Realizing God’s Promise: A Reform Revolution in Worship
Rabbi Eric Yoffie delivered this sermon at the 65th Biennial Convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now, the URJ) on December 18, 1999
Once again I am overwhelmed, and in awe. What an extraordinary Shabbat service this has been—our extended family of faith, nearly 5,000 strong, raising its voice in praise and thanksgiving, singing unto God in joy and celebration. Where else are we so enveloped by the spirit of Shabbat, so energized by the holiness of the day?
But it is not only the experience of our worship that affects me so deeply; I am also struck by what it suggests about our Movement. Enormous changes are taking place in Reform Judaism, and they are evident here at our Biennial Assembly.
A mere ten years ago, our Biennials were dramatically different. Daily worship was perfunctory and sparsely attended, and Shabbat services were less than inspiring. Our Biennials were wonderfully exciting, but people did not come to pray. Today, however, it is spiritual nourishment that we seek. At our last two conventions we surveyed the departing delegates, and asked them what was the highlight of their Biennial experIence; the overwhelming majority responded that it was Shabbat and daily worship that had touched them most.
What has changed? Simply this: Reform Jews are rediscovering the power and the purpose of prayer. We sense that our Judaism has been a bit too cold and domesticated; we yearn to sing to God, to let our souls fly free. And we feel that through prayer we can rediscover our inner selves, and bind ourselves to the collective body of Israel.
There is nothing surprising about this. Prayer is an irrepressible expression of the human spirit, and we Jews appeared on the historical scene as a praying people. Yes, we know how hard prayer is; we do not expect that every Shabbat we will leave the synagogue personally transformed. But we do expect to be gently moved each time we come to Temple. And we do expect that our prayers will make us feel closer to God.
Does this mean that Reform Judaism is abandoning the rationalism and intellectual rigor that are the foundation of Jewish belief? Heaven forbid. When Reform Jews enter the synagogue, we refuse to check our brains at the door. Two years ago, this Assembly initiated a program of adult Torah study, and Torah study is a cerebral act, requiring reason, contemplation, and analysis.
But our members are very wise. They believe they can have a Judaism that welcomes exuberance and song as well as ideas; that celebrates the cerebral yet pulsates with emotion. And they are right. Judaism has always prescribed two paths to tradition: the path of the mind and the path of the heart. Torah study is the way of thinking, prayer the way of feeling. And even though these paths are parallel, the Jew has always been required to walk them both. Therefore, the Reform Jew must be both a studying Jew and a praying Jew.
And what is happening in our synagogues? Can the fiery enthusiasm for worship that we experience here be found in our congregations?
In many of our synagogues, the prayers are heartfelt, the music uplifting, and the participation enthusiastic. But that is only a part of the story. All of us—rabbis, cantors, lay leaders—seem ready to admit that far too often, our services are tedious, predictable, and dull. Far too often, our members pray without fervor or concentration. Far too often, our music is dirge-like and our Torah readings lifeless, and we are unable to trigger true emotion and ascent.
Poll after poll tells us that 40 percent of Americans attend congregational worship every week, while for Jews, the figure is under 10 percent. We joke about two-day-a-year Jews, but we know in our hearts that the fault is not entirely theirs. We need to ask ourselves why so many of these Jews feel religiously unsatisfied in our synagogues.
There is a certain irony in these numbers. The Jews authored the Psalms—the most passionate, poetic, and beautiful prayers ever composed. How is it then that we are today the least worshipful of peoples in North America?
It is also ironic that we Reform Jews find ourselves in this situation because our Movement came into being as a liturgical revolution. Reform Judaism did not begin with ethics, social justice, or personal autonomy; it was a reaction to the chaos and mechanical mumbling of the then—dominant forms of Jewish prayer. Worship reform was the very heart of early Reform Judaism; classical Reform Jews, then as now, brought a deep earnestness to issues of prayer.
So what happened? What happened is that the innovations of the early 19th century no longer suffice, but we are not certain what should replace them. And Reform Jews turn out to be quite conservative in their worship patterns. We say we want prayer that is authentically Reform, but what that usually means is: “what I remember from my temple when I was growing up.” And no two of us ever seem to remember the same thing. Generational differences are particularly pronounced. Our congregations, therefore, often confront a multiplicity of conflicting worship demands. Older members threaten to vote with their checkbooks if worship is changed, while younger members threaten to vote with their feet if it is not.
