Scholar asks audiences to ask the big questions

Scholar asks audiences to ask the big questions

Dr. Ron Wolfson says the Jewish answer to the big question is that we are to be God’s partner and fix things that are broken.
Dr. Ron Wolfson says the Jewish answer to the big question is that we are to be God’s partner and fix things that are broken.

The lessons Ron Wolfson is planning for his appearance in North Brunswick this week could borrow a title from a Douglas Adams novel: Life, the Universe, and Everything.

As scholar-in-residence at Congregation B’nai Tikvah, Wolfson will focus first on family, then on community, and ultimately ask some big questions about God and our place in the universe.

Wolfson, the Fingerhut Professor of Education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, will draw from his highly regarded books, including God’s To-Do List: 103 Ways to Be an Angel and Do God’s Work on Earth.

“The big question in that book is, ‘What am I here for?’” said Wolfson in a phone interview. “What am I supposed to do with my talents and gifts? The Jewish answer is that I’m here to be God’s partner on earth and help God with the work of creation, to fix things that are broken and to emulate midot, God’s characteristics.”

Such work lifts “social action” into a higher realm.

“The whole idea is to kind of elevate the idea of tikun olam, to bring it into a spiritual dimension,” he said.

Wolfson will also reference the work he has been engaged in for years with Lawrence Hoffman, professor of liturgy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. The two serve as copresidents of Synagogue 3000, a synagogue renewal consultancy.

“We’ve researched how to build a warm and welcoming culture in congregations,” said Wolfson. “Congregations can start by making sure everyone who walks in the door is warmly greeted. Everybody can do a better job at being more welcoming.”

‘Things that matter’

Among his many books, Wolfson said, the best response has come for The Seven Things You’re Asked in Heaven: Reviewing and Renewing Life on Earth, which Publishers Weekly described as “an ingenious approach to proper conduct.”

“People have told me it has made them laugh and cry, but most of all has made them think,” said Wolfson.

And yet, he insists, you mustn’t wait for an afterlife to fulfill your purpose. He said he likes to encourage readers and audiences to ask themselves “the bucket-list question.”

“That is a question about not what you did in life, but what you did not do while you were alive,” said Wolfson. “Did you set aside time to learn Torah? Did you continue with your lifelong ability to learn?

“Judaism certainly believes in life after death, but my point is that Judaism emphasizes life before death so the book is not about heaven at all. When you put all seven questions together it’s really quite comprehensive about the things that really matter in life.”

Wolfson will be the synagogue’s fourth annual L’dor Vador Scholar-in-Residence.

Program chair Cantor Bruce Rockman said the “ambitious” program will differ from the previous three L’dor Vador events, which were concerts featuring various styles of Jewish music.

Wolfson “is concerned about how to reach the next generation,” said Rockman. “As we envision our future here in New Jersey, it is my belief we need to know more about who we are and how we will be able to enrich our lives and the world through the framework of Judaism.”

The seed money to create the B’nai Tikvah Endowment for the Arts, which is funding the program, was donated by David and Cindy Teicher and Mark and Judy Roller, in memory of David’s parents, Claire and Irving Teicher.

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