Thursday, September 08, 2005

This Rabbi Needs to Reform

It's understandable that as the head of the Jewish organization with by far the largest number of certified 100% non-Jews as members - and the number is growing rapidly - Rabbi Eric Yoffie is often confused about our religion. Besides, to borrow from an old Yiddish saying, his Reform clergy have too many weddings to dance at. One night it's two fellows tying the knot; the next night it's two gals. On night three, a 50% patrilineal Jew may be wed to someone born fully Jewish while on subsequent nights there are half Jews marrying other half Jews or quarter Jews or there may be some other arithmetic arrangement. Every so often, there are nuptials for two glatt kosher Jews.

Even someone as brilliant as Yoffie must feel the strain, if only because Reform services frequently include the participation of clergy of other faiths. To do the job properly, it's necessary to know the ceremonial rules of Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Evangelicals, Presbyterians and other groups. On occasion, there are Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Bahai and Islamic ceremonies. How are these rabbis to keep up with all of this ecumenicism? It helps, I suppose, that they need not fret much about what Jewish religious law requires.

It's fair to ask, why am I beating up on Rabbi Yoffie? Does it matter much that Yoffie exaggerates the number of Reform Jews? Most of us know the truth and down the road, the rest of us will find out. What has upset me is an article that he wrote for the Forward prior to the Gaza withdrawal using the ruling of several Israeli rabbis that religious soldiers could not participate in removing the Jewish Gazans as a springboard for a sharp attack against religion in Israel. Yoffie could not wait to see what actually transpired, as religious military personnel showed their loyalty to the state.

In fact, his criticism of several rabbis might be acceptable had he been capable of moral equivalency. Yoffie asks, "why should religious soldiers refuse to carry out orders, Israelis ask, when for years those on the left have served in the territories, manned roadblocks and protected settlers - despite their opposition to the occupation?" Let’s put aside the inconvenient fact that, as we all now know, few religious soldiers refused to carry out the orders they were given. We might also suppress our qualms about his describing the Israeli activity in the territories as "the occupation," a term that puts him in sync with Israel's enemies. What is most irksome is his blind spot in not acknowledging that more than 1,000 leftist soldiers declared that they would not serve in Lebanon or Gaza. Dozens were court-martialed. I am certain that Yoffie wrote no article condemning these Israelis or those who inspired their disobedience.

We are supposed to forget this and also to forget Yoffie's nifty act several years ago when he instructed members of NIFTY, the Reform movement's youth organization, to stay away from Israel when the second intifada broke out. While other Jewish organizations cancelled trips, my recollection is that Yoffie was alone in urging members of his movement not to go. Now Yoffie is lecturing about appropriate behavior in Israel!

In fairness, he is not across the board hostile to religion. It's just Judaism that is irksome to him. Shortly after the Forward attack, he spoke to the Evangelical Lutheran Church at its annual assembly, apparently the first non-Christian to be so honored. After claiming that "the work that we [Reform] engage in is similar in many respects to the work that you engage in" - quite an exaggeration because Evangelical Lutherans are very "frum" - he asked "our many friends in the Christian world" not to "demonize or isolate Israel." In violation of church rules, Yoffie received a standing ovation and then the spiritual descendants of Martin Luther adopted a watered down resolution against Israel. We must be thankful for small blessings.

Religious Jews have not been treated as kindly, although we may derive comfort because Yoffie did not post his calumnies against them on the front door of Temple Emanuel. But he did write "the hesder yeshivot need to be disbanded," without as much as a phrase or nuance showing empathy for Hesder students and alumni, many from families that made aliya and all of whom have served in the military. Hesder has suffered substantial casualties. Rabbi Yoffie could not find a single kind word to say.

Religious schools are another of his targets, their problem being that they do not teach democratic values and therefore contribute to divisiveness and worse. The good rabbi is out of his depth. Israel's school system is a mess and a disgrace, as is evident from a succession of governmentally-sponsored commissions that have examined how to improve a system that is not working for too many Israeli children.

Especially among Sephardim who are not Orthodox, there are many parents who send their children to religious elementary schools to avoid the dysfunctional atmosphere in state schools. In June, I visited a state school in Jerusalem and I was shocked by what I saw. The Reform leader's suggestion for reform would result in a certain kind of equality in which good religious schools would be deprived of their independence and forced to sink to the much lower educational level that prevails in many state schools.

Does Rabbi Yoffie believe that destroying Hesder and weakening religious elementary schools will strengthen Israel?

Rabbi Yoffie's final target is the Chief Rabbinate which "needs to be abolished or radically reorganized." I say amen to this and also to the further suggestion that "Israel would be well served" if rabbis "were chosen on the basis of learning and personal piety." Truth to tell, under this appropriate standard, Rabbi Yoffie and his colleagues would not stand a chance of being selected.