And this too: the pressures of the worship wars have created a turf consciousness unusual for our Movement. Caught in the crossfire, rabbis sometimes insist they alone have authority over worship; cantors sometimes do the same. Lay leaders seem to alternate between indifference, and the expectation that their rabbi will be transformed into a guru who will do their worshipping for them. And finger-pointing is all too common. Lay leaders complain to me that their rabbi has introduced too much Hebrew, or too little Hebrew, or too many changes, or too few changes; and that their cantor does not let them sing, or sings music they do not like. Rabbis and cantors tell me how frequently their members greet every new idea with that well-worn refrain: “But we’ve never done it that way before!”
Is it a surprise that even some of our most dynamic congregations have grown fearful of innovation?
But there is no reason for despair. I see emerging a collective resolve to overcome this paralyzing fear of change. And I see, too, leaders and congregations whose relentless creativity and commitment to renewal will light our way.
I propose, therefore, that at this Biennial Assembly we proclaim a new Reform revolution. Like the original Reform revolution, it will be rooted in the conviction that Judaism is a tradition of rebellion, revival, and redefinition; and like the original too, this new initiative will make synagogue worship our Movement’s foremost concern.
I further propose that this worship revolution be built upon the premise of partnership: rabbis will be its architects, cantors its artists, and lay people its builders. This has always been the way of our Movement. No other religious movement in Jewish life has ever been as democratic, as open, and as rooted in the collective partnership of rabbi, cantor, and lay person.
And what is generally true is especially important in this case. Because prayer is not a noun but a verb; it is not something that is done to us or for us, but by us; it is not something that you create and give to the congregation, but something that the congregation creates with you. So it is critical that vested interests be put aside and that the laity be admitted into the dialogue, even as we acknowledge that Jewish wisdom is ultimately the rabbis’ expertise.
The revolution that I propose will require an accurate understanding of what we mean by “tradition.”
The heart of the worship tradition is the order of prayers that has become standardized during the last two millennia. And while Reform Judaism has revised this liturgy to make it fully inclusive, the Shema, theAmidah, and the Torah service are not very different from what they were in the 3rd century.
Everything else, however—the chanting styles, the music, the aesthetics—has been ever-changing. If we have learned anything at all from Jewish history, it is that there is no one way to worship God. In fact, much of what we now refer to as “tradition” is not tradition at all, but reflects European culture of the 18th and 19th century.
And we need not be bound by cultural precedents that no longer resonate. Eighteenth century Minsk is not our worship ideal. Neither is Berlin of the 1850s, nor suburban America of the 1950s.
And just as we reject nostalgia disguised as tradition, so too do we reject worship that is purely “contemporary.” Communal prayer requires recognizable constants; there is no Jewish worship without age-old prayers and time-honored chants. In short, we need not choose between “traditional” worship and “contemporary” worship. As Reform Jews, we insist on the best of both worlds: continuity with our tradition and constant reformation.
To do this, we need both innovators and conservators: those who push the envelope and those who hold back. But at this moment it is innovators that we need most. We must give our leaders the freedom to experiment, and to develop forms of communal prayer that are both Jewishly authentic and fully indigenous to North America.
And what will be the single most important key to the success or failure of our revolution? Music. Every congregation that has revived its worship has begun with music that is participatory, warm, and accessible. Our wisest synagogues invite their members to sing, because they know that Jews feel welcomed, accepted, and empowered when they sing. Because ritual music is a deeply sensual experience that touches people in a way that words cannot. Music converts the ordinary into the miraculous, and individuals into a community of prayer. And music enables overly-intellectual Jews to rest their minds and open their hearts.
There is nothing new in this. At the very moment of Israel’s liberation, Miriam led her people in song on the far shore of the Red Sea. But somehow, many of us have lost our voices. The music of prayer has become what it was never meant to be: a spectator sport. That is why our cantors, soloists, and choirs are working so hard to sing with us, and not for us.
In many instances this work is just beginning. It is not easy for a congregation that has never sung to begin to sing. And let’s be honest: it’s not always easy for cantors and soloists either. Because East European melodies—soaring and rich—are often difficult to sing; a simpler, American nusach is only now being developed. And this too: when the congregation finds its voice and lets go with singing, the prayer leader—whether cantor or soloist, rabbi or lay person—is no longer completely in control.
