Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Eric Yoffie on Optimism, Life and Joy in Torah, and What His 50-Year Career Has Taught Him about Reform Judaism

After serving as a rabbi for 50 years, I would like to share a few thoughts about the Jewish condition, and in particular about the Reform rabbinate.

I believe in the power of leadership and that a people dies from the top.

And I believe that the role of religious leadership—and of the rabbi in particular—is fundamental and decisive.

In saying this I do not minimize the part that volunteer leaders play in Jewish life.   

Nonetheless, it is our klei kodesh who are central—the rabbis, cantors, and educators who do the holy work of serving the Jewish people and supporting them in their religious life.

After all, let us remember what we are: We are a liberal religious movement constructed on pillars of Torah study, piety, and spiritual integrity. And Torah study, piety, and spiritual integrity depend on teachers who believe and on those who serve as exemplars of religious living.

Every Jew I know who is religiously motivated and inspired learned from an inspiring teacher.

How do you teach Jews m’sirut, and anavah, and menschlichkeit? How do we teach them to be not only talmid chacham, but also yirei shamayim?  Such things are not done with books or with programs; they are done with people—with teachers. And it is the rabbis most often who are those teachers. And if they are not, our synagogues can devise a hundred programs, and it will make no difference.

I am sometimes asked if I am an optimist or a pessimist about Jewish life. The answer, I suppose, is that I am an optimist who worries a lot.

But when it comes to the rabbinate, I am optimistic to the core. I have travelled North America from one end to the other, and I can tell you that our rabbis are very, very good, and our younger colleagues are outstanding.

And who are those rabbis who find the most satisfaction in their work and who are best able to shape people’s lives?

It seems to me that there are five things that characterize them. 

First, they are optimists. They are spiritually alive, and they share their enthusiasm and their belief in the future. They avoid endless whining about survival and reject the language of victimhood with which we have become so obsessed. Above all, these rabbis project a message that there is life and joy in Torah.

Second, they learn. We may not have the time for serious scholarship, but I find that rabbis are reading and studying more than they ever have—whether alone or in chevruta, whether in person or online. And they refuse to fall victim to the trendy spirituality of ignorance and passion. They know the danger of soul without mind, and of spirituality that is mere feeling. 

Third, they value the spoken word: the sermon, the d’rashah, the d’var Torah. And they prepare their sermons carefully and thoughtfully. In some ways, preaching may seem less important now. There is a trend toward simple stories and the five-minute d’rash. Still, the best leaders understand that our Jews still care very much about sermons—Jews in Reform communities listen carefully, have high expectations, and search our words for honesty and meaning. With the vast flood of verbiage in this world, they still crave a life-giving word of Torah.

Fourth, they follow the admonition of the Baal Shem Tov, who said to go down to the people so that, by befriending them, they might be raised up.  Our best rabbis know that compassion and menschlichkeit come before all else; they know that our people want us to be with them in the joys and sorrows of their lives. Reform rabbis never forget that there is much our people will forgive us if we do these things, but they will never forgive us if we do not.

And finally, our most dedicated rabbis are people of prayer. It was not always so. Prior to my ordination in 1974, I interviewed in about a dozen congregations. In those dozen interviews, I did not get a single question about prayer, about davening, about spirituality, about God— not one. That would not happen today. We know today that we must be thoughtful about leading prayer and about our own personal prayer lives. Our congregations know, as do we, that the effectiveness of the t’filot at which we preside will be impacted by the fervor of our own prayer.   

There are many other things that effective religious leaders do, of course. But these five things are fundamental, I believe.

I am not naïve. Some rabbis are tired and need renewal, and we all have Torah to study and much to learn. But on the whole, the Reform rabbinate is strong, resilient, and infused with visionary power.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie is the President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism. He is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating Rabbi Yoffie and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.