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November 29, 2014 / 7 Kislev, 5775
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An Eis La’asos – The Time is Ripe

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, the former president of the Union of Reform Judaism, has argued that the reform movement should look to Orthodox Judaism for guidance. Harry Maryles argues that this provides an important kiruv opportunity.

An orthodox Jewish man argues with a reform Jewish woman wearing a prayer shawl at the Kotel.

An orthodox Jewish man argues with a reform Jewish woman wearing a prayer shawl at the Kotel.
Photo Credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90

I certainly have my issues with the Reform Movement. These issues are very serious and in many ways insurmountable. For an Orthodox Jew the idea that Mitzvos are optional is anathema. No matter how strongly one supports doing them – doing them is not an option as Reform Judaism sees them. They are an obligation. This is a major theological difference between us.

This very point is behind the prohibition issued by the great religious figures of the past – including the “Rav”- R’ Joseph B. Soloveitchik. We cannot be seen to in any way endorse such views by participating with them in theological matters. That is because it might be seen as some sort of Elu V’Elu endorsement of their views.

That said, I believe that Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, the former president of the Union of Reform Judaism (1996 – 2012) and I are kindred spirits. He has written an amazing op-ed in Ha’aretz that – with one or two exceptions – I could have written myself. In fact, I think any Orthodox rabbi could have written it.

If there was ever a time to engage with the Reform movement this is it. I believe we can do so in meaningful ways and still live up to the spirit of the prohibition to engage with them in theological matters.

Here is the thing. Thinkers like Rabbi Yoffie realize what Orthodoxy has realized from the very beginning: A Judaism devoid of Mitzvos is no Judaism at all. To achieve this, Rabbi Yaffie clearly looks to Orthodoxy for guidance. Based on past articles written by him, this doesn’t surprise me at all.

Rabbi Yoffie has now become the biggest advocate of Kiruv and Jewish education. Kiruv and education of his own Reform constituents! And he turns to us as the model for that. His ideas of how to preserve Judaism for the future are exactly the same as ours. From that op-ed:

Reform Jews have much to learn from the Orthodox when it comes to ritual mitzvoth…

Let’s educate, educate, educate—in ways that work. We know what works with our kids: Jewish camps and day schools, Jewish pre-schools and youth groups, and of course Israel trips. Let’s focus on the basics and avoid the trendy. The “Hebrew Charter School movement,” which teaches Hebrew language but not Judaism to Jews and non-Jews in schools that get some public funding, is the latest example of pouring millions of Jewish charitable dollars into an educational gimmick that will have zero impact on the Jewish future… Let’s move out of our cocoons and learn from Jewish approaches other than our own.

He even has some ideas about how to fund education. Ideas that I have myself suggested:

Let’s rethink our Jewish world. Our Jewish structures are tired; let’s redo them. And let’s begin with some big ideas from Abraham Foxman of the ADL. Foxman has proposed that we redirect much of the communal purse now raised here for Israel and, in partnership with Israel, send the money back to America for Jewish education. Assume we are talking of $500 million per year; that money means little to Israel but would matter a lot here. Everyone would be a winner: Imagine a joint Israeli-American Jewish campaign to strengthen Diaspora Judaism. Imagine a dramatic rise in scholarships for Jewish camps, youth groups, and day schools.

He also says that Orthodoxy could learn something from Reform Judaism in the sense of Tikun HaOlam. He may have a point. Just because ritual Mitzvos are indispensible to Judaism does not mean we ignore our Tikun HaOlam requirement. All too often we are so self centered that we forget that there are things in the world that need Tikun that do not directly affect us.

He closes with the following comment:

[L]et’s encourage rabbis of all streams to invite a rabbi from a different religious movement to lecture at their congregation and share thoughts that they will not like and may not know. Our community will be stronger for it.

This is where we may have differences of opinion. Because of the prohibition of participating with Reform rabbis on the same stage in matters theological, it would be impossible to invite a Reform rabbi to address a gathering of Orthodox Jews. While we lovingly accept every Reform Jew as full brothers, we do not accept their theology and cannot therefore even be seen as accepting it. That may seem unfair, but sometimes sticking to principles leaves us no choice.

But when it comes to Orthodox Rabbis addressing Reform Jews – even in their own Temples, I do not see a problem. Assuming they do not resent us for not allowing them into our Shuls to address us – and they are serious about learning how to practice Judaism from us – there is a lot of work to do. Getting Reform Jewry to become observant is an impossibly difficult task. There are tremendous obstacles. Not the least of which is the issue of how they define who is a Jew.

In my view these great difficulties do not free us from trying. If Rabbi Yoffie’s views are the predominant ones in Reform Jewry, if this is the direction they are going in we ought to be in the thick of things there.

If there ever was an Eis La’asos, this is it. We are in unprecedented times. Reform has never been more open to Kiruv than now. What greater Hora’as Shah can there be than to begin a joint effort of Kiruv with the help of the Reform rabbinate themselves – at least with those who think the way Rabbi Yoffie does.

Reform Jewry is riper than ever for this kind of Kiruv. They are inviting us in. Although I do agree that the devil is in the details – let us see put our collective minds together and see how we can honor our commitment to our principles as outlined by the great rabbinic leaders of the past and yet not miss this great opportunity.

Visit the Emes Ve-Emunah blog.

About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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One Response to “An Eis La’asos – The Time is Ripe”

  1. The opening staement is inaccurate, I do not suggest that we can or even should lift the ban on engagement with Reform on theological matters nshould be lifted. What I advocated is studying ways to reach out to them in this new climate without violating the ban. For example – accepting invitations to address them on observance. I do not in any way seek to have a theological dialogue with them.

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