Still, despite these challenges, I am convinced that music will be the foundation upon which our worship revolution will be built. And this means that Jews will return to our sanctuaries only when we offer them music that is vibrant, spiritual, and community-building; music that speaks directly to their soul.
The other great challenge of our worship revolution is to bring young families and young children back into our sanctuaries. A twenty-seven-year-old rabbi, newly ordained from the Hebrew Union College, will often look out at her congregation on Erev Shabbat and realize that she is the youngest person there by several decades. Why has this happened? Some have suggested that we may have unwittingly driven young people away. Convinced that exuberant children could not be accommodated at regular Shabbat worship, and that their baby-boomer parents would not be drawn to the somber melodies of the older generation, we created the monthly Shabbat family service, which is shorter, more energetic, and more spontaneous. And it has succeeded. The average family service is filled with wonder and dissonance and natural enthusiasm, and our sanctuaries are often filled to over-flowing.
But by creating the family service, we may have signaled that young parents and children are not welcome at other times—that for them, in effect, Shabbat falls but once per month. How do we change this perception and put Shabbat back on their weekly schedule?
Many suggest that Shabbat morning is the best time for family prayer. But this means confronting a myriad of conflicts, including the choice between soccer and synagogue. As Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin has put it: “The God of soccer is a vengeful God.” An even greater obstacle is the Shabbat morning bar or bat mitzvah, which in most cases has alienated the uninvited, young and old, and appropriated the worship service as a private affair of the bar mitzvah family. This is far from a simple matter. For many Reform Jews, the rite of bar mitzvah is the single most significant religious event in their lives, and we should be respectful of its impact. Still, Judaism is a collective enterprise, not a private pursuit, and we must be troubled by the prospect that a family celebration is displacing Shabbat morning communal prayer.
But Reform Judaism is ever-evolving. And so some of our congregations have proclaimed that no longer will there be an Erev Shabbat adult service and a Shabbat morning bar mitzvah service, but that every worship service will be intergenerational, welcoming all. Others have undertaken to provide family-oriented worship, in addition to regular services, not once a month but every week. Whatever the solution, this we know: young children and young families must be part of our revolution. The children in turn, through their simple faith and playful eagerness, will help us to breathe new life into our prayer.
That we might realize this revolution, I put the following proposal before this Assembly:
First, I urge each member congregation of our Union to devote a major segment of two upcoming Board meetings to defining a worship agenda for the synagogue. This is the starting place for worship reform: forward-looking lay leaders, invested as partners by rabbi and cantor, assuming responsibility for congregational prayer that they see as their own. The UAHC has prepared a suggested agenda for these board deliberations.
Second, I propose that we call upon all our congregations to do what many have already done: reorganize the Ritual Committee, co-opting our best and brightest to work with rabbi and cantor on worship renewal. As many of us know who have done combat duty on the Ritual Committee, it is sometimes the stepchild of the synagogue, focused on ushering and high holiday tickets. But it must now become the primary venue for rethinking the congregation’s worship agenda.
I recommend that our reorganized Ritual Committees begin by studying, with rabbi or cantor, the history and theology of Jewish prayer. Just as one cannot pray without appropriate preparation, one cannot engage in the transformation of worship without preparation and knowledge. The Union has prepared adetailed curriculum for course leaders.
I also recommend that our Ritual Committees undertake, under the guidance of rabbi and cantor, an in-depth self-evaluation of worship in their congregations. If we aspire to spiritual greatness, we must begin with a fair accounting of what our worship practices really are. Does our Shabbat prayer capture the heart and soul and kishkes of the congregation? Is our music uplifting? Are we creative worshipers or captives to sameness? These are difficult questions, but Reform Jews are never afraid of searching self-study.
I further recommend that each synagogue evaluation team commit itself to visiting at least four other Reform congregations. We are sometimes terribly parochial, unaware of what our sister congregations have done to bring dignity, reverence, and beauty to their worship. It is important that rabbis and cantors be included in these visits; we ask our clergy to be experts in matters of prayer, but it is difficult to lead if one lacks exposure to other models of tefillah.
Here again, the UAHC has assembled a comprehensive self-study document that congregations may use both to evaluate their own worship practices and to assess the practices of others.
Third, I propose that we initiate an on-line, Movement-wide dialogue on prayer, to begin immediately following this Biennial. My hope is that hundreds of Temple presidents, ritual chairs, lay persons, rabbis, and cantors will initially join this on-line discussion, and that the number of participants will eventually reach into the thousands.
