A Renewed Emphasis On Shabbat
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I remember as a teenager in Baltimore stopping into a Reform temple on Shabbat morning out of curiosity, having never attended a Reform service, and being asked to remove my kipa before entering the sanctuary. Times have changed. While the most newsworthy aspect of Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s sermon at the Reform Movement’s biennial convention in San Diego last weekend was his renewed proposal for dialogue with moderate Muslims in America, including a pilot program pairing synagogues and mosques for discussion groups, in conjunction with the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), I was especially intrigued by the opening section of Rabbi Yoffie’s address to the 5,000 delegates. It was his call, as president of the largest denomination of Judaism, for increased Shabbat observance, with a focus on revitalizing the morning prayer service and making the Sabbath a full 24-hour experience. Rabbi Yoffie’s message was consistent with an increasing emphasis on prayer and ritual within the movement over the last decade. Surveys have shown that Reform Jews under 40 and Jews-by-choice are most inclined to embrace these traditions. In fact, twice as many converts said they usually attend a Shabbat study group (26 percent) and usually refrain from shopping on Shabbat (29 percent) than Jews by birth, according to a study released this week of 12,000 Reform Jews. These are significant and heartening trends at a time when polls find that fewer Jews — particularly young people — are interested in affiliating with synagogues and Jewish organizations. Talk to rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and you learn that many of them are deeply committed to a level of Jewish learning and observance that surpasses those of earlier generations of rabbis. But the students would be the first to acknowledge the wide gap between the minority of young people like them in the movement and the majority of Reform members who are far removed from religious practice. Rabbi Yoffie’s sermon at the biennial serves a unique role, a blend of a State of the Movement message and a purposeful push toward a new agenda. More than a dozen years ago, he noted, that push was for Shabbat observance, primarily focused on the Friday night service. The fact that this year Rabbi Yoffie chose to emphasize the need to reclaim the full Shabbat encounter speaks to a wider recognition that Jewish life cannot survive and flourish in 21st-century America without the anchor of mitzvot.  And it underscores that the idea of Shabbat, of keeping one day a week holy, is the heart of Judaism. Cultural Judaism can be creative and exciting, but food, art, literature, music, film and theater alone — however rich in Jewish experience —cannot sustain a way of life that has been our history and heritage for many centuries. “Other approaches to enhancing Jewish life have failed,” Rabbi Yoffie asserted, in explaining his renewed emphasis on Shabbat. Proclaiming “we need old ideas,” not new ones, he said: “We need less corporate planning and more text and tradition; less strategic thinking and more mitzvot; less demographic data and more Shabbat. Because we know, in our hearts, that in the absence of Shabbat, Judaism withers.” Such a message, rooted in Jewish practice, is a seismic shift from the classic Reform Judaism that long emphasized ethical behavior over religious observance. “I am suggesting that the notion of command has made its way back into our [Reform] tradition,” Rabbi Yoffie told me a few days after his sermon, “and we are struggling with it.” He said the goal is to make Reform Jews “feel commanded without feeling coerced,” and that “the great challenge” for liberal Jews is to “look at the mitzvot one at a time” and “determine which are the divine elements that command me.” Of course Rabbi Yoffie framed his message in the ideology of a Reform movement that welcomes innovation and renewal. He stressed focusing on the “thou shalts” of Shabbat — like “candles and kiddush, rest and study, prayer and community” — rather than the “thou shalt nots” and “an endless list of Shabbat prohibitions.” Traditionalists will disagree with the second half of that equation. But for anyone who believes that meaningful Jewish life must be rooted in Judaism itself, and that the more one is committed to its study and practice, the better its chances of growth, Rabbi Yoffie’s words are most welcome. In focusing on the need to make Reform Shabbat morning services more relevant, the rabbi noted that they have become showcases for bar and bat mitzvah children, which is fine for them and their families, but make others feel left out. “The focus is on the child more than the community,” he said, and “the result is that we in the congregation become voyeurs rather than daveners, and feeling uncomfortable, we stay away.” He announced a series of programming initiatives for congregations to deal with the issue. Reclaiming Shabbat is particularly significant because the message of stepping back from and out of our increasingly hectic and demanding lives for a day a week — from the phones and e-mails and BlackBerries that we have become slaves to — is a concept everyone can appreciate and strive for. It has always been a potential gift from Judaism to the world. But most of all, as the old saying goes, “more than the Jews kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat kept the Jews.” In each generation that oasis in time refocuses our priorities, gives us time to reflect and relax, and to turn inward, concentrating more on family and meaningful conversation than at any other time of the week. Whatever our denomination, each of us stands to gain from Rabbi Yoffie’s advice, to heed the commandment to “keep the Sabbath and make it holy,” each in his own way, and not just on Friday night. Shabbat shalom. To read Rabbi Yoffie’s full sermon, go to www.urj.org E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

10/01/2009 - 13:34

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