It is time for us to approach Shabbat with creativity, expanding our
understanding of “rest” and defining “work” in new ways.
More than a dozen years ago, we began a Movement-wide
conversation about worship. Focusing our attention on Friday evening, we set out
to create heartfelt, inspiring, and community-building worship services. And we
succeeded. In a mere handful of years, our erev Shabbat services have been
radically transformed from somber to joyful, from passive to engaging. On erev
Shabbat our synagogues are often overflowing, our worship abounding in
celebration and song. And for the first time, many of our members have opened
themselves to the music, poetry, and passion of heartfelt prayer.
Still, we had hoped that some worshipers returning to the synagogue on Friday
nights would also be drawn to our Shabbat morning prayer. This has not happened,
and we all know one reason why: the character of the Shabbat morning service.
With morning worship regularly appropriated by bar and bat mitzvah families,
members who come to pray often sit in the back of the sanctuary and feel like
interlopers in their own congregation. On erev Shabbat, we invite our members
in, but on Shabbat morning, we drive them away.
These are serious matters. If we allow our services to be privatized; if we
give up ownership of Shabbat and of our own sanctuaries; if communal celebration
gives way to a bar mitzvah performance—if all these things happen, how can we
remain the dynamic Movement we have become?
My concerns are broadly shared. I have spoken to hundreds of rabbis and
cantors who overwhelmingly express dissatisfaction with the status quo of
Shabbat morning prayer.
They are worried. The bar mitzvah, like other significant moments in Jewish
life, is meant to occur within the context of an open and caring community. But
many synagogue members now feel they are entitled to a private, individual bar
mitzvah. This means that what should be public and inclusive has become private
and exclusive, the focus more on the child than on the community. We in the
congregation have become voyeurs rather than daveners; and feeling
uncomfortable, we stay away.
The results are tragic. We lose young families whose children cannot stay up
late on Friday. We lose seniors, who prefer to pray on Shabbat day to avoid
nighttime driving. We lose those Jews who wish to recite Kaddish, and
those who are simply looking to join their community in prayer.
And we are also sending the wrong message about bar mitzvah.
Bar mitzvah is the occasion, symbolically at least, when a young person joins
an adult community of Jews. But you cannot join what does not exist—a regular
community of worshipers who would be best suited to mentor the young adult.
Instead, what you find at a typical bar mitzvah is a one-time assemblage of
well-wishers with nothing in common but an invitation.
And worst of all: absent a knowledgeable congregation, worship of God gives
way to worship of the child—and self-serving worship is a contradiction in
terms. Rabbis, cantors, educators, and presidents have all told me how painful
it is to sit in a service where the child is the star and the theme is “Steven
Schwartz, King for a Day” or “Sarah Goldstein, Queen for a Day.” Inevitably,
this leads to speeches in which every boy or girl is smarter than Einstein, a
better soccer player than Mia Hamm, a more brilliant computer whiz than Bill
Gates, and a greater activist than Bono.
There is something profoundly wrong when hundreds and hundreds of people
attend bar and bat mitzvahs every Shabbat in Reform congregations, but rarely
does anyone leave saying: “That was so spiritually fulfilling, I can’t wait to
come back next week.”
True, many congregations have created Shabbat morning experiences centering
on Torah study, or offer alternative minyanim that serve a small but
committed core. These are important and welcome, but the majority of our
synagogues have given up hope of ever having a regular congregational worship
experience on Shabbat morning.
The time has come to say: If it’s not working, let’s not do it anymore. The
time has come to try new things.
This will not be easy. The current system has many virtues. When I ask
members of our congregations what was their most meaningful experience in the
synagogue, very often the answer is: the bar mitzvah of my child. Many join the
congregation precisely because they hunger for the ritual of bar mitzvah, which
is their means of publicly declaring their desire to be counted as Jews. Neither
should we forget the serious study in which our children engage; educational
expectations for bar mitzvah are far higher today than they were a generation
ago. And some of the most moving moments I have ever experienced in synagogue
are the speeches of bar mitzvah parents to their children expressing publicly,
perhaps for the last time, their love for and pride in their child.
Nonetheless, the answer is not more of the same. The best answer is an
integrated service—a service in which the child joins the congregation and the
congregation does not merely watch the child; a service in which the child’s
obligation is not to perform, but to lead the congregation in prayer; a service
in which parents are encouraged to reshape their speeches as blessings; a
service, in short, that remains truly meaningful for the bar mitzvah family
without feeling like a private family event. The answer is public, communal
worship that all of us want to attend.
Can we do this? Of course we can. A number of our most creative synagogues
are already changing their worship patterns. Temple Beth Am of Seattle offers
Shabbat morning prayer that brings together the bar mitzvah family and regular
worshipers, makes room for congregational Torah readers and aliyot, and
gives the child a special and honored but still limited role as service leader.
And in cases where an integrated service is not possible, new approaches to
alternative worship are engaging far more than a handful of committed members.
At B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a service at 8 AM draws a
significant number of regular worshippers, including older people, parents with
children in soccer uniforms, and merchants who open their stores at 10 o’clock.
This discussion is part of something larger—and that is a readiness to look
seriously at the broader question of Shabbat observance. Our surveys show there
is a new openness to the commandment to observe a weekly day of rest—even among
those who never attend services.