Fourth, I propose that the Union, the College-Institute, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the American Conference of Cantors cooperate in sponsoring retreats for rabbis and cantors, where our worship leaders can consider and develop the scholarly and professional dimensions of worship reform, and examine successful models from across the country. Such gatherings, I believe, will generate many of the creative ideas that will power our revolution and assure its success.
Fifth, I propose that we enrich our worship by undertaking a program of adult Hebrew literacy. Some view the increased use of Hebrew in prayer as contrary to Reform principles, but I disagree. Every Reform service contains an ample number of English prayers so that all worshippers can pray with comprehension. At the same time, Reform Judaism has appreciated that the Hebrew language is more than just a vehicle of expression; it is, in fact, part of the fabric and texture of Judaism, vibrating with the ideas and values of our people.
The division that exists in our Movement is not between those congregations that use more Hebrew and those that use less; these differences are not that significant. The important division is between those congregations where many worshippers know some Hebrew and those where they do not. Why? Because absence of Hebrew knowledge is an obstacle to heartfelt prayer; because inability to pray with the congregation at peak moments becomes a source of frustration; and because the full participation for which our members yearn is that much more difficult without some access to the sacred language of the Jewish people.
Let me put it plainly: we value Hebrew for many reasons, but it is most of all the great democratic tool of Jewish worship, the vehicle that “opens the gates of prayer” to the average Jew. If we fail to learn at least the basics of Hebrew, then we are forcing our rabbis and cantors to serve as priests—as an ecclesiastical elite that enjoys sole access to the secret code of Jewish worship. But they do not want to be cast in this role, and we should not force it upon them. We want to be empowered to pray on our own, and this is so much easier when we can turn those little black dots and boxes on the page of the siddurinto a conversation with God.
The UAHC is developing two Hebrew primers exclusively for adults. They focus not only on phonetic reading but on comprehension of basic prayers and texts. I propose that following the High Holidays, our congregations make use of these texts, offering ten-session adult Hebrew courses in both the fall and the spring.
The course of action that I have put forward is an ambitious one. For those synagogues willing to undertake an even more vigorous effort, the Union has entered into an agreement with Synagogue 2000, the synagogue transformation project led by Dr. Ron Wolfson and our own Dr. Lawrence Hoffman. Drs. Hoffman and Wolfson are the pioneers and creative geniuses of the movement for worship renewal. They have agreed to accept l5 congregations into an intensive program of worship self-study and reform. Congregations prepared for the highest level of commitment to worship revival are encouraged to apply.
I do not wish to mislead you. The revolution that I am calling for is as daunting a challenge as any that this Movement has ever faced. We Jews are never more recalcitrant than when we deal with issues of prayer. But I am convinced that our Movement possesses the spiritual courage for just such a revolution, and indeed that it is already underway.
Above all else, our success will depend on creating the partnership that I discussed before.
We do not want to be rabbis who are spiritual imperialists, insisting that worship is ours alone; we do not want to be cantors who are operatic obstructionists, intent on performance at the expense of prayer; and we do not want to be lay people who are conscientious objectors, objecting to everything that is not as it was.
What we do want is for our members to join together with rabbi and cantor in creating worship that leaves us all uplifted—connected to ancient wisdom and to our deepest selves.
And to join together in creating a synagogue that is a center of Jewish life in all its sweep and scope, but that is first and foremost a center of avodah—of worship, reverence, and awe.
And we will do this because we are the most creative movement in Jewish life; because, in the absence of prayer, all our crowded congregational calendars are for naught; and because to live without prayer is to live without God.
And so, together, we will give Reform Jews the meaningful prayer they demand from us—worship rooted in tradition that manages still to seduce the soul and electrify the heart.
Challenged to be visionaries
In worship, we have seen, the embrace of the status quo in a time of change is a recipe for defeat. But this is true, of course, for all areas of Jewish life. And our Torah portion for this Shabbat offers us some guidance on these matters.
This week’s parasha, Vayigash, is the third installment in the wonderful yet bewildering story of Joseph. Joseph is a narcissistic young man, supremely unaware of others. Not surprisingly, he is despised by his brothers. But while Joseph is insensitive, he is also brilliant and precocious, and sees what others cannot see.
Why were his brothers so antagonistic to his dreams? Because as shepherds, focused on their flocks, they could not understand a dreamer. Yes, they were loyal to their traditions, but they could not see the future as anything other than a continuation of the present.
