Say this about Rabbi Eric Yoffie: He goes where others have not.
In 2006, he went to that bastion of Christian fundamentalism, the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, and reminded the students of the religious values he shares with them, and the ones (reproductive rights, gay rights) that he does not.
Then, in 2007, he was the first leader of a major Jewish organization to speak at the convention of the Islamic Society of North America, where he expressed solidarity with Muslims but insisted on a mutual declaration against terrorism that was unmistakably direct.
“No cause in the world, and surely no religious cause, can ever justify murdering the innocent or targeting the uninvolved,” he told them. “You cannot honor a religion of peace through violence. You cannot honor God if you do not honor the image of God in every human being. And you cannot get to heaven by creating hell on earth.”
Yoffie’s willingness to go before unfamiliar audiences and speak the truth as he sees it is not confined to his work in interfaith relations. When he addressed J Street’s first conference in 2009, he told members of the assembled crowd a few things they didn’t much want to hear, either. He has been unafraid to criticize certain Israeli policies in front of Knesset members — only unlike many other American Jewish leaders, he does it in Hebrew.
Yoffie, 64, is about to retire as president of the Union for Reform Judaism after nearly 16 years at the helm, and within Reform circles he will be remembered as the leader who emphasized Torah study and renewed synagogue worship, who spoke about the Sabbath and kashrut, and who expanded summer camps to embrace a new generation of Reform Jews.
He also leaves behind a legacy of engagement that clearly placed his movement, the largest among American Jews, in the public spotlight — a space he may not have overtly sought, but one he seemed quite happy to accept.
When the invitation to address Falwell’s university came, he told me: “I jumped at it — to be able to reach out beyond those boundaries and do it in a civil way! So much of what we do in the interfaith arena is of no consequence. I thought: Let’s talk openly about the real issues.”
We spoke in his spacious office at the URJ’s Manhattan headquarters just a couple of weeks before his successor, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, was set to be installed at the movement’s biennial convention. Yoffie has large, expressive hands that move every which way as he speaks, and his whole body leans in to follow. There’s a touch of the careful politician there — in his position, representing almost 900 congregations and about 300,000 households, I suppose there has to be — but his sincerity comes through even stronger.
He inherited leadership of a movement that had become synonymous with innovation and what’s now loosely described as “social justice,” at the expense, some believed, of direct religious engagement. That assessment led to Yoffie’s early emphasis on “Torah at the center” and to what Yoffie calls a “worship revolution.”
Services in too many Reform synagogues had become “performance-oriented, and didn’t speak to people’s spiritual needs,” he said. “I wanted to give expression to the desire to connect with the transcendent.” His emphasis on bolstering Sabbath services, particularly on Friday nights, has been well received.
Less so was Yoffie’s call, announced two years ago, at the last biennial, for a commitment to “ethical eating” — he stopped short of saying that Reform Jews should keep kosher — in which he asked rabbis to formulate new guidelines for their communities. Evidently, that was taking tradition too far.
“It would be accurate to say that it created a lot of interest among a small number of people,” was the best spin he could put on it. Why? “It’s almost definitional — to be a Reform Jew is to put kashrut aside. It has a resonance that is hard to understand. I didn’t take this into account sufficiently.”
There have been other initiatives that were also less than successful. His push for more Reform day schools and his plans to increase Hebrew literacy did not yield much fruit.
Yoffie said that the biggest failure of his movement is one that it shares with the Jewish community as a whole: the growing inability to discuss Israel in an open, civil way.
“Some rabbis are afraid to even have a conversation about Israel in their congregations. It’s much harder now that it was 15, 30 years ago,” he said.
What’s changed, I asked him, American Jews or Israel? “Both, both,” he answered.
He’s changed, too. I asked him if he would have officiated at the 2010 marriage of Chelsea Clinton, a non-Jew, to Marc Mezvinsky, a Jew. No, was his answer — but because the ceremony took place on the Sabbath.
What if it had been scheduled for a Sunday? “I may have agreed in certain circumstances. Truth is, I’m not sure,” Yoffie said in a rare moment of ambivalence. He hasn’t been a pulpit rabbi since 1980, and he would not have officiated at an intermarriage then, but he’s clearly wrestling with the issue now.
“Intermarriage is a reality, and you’re not going to deal with it by running from it,” he said. “You have to say that there are boundaries — who wants to belong to a religion with no boundaries? — but you have to draw those lines to include rather than exclude.”
And his last prediction? “The synagogue is going to remain the central institution of Jewish life,” he said. “It’s the only place in the Jewish world that cares about the individual Jew, where you are created in the image of God no matter how much money you have. Nobody else does those things.”