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Jewish Journal

Toward Tradition

June 3, 1999 | 8:00 pm

The way Rabbi Eric Yoffie figures it, that new "statement of principles" adopted by the Reform rabbinate last week in Pittsburgh, calling for a return to tradition, isn't going to make his job any easier.

Not that Yoffie is against urging Reform Jews to study Torah and bring ritual into their lives. He's been advocating that for decades, ever since he became a prominent Reform leader in the 1980s. It's been one of his main themes since becoming president of the movement's congregational union and de facto head of Reform Judaism in 1996.

Adopting a formal platform is another story, though. Yoffie says it's divisive. The platform's early drafts stirred widespread anger -- a "firestorm of criticism," Yoffie calls it -- among Reform congregants. Many griped that Reform Judaism was backsliding into Orthodoxy. Nobody needed that.

The final draft was toned way down, but opponents are still miffed. That leaves Yoffie with the job of calming the furor the rabbis have stirred up. "It has become kind of a rallying point for those people who have become uncertain and upset about some of these developments," he says. "I suspect it will be the basis for some people to organize. We're going to have to make it clear that the movement remains open to their concerns."

In practice, that could mean putting the brakes on the return to tradition, at least until things calm down. That's just the opposite of what the rabbis had in mind. "My view was, the best way to do it is to do it," Yoffie says. "Perform the acts and build the theology around it. The rabbinate took a different approach."

The Reform rabbinical conference began drafting the controversial statement two years ago. Early drafts depicted Reform Jews living in a culture of Torah, tempered by modernity. They explicitly called for observance of laws such as kashrut and even ritual bath.

Reform Judaism had officially repudiated those laws in the 19th century as "entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state," in the words of the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform of Reform Judaism. A sizable minority of today's Reform movement -- Yoffie estimates 20 percent to 25 percent -- still follows elements of so-called "classical Reform" ideology.

Opposition to the statement of principles wasn't only from classicists, though. Many congregants simply didn't like being told what to do. Their protests had an effect. The final version still calls for observance of mitzvot, but it doesn't mention any specific ones. Modernity ends up partners with Torah, not an afterthought.

Even so, what's remarkable is how much support traditionalism finally garnered. After all the hubbub, the document was ratified by 324 to 68. "I was taken aback by the 80-percent approval," Yoffie says.

What it shows is that the new principles, far from pushing the envelope, merely reflected the current mood in Reform Judaism. "They pretty much got it right," Yoffie says. "What they showed is a movement that is in fact more traditional by any standard you want to use."

In effect, the debate laid bare a quiet metamorphosis in Reform Judaism over the last generation, bringing it nearly 180 degrees from its anti-ritualist roots. "In any Reform synagogue in the country, you're going to find greater openness to ritual, more Hebrew, more kippot and tallitot," Yoffie says.

There are many reasons for the shift, but the most important is the impact of the 1960s. Today's Reform leaders grew up at a time when ethnicity was coming into vogue, lending legitimacy to things such as kippot and speaking Hebrew. Many had a visceral attachment to Israel, forged by the 1967 Six-Day War and, frequently, by a stint as a kibbutz volunteer.

No less significant, Reform Jews -- rabbis and congregants alike -- shared the spiritual hunger of post-1960s, post-technological America. "The baby boom generation was a group of folks asking questions about community and larger meaning," Yoffie says. "People want to know how to find and build community. How to raise their children with values. There's a search for meaning and a belief that Judaism holds answers."

Yoffie, 51, is as good an example as any. Raised in the Reform movement, ordained in New York in 1974, he's Sabbath- and kashrut- observant and usually keeps his head covered. Both of his children attended Conservative day schools.

That's not his public image. He spent his professional career fighting Reform's political battles, first butting heads with Israeli Orthodoxy as director of the Reform Zionist organization, then heading the militantly liberal Commission on Social Action. When he ran for union president in 1995, against a fellow traditionalist who happened to be a pulpit rabbi, one newspaper described Yoffie's victory as a choice of "abortions over God."

The truth is, Yoffie and his generation of Reform rabbis have created their own identity, combining militant political liberalism with religious traditionalism. In the early 1970s, students at Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical seminary, went on strike to demand kosher food on the Cincinnati campus. At the 1990 rabbinic graduation at the college's New York campus, all of the students -- and almost none of the faculty -- wore head-coverings.

Another force changing Reform is the steady flow of Conservative congregants switching shuls. Many switch because of strict Conservative standards -- barring bar mitzvah for children with non-Jewish mothers, for example. Others switch after marrying or changing neighborhoods. Whatever the reason, these Conservative refugees become an internal lobby within Reform congregations for the traditional culture they're used to: skullcaps, prayer shawls, more Hebrew, more traditional liturgy.

Yoffie estimates that half the current members of Reform synagogues grew up somewhere else, including Conservative, Orthodox and non-Jewish homes. "I often tell our lay leaders that if you want to open your doors to former Conservative Jews, you can't welcome them and not be open to their concerns," Yoffie says.

All these forces add up to a powerful historical process, driving the biggest and most liberal wing of American Judaism steadily toward the center. "It's about Jewish renewal, Jewish continuity, Jewish renaissance -- all the buzzwords refer to the same thing," says Yoffie. "It means that people are searching for meaning."

Will Reform's new traditionalist principles soften the hostility of Orthodox leaders? Yoffie sees "no reason for optimism. But for everybody else, and that's 90 percent of the community, the fact that we're adopting more tradition creates bridges to more segments of the community. Is it good for the Jewish community? It is."

Whether it helps him in his job is another matter.


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

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