But Joseph was different. He spoke of sheaves and wheat and celestial bodies. He knew that his family would soon be in Egypt, faced with a new social order. To be sure, he understood the power of the covenant. But he knew as well that the children of Jacob had to be prepared for the upcoming conflict. He saw that the sophistication of Egyptian society, with its modern culture and technology, posed a far greater challenge to Torah than did the simple life of rural Canaan.
In short, Joseph was difficult, but also forward-looking and visionary. And we remember him as the first leader in our history to confront the problem of modernity, and of new technologies disrupting accepted religious norms.
This ancient Torah tale frames precisely our dilemma as North American Reform Jews. Like Joseph, living in a time of change, we are challenged to be visionaries; for us, too, the technologies of the day have called into question fundamental assumptions about our families and our Judaism.
“It is ten o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” Of course you don’t. We don’t have any idea where our children are. Even if they are safely ensconced in their rooms, they have only to turn on their computers, and distances are erased, barriers come down, taboos are circumvented.
Our first and most basic parental rule for our children is: don’t talk to strangers. Remember when you expected to know not only where your children were going, but who their friends were. But the worldwide Web has slammed shut that possibility forever.
Worse yet: the Web does not throw them together with random strangers, but permits them to use the automatic search function to custom-select strangers who share all of their darkest secrets and prejudices.
What child has never had violent fantasies? In our Biblical story, Joseph’s brothers resolve to murder him; only the intervention of Reuben and Judah saves his life. But today, one need not even walk out the front door to be drawn into a cult with murderous intentions, all unchecked by fact or common sense. Violent inclinations can fester, grow, and become reality, before big brother Judah ever appears on the scene.
These, then, are the streets on which our children travel. Yes, the interactive technology of the Web has improved our lives; it is mostly a blessing, and is here to stay. But it presents our kids with far more choices than we would like them to have. And this above all: on the Web, NO ONE IS IN CHARGE.
What this means, therefore, is that we must do what Joseph did. We must look ahead, and adapt ourselves to this new environment. Above all, we must reassert our role as the primary shaper of our children’s inner lives. We must teach them Torah. We must reclaim our power to create Jewish memories. And we must do this more intensively and earlier than ever before. Because by the time our children are ready for the Internet world, they must have already absorbed the basic nutrition and values of Jewish life.
If we expect our children to remain whole, they must be loved, and secure, and schooled in the fundamentals of Judaism from the earliest age. What sense does it make to provide our children with software and search engines, if we have neglected their values and short-circuited their souls?
And yes, we know how hard it is to balance our professional and family commitments. But we can make excuses until the end of time, and the fact remains that no other success we experience will ever compensate for failure in the family. For Jews, it is in our homes that we discover the Divine Presence, and it is our families that provide us with a Jewish life lit by the flame of faith.
We have, of course, broadened our definition of family. Today there are single parent families, divorced families, and stepfamilies; families with gay and lesbian parents, and families with gay and lesbian children. All have a valued place in our synagogues. But broadly defined or not, since the time of Abraham and Sarah, the family has remained the Jewish vehicle through which we teach our children and nurture their character.
Our synagogues can do many things to strengthen family life. They can organize family choirs, and family Torah study. But the rabbi is not father or mother, and the congregation is not a surrogate for family and home. The task of the Reform synagogue is not to supplant the home or displace the family, but to strengthen them both as the ultimate source of Jewish education, ritual, and care. And I offer three proposals on how we might proceed.
First, let us recognize that, with all of our challenges, we live at a time that allows every parent to provide a Jewish environment for his or her children. North American Jewry produces more Jewish books, more Jewish audio and videotapes, and more Jewish computer games than anywhere in the world.
I therefore propose that we launch a campaign to ensure that no Jewish child in North America goes to bed without reading a Jewish book, listening to a Jewish tape, watching a Jewish video, or playing a Jewish computer game. And I ask the other Jewish movements to join us in this campaign, aimed not only at the members of our synagogues but also at the children of the unaffiliated.
To be a parent is to be a teacher, and to be a teacher is to be a teller of tales. Torah itself is primarily a collection of stories, and for millennia parents have told their children Jewish stories about honesty and fairness, love and cooperation, and stories of a people that experienced God and entered into a covenant with the Eternal One.
Torah gives us guidance about when stories should be told. “Impress (these instructions) upon your children,” we read in Deuteronomy, “recite them…when you lie down and when you rise up.” In short, making bedtime Jewish time is not a new insight; it is as old as Torah itself.
