Reform leader seeks return to rituals

Rabbi Eric Yoffie calls for observance of Shabbat and Tisha Be'av, kippas and talit-wearing.

rabbi eric joffie 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
rabbi eric joffie 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Judaism that makes absolutely no demands on us, that does not challenge us is not a religious tradition worthy of the name, said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of North America's Reform Movement in an interview Monday with The Jerusalem Post. "Judaism has expectations and demands, and in return it enriches your life. If it is just convenience, then it is not worth anything." Yoffie, who is in Israel to participate in an international conference entitled "Contemporary Reform Judaism" being held Monday and Tuesday at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, was expanding on a sermon made last week during the biennial Reform Convention in which he called for a return to ritual and Shabbat observance. "I am not asking that synagogue goers refrain from driving on Shabbat," said Yoffie. "Our congregants drive to get to synagogue so they are not going to give up driving. But I will ask them to pray Shabbat evening and Shabbat morning and to refrain from everyday work activities. "But we are not saying return to Jewish practice as Orthodox Jewry understands it. We are more selective of which of the 613 commandments we choose to keep. Many of those commandments reflected the values of the times in which they were made but do not reflect our times. We accept some and reject others. "In some respects we may be like Orthodox or Conservative streams of Judaism in our practice and ritual but in other ways not. "Regarding Shabbat observance, we want to stress the positive aspects of Shabbat - what we should do on Shabbat such as kiddush, prayer, rest, community. And we want to put less emphasis on the negative, what is forbidden to do on Shabbat. "We also want a return to other rituals such as kippa-wearing, talit-wearing, observing Tisha Be'av and learning Torah on the eve of Shavuot. Yoffie said he was not concerned that Reform Jews would be turned off by a campaign to return to a more rigorous observance of ritual. "I think a lot of young people who are social activists with a strong Jewish identity are missing the religious, spiritual dimension provided by ritual. The US is a very religious country and people are searching for meaning in their lives. "I believe the early Reform movement went too far in emphasizing values and principles above ritual. The two - ritual and values - are connected to each other. "For instance, the Passover Seder is a ritual but it also reinforces values such as justice and sympathy for the weak." Yoffie said other trends emphasizing a return to tradition included more use of Hebrew in Reform liturgy and putting Israel at the center of interest. Asked if he had trouble "selling" Israel to Reform Jews in the US due to negative news coverage, Yoffie said he was basically "proud of what I see." "Israeli politicians can be incompetent just as American politicians can be. But Israel's creation was a miraculous, momentous event in itself. Every day that goes by with Israel surrounded by a wall of Arab hatred is a miracle." Yoffie also said anti-Israel feeling among Jewish Americans was an "aspect of the problem" of increasing identification with the Jewish state. But he added that the "heart of the matter" was explaining how Israel fit into the religious vision of the Reform Movement. "Obviously, unlike Orthodox religious Zionism, Eretz Yisrael HaShleima [Greater Israel] is not a part of the Reform Movement's principles. Our religious values are not related to territories. Rather, Israel is central to the vision of building a holy community founded on justice and equality. "I want to be able to express to a 13-year-old the importance of Israel for the Jewish people. The best way to do that is to bring Jews here to visit, to experience for themselves, to make Israel real for them."