In search for meaning, a Jewish ‘golden age’

In search for meaning, a Jewish ‘golden age’

Downplaying fears about the future of American Judaism, a scholar of Jewish ritual believes the community may instead be entering a “golden age.”

According to Rabbi Dr. Lawrence Hoffman, an “internal revolution” is sweeping through Judaism, the third such transformation in its history. Its hallmark, he told an audience at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, is a shift from ethnic Judaism to the search for personal meaning.

“The new synagogue of the future is a place where people will be able to talk to each other and build their lives,” said Hoffman. “It is a place where you will be surrounded by those who will get a sense of life’s meaning by the projects” undertaken.

The synagogue, he said, “is a place where meaning happens.”

Hoffman, the Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor of Liturgy, Worship, and Ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, spoke at the closing program of the Syril and Dr. Norman Reitman Scholar-in-Residence program, held Oct. 26-28.

During the weekend, he discussed American-Jewish forms of worship, the Jewish search for God, and the kinds of changes he has seen as cofounder of Synagogue 3000, a project aimed at revitalizing congregations.

Hoffman, who also writes Torah commentary for NJJN, described the first two transformations that preceded the current one. In the first, Judaism focused on limits, articulated in a body of law. “When Jews talk about Jewish issues they are referring to the case law, and if you have a legal code you have to have a judge or you’ll never know what God is,” said Hoffman. “God is judge. He is rewarder. He is punisher.”

In the second, post-Enlightenment transformation, Judaism began to reconcile religious belief and scientific knowledge.

“We got Reform Judaism out of that revolution,” he said, adding, “Judaism went scientific and rabbis went to college.”

The third transformation has followed two world wars and the Great Depression. “We began to think [scientific] truth wasn’t all it was cracked up to be,” Hoffman said. Instead, American Jews began to search for meaning through social action, education, and spirituality.

“Judaism is actually 3,000 years ahead of time,” said Hoffman. “With all its ethics, traditions, and laws, it is authentic.”

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