And so, if we are serious about immunizing our children against the influence of violent images to which they are exposed on their PCs and CDs, and on their TVs and VCRs, then a good place to begin is for parents to craft their own Jewish bedtime rituals. The Union has produced a simple brochure for parents of children up to age eight; it includes prayers, stories, and songs for “tuck-me-in, kiss-me-goodnight time.” In addition, we have prepared “starter kits”—three packets of books and music for infants and toddlers, for pre-schoolers, and for children in grades K-3.
I am proposing that our synagogues distribute these brochures and promote the message they contain to the parents of every young child in our congregations; that we offer them through our nursery schools and religious schools; that we give them as gifts to new members; and that we urge parents to acquire a starter kit now so that storytelling may begin immediately. It is my fervent hope as well that Jewish grandparents will take the initiative and present these materials as a gift and gentle reminder to their children.
Make no mistake. Our children dance with danger. But if we offer them Jewish stories and the regularity of ritual, particularly at bedtime, we will connect them with Torah, fortify their moral moorings, and create sacred memories that are certain to endure.
My second proposal is that we assist engaged couples to consider issues of Jewish home life and child raising before their marriage takes place.
In the Jewish community, we spend an enormous amount of time preparing for the wedding day, and debating the question of who will and who will not officiate at our weddings. However, we devote almost no time to preparing the couple for the marriage that follows. Surely the time has come for a careful, Movement-wide approach to marriage preparation. Helping Jewish couples to prepare for marriage has been the responsibility of the officiating rabbi. But I remember from my days as a congregational rabbi that, with the best of intentions, I simply had too few hours available to do this job well. And the same applies to most of my colleagues.
I propose, therefore, that the UAHC and the Central Conference of American Rabbis join together to offer an in-depth program of marriage preparation in major cities throughout North America; that we begin in three cities next fall, and a dozen the following year; that the program be offered to any couple considering marriage referred by a Reform rabbi in the community; and that our rabbis be urged to strongly encourage those they are marrying to attend. I have discussed this proposal with the leadership of the CCAR, and they have responded positively.
I further propose that this program focus on issues that we have been discussing: expectations about children and their Jewish education, and questions of home ritual, Shabbat observance, and synagogue affiliation. And I propose that it also deal with communication, finances, and intimacy. It is my expectation that the program will be taught by our rabbis, with the help of psychologists and financial planners.
For those outside major metropolitan areas, I suggest that we offer weekend retreats throughout North America, and that we prepare a detailed curriculum for local rabbis who may wish to teach elements of the course in their home communities.
Young couples in our Movement worry about the disharmonies of modern marriage; they wonder how the hedonism of our culture will affect their children; they crave shared values and meaningful ritual. They are ready, I believe, for us to show them, at the very beginning of their journey, how Jewish tradition will sanctify their relationships and enrich and inspire their family life.
My third proposal is aimed at the broader society in which we live. Because not only parents and communities raise children; societies also raise children. In some instances, we know, public policy has a profound impact on the welfare of children and families.
Every advanced country in the world faces the problems that we face. Their children also access the Net, and because of America’s cultural dominance, they see the same movies and play the same video games. They are as confused as our kids, and have the same violent fantasies. Why is it, then, that 12 American children die every single day from gunfire—a Columbine massacre every single day!—while the comparable rate in the rest of the developed world is a tiny fraction of that number?
We all know the answer: Others have strict gun-control laws, and America does not. And gun-control works, as Canada’s experience has surely demonstrated.
Periodically, a people must decide what it stands for, and what it will tolerate. Surely now is such a time. Now is the time to assemble a critical mass of citizens who will stand up and say no to the deadly toll that guns take on the lives of our children.
I will not rehearse the arguments for gun control; they have already been endorsed by this Assembly. What we need now is not more rhetoric, but a different attitude and a different course of action by all who believe that our children need books and not guns.
Let’s begin by simply telling the truth.
There exists in the United States a powerful lobby that supports the right of any crook or any wife beater to buy almost any weapon at almost any time, no questions asked. It is, in effect, the criminals’ lobby, and it goes by the name of the National Rifle Association. Our only hope to save children’s lives is a take-no-prisoners, give-no-quarter campaign against the NRA.
