Reform leader embraces Shabbat as antidote to 'microwave culture'

"Our research indicates we have more closet Shabbat observers than we realize," he says.

Yoffie 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yoffie 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The head of the Reform Movement called on Saturday for a renewal of Shabbat observance, the latest in the movement's growing embrace of traditions once staunchly opposed. In his Shabbat morning sermon, at the union's Biennial Convention in San Diego, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, addressed the 6,000 worshippers in what has come to be seen as a "State of the Union" speech for the movement. His call for increased Shabbat observance comes almost 150 years after the founder of the American branch of the Reform Movement transformed American Jewry by moving the major Shabbat service to Friday night to accommodate Jews who had to work on Saturday. Yoffie said the movement was seeing a new openness to observing a weekly day of rest. "Reform Jews are considering Shabbat because they need Shabbat," he said. "In our 24/7 culture, the boundary between work time and leisure time has been swept away, and the results are devastating. Do we really want to live in a world where we make love in half the time and cook every meal in the microwave?" Though he acknowledged that most Reform Jews are not yet ready to embrace a Shabbat that is separate and distinct from the rest of the week, "our research indicates that we have more closet Shabbat observers than we realize," Yoffie said. A recent survey by the Research Network of Tallahassee, Florida, of more than 12,000 Reform Jews showed that 46 percent refrain from money-earning work on Shabbat and 39 percent try to make Shabbat a special day. Yoffie's call for increased Shabbat observance reflects a growing embrace of traditions once rejected by the movement. At the same time, Yoffie said the Shabbat observance he envisions "will not mean some kind of neo-frumkeit," or "an endless list of Shabbat prohibitions." It will reflect instead, a unique Reform approach. "It will mean... approaching Shabbat with the creativity that has always distinguished Reform Judaism," said Yoffie. "It will mean emphasizing the 'Thou shalts' of Shabbat candles and Kiddush, rest and study, prayer and community - rather than the 'Thou shalt nots.'" In challenging congregations to move forward with these initiatives, Yoffie suggested two approaches: The appointment of a Shabbat Morning Task Force to study and recommend how Shabbat morning worship might be reimagined, and the formation of a second group, a Shabbat Chavura, that will come together for three to four months to create a Shabbat observance in an authentically Reform way. Other issues addressed included the need to build an "unconditional, non-negotiable" connection to Israel, Jewish-Muslim dialogue and the need for universal health care. Yoffie, who was the first major Jewish leader to address a major Muslim group when he spoke to the convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) over the Labor Day weekend, announced a new partnership between the union and ISNA and urged all Reform Jews to become knowledgeable about Islam. Synagogues and mosques in 11 communities have already agreed to pilot a dialogue program developed jointly with ISNA, and more partnerships are being formed. Further, Yoffie urged every congregation to begin an adult study program about Islam using a new Reform curriculum.