Daily Alert

18 December 2007

Yoffie Speaks: Dedicated to the 'Something is Better Than Nothing' Crowd

Reform leader embraces Shabbat as antidote to 'microwave culture'

By MICHAL LANDO, JERUSALEM POST CORRESPONDENT
NEW YORK

Dec 17, 2007 22:42 | Updated Dec 17, 2007 23:35



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.



"Don't you agree with me that keeping some of Shabbos is better than not keeping Shabbos?", "Not really", I respond. "Solely for the sake of convenience, keeping merely some of Shabbos is not keeping any of Shabbos".

The gift of Shabbos is not measurable in volume. HaShem's gift of Shabbos to the Jews has to do with His relationship with Israel (the bigger sense of the word). It is HaShem's will for the Jew to recognize Shabbos with Zachor (remember) and Shamor (guard), an immeasurable blessing indeed. What other people have been given such a blessing and accounting from G-d?

To Eric Yoffie, it seems that some of Zachor is okay, but don't bother him with Shamor, whatever feels right. To Yoffie, Shabbos is no blessing or gift but only what he and his colleagues and followers can will for it to be. I suppose it would be a cheap shot to laugh at the idea of Reformists creating on Shabbos, but then again, the idea isn't too far from the truth.

Yoffie believes that Reformist committees can create ritual and observance that will be meaningful. But are they not taking on a task bigger than themselves?
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.

How does one who believes in personal fulfillment and meaning create that fulfillment and meaning for someone else? Isn't the idea of personal fulfillment defined by the eyes the individual? Does the ritual bring with it the meaning or does the meaning determine what the ritual should be? So if candles on Friday night are good, are they not equally good Saturday morning? And if Kabbolas Shabbos is so spiritual why not repeat it the next day?

The "unique Reform approach" as Yoffie defines it will of course be all fun and no work. Phony "spirituality" needs not the work on the self to see the truth. No drawing down energy is necessary for the brave new Jew.

The truth which is known to Shabbos observers and anyone with even a little traditional learning under their belts is that connection with HaShem comes at a cost. It isn't easy and it shouldn't be easy. Preparing for Shabbos, especially during winter's short day time requires good timing and forethought. While it is "spiritual" when one contemplates why they are trying to do so much in so little time "l'kavod Shabbos" on Friday afternoon, the payoff comes after the candles are lit. Lighting candles without the preparation or then spending Shabbos doing inappropriate Shabbos activities doth not a spiritual experience make. It is sort of an act of futility. Candles are but one example.

Now, I am not speaking to those who may be new to Shabbos observance, growing every week, taking on new rituals, learning how to be better Jews, chas v'shalom. Continue on and know that in the shoes of a Ba'al Teshuva a Tzadik cannot stand. These are holy Jews.

But to those who believe that creating "new halachos" in the face of the accepted halachos is a fruitless and pointless exercise. Only HaShem knows what role the mitzvos were intended to accomplish in the spiritual realm and why they were given. Making new mitzvos to meet the needs of the one who wishes to keep them is laughing in the face of HaShem. Mitzvos are the instructions given by HaShem in order for the Jew to meet Him halfway and strengthen the connection of the soul He gave us to His being. The commander gives a command which is fulfilled by someone else, unifying the giver and receiver. This process cannot be dictated by a committee tasked to answer the question, "what is meaningful today?"

Yoffie is not calling for increased Shabbos observance as the article stipulates. He is calling for an increase of Reformist activity on Shabbos in the Reformist halls of assembly. This is to activate membership involvment to pay more money and give him and his rabbi fakes more authority.

Seemingly arguing against my above point is this:
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.


There is no definition of the surveyed ideas above and one must give the benefit of the doubt to those who were surveyed. But an ojective reader must wonder how many of those surveyed answered as they did because 1) they do not go to their jobs on Saturday, 2) play golf on Saturday, thereby making it special, or sleep late and go to Starbucks, (a spiritual event indeed). But presuming that the survey takers were honestly saying they try to observe some of Shabbos somehow, why not just send them on their way somewhere else, like to their LOR to learn what to do to enhance their observance?

I personally find it surreal that the leadership of a major "religious" organization must review surveys of membership to determine what the major "religious" practices should be. Someone please define leadership to me, I must be missing something. Can you imagine an Orthodox Rabbi polling his membership and finding out how few congregants eat in a Sukkah during the festival and base his teaching to his congregants not upon the need to fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in the Sukkah but to justify not doing so. Preposterous.

Yoffie bringing up the issue at all is a form of teshuva I suppose. His "movement" (movement - implying "in motion" constantly - without an anchor) is guilty of neglecting this major and arguably defining practice of Judaism for as long as anyone can remember. Retreating from its regressive position of ignoring Shabbos as good only for those who need it, to emphasizing Shabbos, (but not the Shabbos we understand but a better, more modern, more Reformist version) is not aiding in bringing Jews closer to Torah but moving Jews further away from Torah, for any attempt to replace the holy Shabbos with some fantasy contrived in the conference room is something not holy but wholly unJewish.

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