There also exists a spineless Congress that for thirty years has disregarded the will of 80 percent of the American people. The pattern is always the same: after high profile killings, there is a blip of outrage from Capitol Hill and the passage of some minor gun restrictions. In the meantime, children continue to die unnoticed every day, and the gun traffickers soon learn to circumvent the new laws. What we need now is an end to tokenism and abject cowardice in Congress, and the passage of legislation that will make a significant dent in the easy availability of firearms.
And what is our task as Reform Jews?
First and foremost, we need to see the control of guns not as a political problem but as a solemn religious obligation. Our gun-flooded society has turned weapons into idols, and the worship of idols must be recognized for what it is—blasphemy. The only appropriate religious response to idolatry is sustained moral outrage.
Second, we need to recognize that the next nine months is a critical test period for gun control. During that time, a series of bills will come before Congress. If the horror generated by the recent rash of shootings is not enough to open the eyes of our elected leaders, it is likely that gun control will be consigned to the dust heap for a generation.
But please, no self-righteousness. The NRA records victory after victory because it raises money, writes letters, makes phone calls. How many of us have made a single phone call or sent a single telegram? Let’s admit it: we have been outmaneuvered, out-hustled, and out-organized on this issue. In the months ahead, our only hope is to match them every step of the way—match their resources, match their organization, match their passion.
What we need to do is go on the moral offensive, and send the message to our legislators that we care deeply about this issue and we will hold them accountable.
What we need to do is organize in every Reform congregation, and have our members in the tens of thousands send personally written letters to their Senators and Representatives, expressing their support for gun control.
What we need to do is have each of our synagogues extend a personal invitation to their elected officials to appear at the congregation and explain their position on this issue.
To assist us, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has prepared a legislative action guide that summarizes all the key bills and provides contact information and “talking points” for members of Congress.
We also need to involve ourselves in anti-violence coalitions in our local communities. Such coalitions press for local gun control laws and help make our communities whole. Still, we know that without federal legislation, guns will simply be acquired in the states of least resistance. The only way to stop the boomerang of bullets that is killing our children is with national gun control.
I know how daunting all of this must seem. But remember: the tobacco lobbyists once seemed invincible and look what happened to them. I for one am filled with a fresh spirit of hope. The American people, I believe, have been aroused by this ongoing, senseless slaughter, and by ineffective laws that allow a child to be killed every two hours. Our task, then, is to lift the nation’s sights and challenge the nation’s conscience. Our task is to heed the Biblical injunction that we must not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.
Peace and Pluralism
I would like to conclude with a few words about the State of Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has embraced the dream of Yitzhak Rabin. It is a dream shared by soldiers weary of fighting, by mothers and fathers weary of weeping, and by Jews and Palestinians weary of a terrible history of blood. Mr. Barak knows that there is no retreat from this dream. As Israel’s most decorated soldier, he is keenly aware of his country’s security needs; he knows that the road ahead is full of danger. But he has concluded that the road back—the road to yesteryear—can only lead to oblivion, and that Israel’s future depends on peace and compromise.
On the question of religious freedom, Mr. Barak has spoken to us with refreshing candor. He has told us that he wants Reform Jews as full partners in Israeli life, but he has asked for two years to complete the peace process before taking steps to improve our status. At this moment, he has said, the search for peace is all-consuming.
We understand Mr. Barak’s position, but we are concerned. Yes, peace gets priority. But we simply do not know if he will apply the same energy to resolving Israel’s religious crisis that he has applied to its political crisis.
At our last Biennial, I reported to you on the Neeman Commission, established by the Netanyahu government to address the conversion issue. The Commission recommended a new approach to conversion, calling for cooperation and dialogue among all the religious movements. In the special conversion program that was to be created, the conversions were to be performed by Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate; but in return, the Chief Rabbinate was to sit with us and work with us as true partners in the process. The plan was hailed throughout the Jewish world, and here in North America, Federation leaders urged its acceptance.
A group of Reform leaders, myself included, considered the Neeman proposal. For the sake of K’lal Yisrael we were prepared to compromise, and we accepted it. But Israel’s Chief Rabbis then proclaimed that they would not sit with us and would not work with us; instead of cooperation, they offered vilification and contempt. Since the promises made to us were not kept, the Neeman agreement was never implemented.