Why is this happening?
Because we now understand that Shabbat was always central to Reform Judaism.
Because we know, in our hearts, that in the absence of Shabbat, Judaism withers.
And most important of all, because Reform Jews need Shabbat.
In our 24/7 culture, the boundary between work time and leisure time has been
swept away, and the results are devastating. Do we really want to live in a
world where we make love in half the time and cook every meal in the microwave?
When work expands to fill all our evenings and weekends, everything suffers,
including our health. Families take the worst hit. The average parent spends
twice as long dealing with email as playing with his children.
For our stressed-out, sleep-deprived families, the Torah’s mandate to rest is
relevant and sensible. Our tradition does not instruct us to stop working
altogether on Shabbat; after all, it also takes effort to study, pray, and go to
synagogue. But we are asked to abstain from the work we do to earn a living, and
instead to reflect, to enjoy, to take a stroll through the neighborhood. We are
asked to put aside those Blackberries and stop gathering information, just as
the ancient Israelites stopped gathering wood. We are asked to stop running
around long enough to see what God is doing.
And this most of all: On Shabbat, whether in synagogue or at home, we are
asked to give our kids, our spouse, and our friends the undivided attention they
did not receive the rest of the week. On Shabbat we speak to our children of
their hopes and dreams. We show them that we value them for who they are and not
for the grades they get or the prizes they win. During the week we pursue our
goals; on Shabbat we learn simply to be.
What, then, does it mean to make Shabbat observance a regular practice? For
most of us, it will not mean some kind of neo-frumkeit; it will
not mean the Shabbat of 18th-century Europe; it will not mean an endless
list of Shabbat prohibitions. We fled that kind of Shabbat, and for good reason.
It will mean approaching Shabbat with the creativity that has always
distinguished Reform Judaism. It will mean emphasizing the “Thou shalts” of
Shabbat—candles and Kiddush, rest and study, prayer and community. It
will mean expanding our understanding of rest, and defining in new ways
what is, and is not, work. It will mean observing Shabbat as a loving
community in which we feel commanded without feeling coerced.
To start this process, we have compiled fifty-two suggestions—one for each
week of the year—on creative ways to celebrate Shabbat as a special and holy day
We don’t have all the answers, and there will be no single answer, no
one-size-fits-all program. Our diverse Movement has many groups, and they will
require different solutions. We have no intention of legislating personal
observance for our members, and if we did, they wouldn’t listen anyway. I know
that because I have struggled with issues of Shabbat observance most of my life,
I change my practice with some frequency, and I insist on my right both to
change my mind and to make my own decisions.
Nonetheless, my personal goal is to define a regular pattern of observance
comfortable for me as a Reform Jew, and I welcome the input of others who are
engaged in a similar struggle.
What I am proposing, therefore, is the following: Let us work on this
together as a Movement, with the clear understanding that there will be no
dictates from above. Let us turn to our congregations and our most committed
members, and ask them to generate answers from all Reform Jews.
Specifically, I am asking our congregational leaders to do two things.
First, appoint a Shabbat Morning Task Force consisting of ten to fifteen
members who agree to meet weekly for eight weeks. This Task Force will worship
on Shabbat morning in the synagogue for four weeks, will attend Shabbat morning
services in two other area congregations, and will also study Jewish sources
about Shabbat. To assist them, the Union has prepared a Shabbat study guide and
a manual describing the creative ways that synagogues throughout North America
are thinking about engaging in Shabbat morning prayer. After discussion and
further study, each Task Force will present to the synagogue and to the Movement
recommendations as to how Shabbat morning services might be reimagined and
Second, select a Shabbat Chavurah consisting of eight to twelve people who
will both study about Shabbat and actively observe it over a period of three to
four months. This program of Shabbat immersion will offer the opportunity to be
Shabbat observant in an authentically Reform way. At times these individuals
will come together for study, rituals, and community; at other times they will
observe within their families. Here, too, we have prepared materials to guide
them. As a Movement, our hope is to learn from them as they share their
experiences—what they’ve chosen to do and not to do on Shabbat afternoon, and
what they have learned as a result. Let us see how their beliefs about God,
Covenant, and the Jewish people evolve. Let us see what kind of help they need
from their synagogues and their Movement.
We have created two Listservs, one for Task Force members and one for
Chavurah members, so they may exchange ideas with one another. Two years from
now, at the Toronto Biennial, we will honor all participants and invite both
congregations and individuals to share their stories. We have also started a
Shabbat blog so that every member of a Reform synagogue can be part of this
As Reform Jews we will approach Shabbat in our own way and refashion it for
the modern world. But approach it we must. As Arnold Jacob Wolfe has reminded
us, Shabbat is not in Heaven or beyond the sea. It is part of the Divine agenda
and a taste of eternity, but also wholly human and humane. Without Shabbat we
may be lost; in its rediscovery, we may yet be found.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism. This
article is adapted from his Presidential Address at the San Diego Biennial,
December 15, 2007.
Climbing the Next Shabbat Steps
You’ll discover resources and links for all of Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s Shabbat
initiatives, creative Shabbat ideas, and much more.