. While daunting and urgent, he explained, it is a "good problem" born of success, of the powerful growth in both numbers and commitment of the Orthodox community. That observation, too, presented a stark contrast to what was admitted from the podium at the Reform gathering, where Rabbi Yoffie bemoaned the fact that so many who join his movement's temples end up leaving, "usually in three to five years, often right after celebrating a child's bar or bat mitzva." Has it not occurred to him that the reason for that hemorrhaging of members might have something to do with the inadequacy of mere words? That when young people in his movement come to their spiritual leaders seeking "the guidance of our ancestors" they are looking not for platitudes but for true direction? Does it really not occur to him that there is another Jewish approach, the original one, not only faithful to the Jewish past but clearly pointing the way to the Jewish future? THE SPEAKERS at the final session of Agudath Israel's convention were two Jews raised non-observant but Orthodox today. One, a Ph.D., is a best-selling author of books on psychology; the other, a surfer/party animal turned hassid. They - and thousands of "returnees" to Jewish tradition like them - were powerful examples of how, to again borrow Rabbi Yoffie's words, "Judaism is an all-embracing way of life," of what it means for a young Jew to accept the "clear direction and the guidance of our ancestors." They were models of what it truly means to be "ready to sacrifice for our Jewish ideals." The psychologist and surfer-turned-hassid were not there to reassure their listeners but to reproach them for their complacency, for basking in the joy, serenity and spiritual fulfillment of their own lives without sufficient concern for the vast numbers of American Jews who are simply unaware of what traditional Jewish belief and observance mean. Pulling no punches, they insisted that the depth and beauty of intensively Jewish lives - born of the timeless truths of the Torah - are the birthright of every Jew. And that if Orthodox Jews don't endeavor to share their spiritual wealth with their non-observant brothers and sisters they are both abandoning their relatives and shunning their duty as Jews. The audience, visibly moved, even shaken, gave the speakers standing ovations. And at least one person present found himself thinking about Rabbi Yoffie and all the Jews who had heard the Reform president's words, wishing with all his heart that somehow they could be there and see what it really means to take Jewish tradition seriously. The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.