Liberal Judaism alive and well, says Yoffie

Rabbi Eric Yoffie
Rabbi Eric Yoffie

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, supports what he calls “passionate pluralism” in the Jewish world — not one right way of being Jewish. He’s coming to Tucson as Temple Emanu-El’s scholar-in-residence from Thursday, Feb. 27 to Saturday, March 1 “to combat stereotypes that are wrong” about religion becoming more conservative, he told the AJP, “and to further the conversation about liberal Judaism in America.”

As president of the URJ, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish Movement in North America, representing 1.5 million Reform Jews in more than 900 synagogues from 1996 to 2012, Yoffie was a pioneer in interfaith relations and has been deeply involved in issues of social justice. He was instrumental in moving congregational life toward greater attention to Torah study and adult literacy. Yoffie also led a major expansion of the URJ’s summer camping program, and in 2005 introduced the Sacred Choices curriculum to teach sexual ethics to teens in camps and congregations.

Yoffie will be the visiting scholar for Temple Emanu-El’s Albert T. Bilgray Lectureship Series. His public talk will take place on Feb. 27 at 7 p.m. at the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation, 1245 E. Second St. Yoffie will focus on Israel, “less on questions of peace,” he says, “but on the conflict between

religion and the state at this particular historical moment.” He cites pending legislation in the Knesset, which will define haredi Orthodox status vis-á-vis army service and other national obligations.

“The most important issue for Israelis is service in the Israeli army. This is far and away the most important concern for mainstream Israelis,” says Yoffie. “It’s an equality issue and a fairness issue. We Americans tend not to deal with this because it doesn’t affect American religious Jews directly.” But Yoffie intends “to paint the picture with a broader brush,” reflecting how Israelis see it.

For American Jews, the future of Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism in Israel is most important. At Temple’s Friday night services on Feb. 28 at 7:30 p.m., Yoffie will discuss passionate pluralism, those characteristics that have made the Jewish community strong and healthy for thousands of years. “In Reform Judaism we don’t talk much about fundamental theological issues,” he says. “We tend to think we’re all alike. That’s not the way Judaism works. We have a healthy community because we have different streams of Judaism.”

What are the distinctions among the different streams? he asks. “We’re more focused on issues of justice for all peoples of the world. I will assert a distinctive Reform set of beliefs,” notes Yoffie, who currently spends half his professional time lecturing at synagogues and half at universities. He frequently writes columns in Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, Huffington Post and other publications as an expert on modern Israel, issues of peace and security, and the relationship between Israeli and American Jews.

In Tucson, says Yoffie, “we’ll move from the conceptual to the textual” at Temple’s Rabbi’s Tish from noon to 2 p.m., with Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon.

Raised in Worcester, Mass., Yoffie was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Institute of Jewish Religion in New York in 1974 and served congregations in Lynbrook, N.Y., and Durham, N.C., before joining the URJ in 1980. He holds an honorary degree from Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., where he delivered a groundbreaking address on Jewish-Catholic relations in March 2000.

“Some people have the profoundly mistaken notion that religion is moving in a more conservative direction. Liberal Judaism is alive and well. It’s not so in fundamentalist churches or in the megachurches, which are in crisis,” says Yoffie.

“I want vibrant Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Jewish communities. We’re not moving toward a more Orthodox Jewish [approach],” he says. “That’s not what the data tells us. Younger people are looking for a more open approach to religion.”