Com­mu­ni­ties of Mean­ing: Con­ver­sa­tions on Mod­ern Jew­ish Life Inspired by Rab­bi Lar­ry Hoffman

Joseph A. Skloot and Lisa J. Grush­cow, eds. 

  • Review
By – June 17, 2024

For decades, Rab­bi Lar­ry Hoff­man has guid­ed rab­bini­cal and can­to­r­i­al stu­dents at Hebrew Union Col­lege, prob­ing them to think more deeply about litur­gy, the­ol­o­gy, Jew­ish his­to­ry, and how these dis­ci­plines might be trans­lat­ed to the layper­son. In hon­or of his immense impact on the Reform move­ment and the Jew­ish peo­ple as a whole, over thir­ty of his for­mer stu­dents, col­leagues, and friends have come togeth­er in this new Festschrift to reflect on some of his most impor­tant teach­ings.

Divid­ed into twelve sec­tions, Com­mu­ni­ties of Mean­ing includes short excerpts from Hoffman’s essays and talks, as well as response essays by some of con­tem­po­rary Judaism’s most dis­tin­guished schol­ars, all of whom were shaped in their own way by Hoff­man. These sec­tions form a good cross-sec­tion of Hoffman’s most impor­tant ideas. They include his obser­va­tion that prayer is a sacred dra­ma”; his exam­i­na­tion of new avenues to spir­i­tu­al­i­ty; the impor­tance of syn­a­gogues as places of moral dis­course; the need to embrace non-Jews in the Jew­ish insti­tu­tion­al space; and the ben­e­fits of hav­ing rab­bis ask new ques­tions in new ways.

All of the response essays draw on a vari­ety of sources and dis­ci­plines to make their points. This is no acci­dent: Hoff­man was one of the first voic­es in the Jew­ish world to take seri­ous­ly the link between litur­gy and anthro­pol­o­gy, and to read Jew­ish sources through the lens of thinkers as diverse as Mary Dou­glas, Susan Son­tag, and Clif­ford Geertz. Tak­ing after Hoff­man, the con­trib­u­tors to this anthol­o­gy are as com­fort­able with Rashi and Mai­monides as they are with poet­ry the­o­rists, soci­ol­o­gists like Peter Berg­er, and fem­i­nist thinkers like Judith Plaskow.

If there is a crit­i­cism of the book, it is that the essays often feel too short. Hoff­man is a great writer, and one fin­ish­es the excerpts of his works want­i­ng more. The same goes for the response essays, each of which could dou­ble in length and still have more to say. Hoff­man is a capa­cious thinker who wres­tles with the grand themes and chal­lenges of Jew­ish life. His ques­tions can­not be answered in only a few pages.

One sur­pris­ing fea­ture of the book is that it includes pow­er­ful Chris­t­ian voic­es. Although Hoff­man made a career out of teach­ing future Jew­ish lead­ers, his writ­ings address uni­ver­sal ques­tions and philo­soph­i­cal mus­ings that tran­scend reli­gious lines. They exam­ine how prayer func­tions, why we pray, and what prayer does for us and our com­mu­ni­ties — ques­tions that are equal­ly salient to believ­ers of any faith. As a result, Hoff­man has earned the respect of many, and it shows in the care­ful way that the pas­tors and rev­erends in this vol­ume speak about his influ­ence on them.

Com­mu­ni­ties of Mean­ing intro­duces read­ers to an impor­tant yet some­times under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed schol­ar. It rais­es ques­tions that will stay with us long after we fin­ish reading.

Rab­bi Marc Katz is the Rab­bi at Tem­ple Ner Tamid in Bloom­field, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Lone­li­ness: How Jew­ish Wis­dom Can Help You Cope and Find Com­fort (Turn­er Pub­lish­ing), which was cho­sen as a final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award.

Discussion Questions