What happened next is that some government officials saw our willingness to compromise as a full-scale retreat. So they put forward a compromise of their own that is in fact total capitulation to the Orthodox establishment. Under this plan, the Chief Rabbis are given absolute control over conversion, and we are assigned a minor role in a Jewish Studies Institute that does not do conversions and that the Chief Rabbis are boycotting. The cooperation with the Chief Rabbinate that was the heart of the original proposal has been totally eliminated. Nonetheless, many Israeli leaders insist that this is the solution to the conversion problem.
In retrospect, we were a bit naïve. Politicians tempted us with a vision of religious harmony that the Chief Rabbis never even considered accepting; they then exploited our good will and offered us symbolic gestures dressed up as real change. What began with promise ended with betrayal.
Therefore, the time has come to set the record straight: Let no one doubt our commitment to full equality for our movement in Israel. We reject this plan, or any plan, which relegates us to second-class status. Any suggestion that Reform conversions performed in Israel are not worthy of state recognition; any suggestion that Reform rabbis can teach in a conversion class but cannot carry out an actual conversion; any suggestion that the only recognized religious authority in the State of Israel is the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate—any such suggestions are contrary to the most fundamental beliefs of this Movement. We will never entrust our legitimacy to the whims of Israel’s corrupt religious bureaucracy; this great Movement neither needs nor wants its approval.
Just this past week, Israel’s Minister for World Jewish Affairs called on Israel’s Reform movement to suspend Reform conversions in Israel.
The leaders of our Israeli movement responded immediately. Let me paraphrase their response, which is our response as well:d
“We will suspend nothing—not our conversions, not our struggle, not our fundamental values. Not now, not tomorrow, not ever.”
The conclusion that I draw from this is that we listen too much to self-interested politicians and not enough to the citizens of Israel, who yearn for religious freedom. And we serve the Jewish State best when we remain absolutely true to our principles. And those principles have not changed:
We are committed to the principle that Israel requires separation of synagogue and state, so that we can end the corruption of both politics and Torah that has resulted from the unholy mixture of the two.
And we are committed to the principle that the Judaism that is best for one Jew might not be best for another, and that Israel—like every Jewish community in the world—needs a theology of difference, a vigorous pluralism that puts God at the center while all the religious streams take their places around the common core.
And so to Mr. Barak we say:
Reform Judaism in North American affirms the unity of the Jewish people across space and time. The Jews of Medinat Yisrael are our covenantal partners; we share with them deep bonds of love, interest, and destiny.
We applaud your vigorous pursuit of peace, and you have our unstinting support in this quest.
But know too that we shall not flinch from building Reform Judaism in Israel; that the same energy we devote to peace in Israel we shall also devote to Torah in Israel; and that there is a hunger for Torah in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Raanana that only we can fill.
And what do we ask from you? No special favors. Only that you oppose legislative Judaism in any form; and that you be the first of Israel’s Prime Ministers who does not flee from the issue of religious freedom.
And this above all: that you have the courage to trust the citizens of Israel with competitive religious values. A leader who is afraid to let his people judge truth and falsehood in an open market is a leader who is afraid of those he governs.
Mr. Barak, we do not believe that you are afraid.
An Accounting of the Soul
And so, here we stand, Reform Jews on the cusp of the new millennium. It is true, of course, that for Jews the millennium is not a benchmark of significance; nonetheless, even for us, the year 2000 has aroused a need for cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul.
And what do we see as we look around us? A growing and united movement. A distinguished seminary. A devoted rabbinate. An inspired cantorate. Educators and administrators who serve with dedication. No lack of tzores, to be sure, but many reasons for joy and thanksgiving.
But it is our members who truly inspire us. They are extraordinary. They care about finance and administration, but they care most about issues of the spirit. They search for a Judaism that triggers passion. They bring a new exuberance to our synagogues, affirming life and proclaiming hope.
Who are these men and women who join our congregations?
They are Jews imbued with the conviction that worship matters, that family matters, and that Israel matters.
They are Jews who delight in Torah study and the life of the mind.
They are Jews who believe in autonomy and self-expression, but also in obligations and duties.
They are Jews who believe in the synagogue as the center of our people’s collective existence, as the place where belonging becomes believing, as the home of the Jewish heart.
They are Jews who know that in the final analysis, the synagogue exists for one reason alone: that God might be served, God’s cause advanced, God’s covenant renewed.
They are Jews who proclaim, even in times of darkness, that God waits to welcome us home, and that someday—through our remorse and resolve, through our prayers and our sacred deeds—this world will be perfected under God’s holy rule.
Ken yehi ratson. May it be God’s will. Shabbat Shalom.