Making Meaning Together
July 11, 2011 by Ira Wise
This will be in my synagogue's August bulletin. I submit it is an important lesson and invitation for all Jewish educational institutions.
I had the very good fortune to join a group of fifty synagogue educators in the Leadership Institute
in learning with Dr. Larry Hoffman, a professor at the Hebrew Union College in New York. His lesson was a titled Limits, Truth and the Anxious Search for Meaning: The Changing Rhetoric of Leadership
. He described different ways Judaism functioned through history, using the observance of Shabbat as a lens.
He described the period from biblical times through the middle ages as the age of limits. Essentially, Judaism was focused on rules. We observed Shabbat because it was required. In the book of Exodus (31:13-17) we learned that violating the Sabbath could lead to death or worse. Halakhah (Jewish law) consisted of rules that defined how we functioned as members of the Jewish community. It worked for a long time.
The age of enlightenment at the beginning of the 19th century brought something new. The freedom to be a part of the larger, non-Jewish world around us meant that the limits were not enough. We learned about how Jews in Salonika began hanging out in coffee houses on Shabbat. And what’s worse, they were ordering and paying for the coffee! Rabbi Hoffman described this as a symptom of a larger issue – namely that the game of limits was no longer working for a lot of Jews. Many Jews stopped believing that God would punish them.
The new game used the language of truth. We were in the age of Jeffersonian democracy, of liberty, equality and fraternity and of science uncovering all of the truths of the universe. Reform Judaism arose and introduced the sermon – an opportunity for rabbis to teach truth. We became the only Jews who rose for the Shema because it was the biggest truth in the service – and became known as “the watchword of our faith. There is much more to these concepts, but the exciting part comes next.
Rabbi Hoffman says that we are living in another revolutionary time right now. The game is changing from truth to one of meaning. Science has taught us that it cannot give us all of the truths in the universe. It tells us that our merely observing the world changes it.
The game of meaning means that we are interpreters of our world. Our task is to make meaning of the world and our experiences in it. We are active partners with God in the ongoing creation. We go back to Genesis and read that God created the universe and saw that it was good. God didn’t see limits or laws. God didn’t call it truth. God called it good. Rabbi Hoffman suggests that our role is to make it good.
We need to make up our our own life and worlds. It can be an overwhelming and daunting task. But if we believe that we have the freedom to try and develop the confidence to do it, we can create a beautiful and awesome reality. We are not interested in limits. Truths, he says are a dime a dozen – you can find all you want on Wikipedia. We need to know that life is worthwhile. That we can make things better. That is what Judaism is all about.
The job of Jewish leaders (professionals and lay people – you) is to give our people real competence is areas of Judaism to use them to build their lives. So I want to invite you to step up to this challenge. As a member of B’nai Israel, your family is a part of a vibrant community. Among us are searchers and builders, teachers and learners, connectors and sticky people, those who like to pray, hang out or world repairers. Come in and talk to us, call, text, e-mail or tweet.
Come to services. Take a class. Join a committee. Meet someone new. Get together with someone you know well. Build a sukkah. Join a car pool. Let’s make some meaning together.