Scholar-in-residence asks congregants to consider meaning on anniversary
Temple Sinai congregants looked back by looking forward. To celebrate the congregation’s 70th anniversary, synagogue and community members gathered for a talk on thoughts for Judaism’s future. The address, which was given by scholar-in-residence Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, was part of several scheduled events with the sitting professor of Liturgy at Hebrew Union College in New York City.
“Rabbi Hoffman is just wonderful. He has wonderful visions for the future,” remarked Laura Arnold, chairwoman of the Women of Temple Sinai.
For 45 minutes, Hoffman severed Jewish history into three uneven eras. There was a search for limits, a search for truth and now a search for meaning, explained the author and editor of nearly 40 books.
The first era, which Hoffman termed “the era of the rabbis,” lasted between the first century and the 19th century.
During that period laws concerning everything from how to celebrate Shabbat to how one appropriately laces shoes were determined by the rabbis, he explained. Those spiritual leaders “divided the whole world in terms of cans and cannots.” It was a period when “Judaism specialized in limits.”
“The rabbis made decisions and it stayed that way until era two,” a span fueled by the Enlightenment and its focus on truths.
“In those days, scientists were positively ecstatic about knowing all,” Hoffman told the more than 100 attendees seated at the Dec. 4 address.
Although the “winds of reform struck Jews later than non-Jews because Jews were in ghettos,” Jewish thinkers in that second era began asking, “What are the truths that Judaism can teach?”
Eventually, around the 20th century, the second era ended with a realization that not all truths are knowable.
The 2007 National Jewish Book Award winner then took his audience to the modern day. The development of modern physics, and particularly its understanding of time, has caused people to focus greatly on the clock and calendar in this third era, said Hoffman. Before the iPhone, people used to buy datebooks or pocket calendars where one could write in meetings and appointments.
Those books, coupled with the need to busy yourself and schedule every moment or hour, created a farcical goal where “the person who dies with the most filled up books wins,” remarked Hoffman.
But as opposed to utilizing time as a vessel for insignificant filling, people should instead turn to Judaism and its calendar as a guide, he suggested.
The Jewish calendar allows a person to understand “how to be human,” said Hoffman. If you want to know how to grieve, there’s Tisha B’Av and Yom HaShoah. If you want to know about community and family, there’s Passover and a seder.
So in this third era, which is bound by old and young making sense of time and meaning, people should turn to the Jewish calendar, as it allows us not to “choose what time means,” but to choose “how to make time meaningful,” said the rabbi. “The search for meaning haunts us at every stage of life. … Judaism gives us 3,000 years of experience.”
At the conclusion of his address, Hoffman was rewarded with a chorus of applause.
“Outstanding,” said Harton Wolf, co-chair of the Temple Sinai Brotherhood, when asked to describe the talk.
He is “my teacher,” said Rabbi James Gibson, Temple Sinai’s senior rabbi.
“He makes the incomprehensible comprehensible. He takes large ideas and puts them into a framework that I understand,” added Mimi Botkin, a 30-year member of Temple Sinai. “The fact that he’s so well thought of by my rabbi, by Rabbi Gibson, who is one of the best scholars I have ever met, that gives him great street cred.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.