Kitchener, Ontario, was a hockey town in the 1940s and ’50s, but while most boys aspired to slap shots and back-checking on frozen ponds, Larry Hoffman looked forward to attending his small Orthodox shul, “the only shul in town,” he remembers. I owe my rabbis there — and my parents — a great deal for what they taught me.”
That shul was his first, but he was warmed by the differing denominational embers. “My parents would now be considered Conservative Jews,” he figures. “When I was 15, deciding I wanted to be a rabbi, I knew I wasn’t Orthodox; it just didn’t work for me, so while in college, I took jobs in Conservative and Reform synagogues, and eventually chose to be Reform. I was taken by its emphasis on individuality and the ultimate dignity of the individual conscience, the idea that I am responsible for my choices. I liked the blend of particularism and universalism. Gender equality,” in Reform, “appealed to me a great deal,” as did “the emphasis on the Prophets.”
Reform has been his home ever since. This week, the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion was set to hold an evening of appreciation for Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman’s retirement after 45 years of service, particularly as professor of liturgy, worship and ritual.
It is somewhat ironic that he should have become one of HUC’s leading teachers of ritual when what first appealed to him about Reform “wasn’t the ritual.” When he first encountered Reform “it no longer spoke with the ritual power that it does now. I’ve dedicated my life to better understanding ritual and prayer, making Reform ritual and prayer richer, deeper, more apt to move people.”
Rabbi Hoffman was introduced to his fascination with liturgy “via a dear and passionate teacher at HUC, Dr. Leon Liebreich, of blessed memory. He had a very thick syllabus, and our homework was to read the syllabus and look up all its references, not just the Talmudic, but medieval commentaries, and modern scholars as well. I discovered how liturgy cuts across all of Jewish history as a sort of Jewish diary, the soul of the Jew. I fell in love with the Jewish soul.”
Liturgy and ritual in Reform synagogues are “more central now than they were when I began,” he reflected. “I like to take some credit for it. Torah study is the Jewish mind at work, and ritual is the Jewish heart. I liken ritual to the Jewish sacred drama of the centuries; not the kind of drama you watch but a drama you’re drawn into. In a synagogue or seder your siddur or Haggadah becomes your sacred script; these are your ‘lines,’ the ongoing saga of the Jewish people. If you suspend your disbelief and get into the story, it comes alive for you.
“When you go to Shakespeare, you don’t have to agree with every word. But at the end of the play you’re moved to tears. If we reduce everything to what we consciously and rationally believe, we don’t have much left. Ritual moves you through the poetry, the music, the other ‘characters’ around you — everything, because if it is done right it is delivered in exclamation points, not just commas and periods.”
Did we say he’s retiring? Not quite: “I do not think God is finished with me yet. I think I’m entering my Deuteronomy,” he says, “but I won’t know what it looks like until I turn the page.” He plans to continue writing books in his fields of rabbinic expertise (he’s written or edited more than 45 so far, winning two National Jewish Book Awards). And, he adds, as a founder of Synagogue 2000 (an initiative to revitalize synagogues), “I will continue lecturing and consulting with synagogues, and will still be directing HUC’s Tisch Fellowship, which I established as an extracurricular program to help rabbinical and cantorial students think more deeply, envisioning synagogues of tomorrow.”
He also plans to continue being one of The Jewish Week’s primary contributors to the “Sabbath Week” column. “It was 30 years ago when Phil Ritzenburg, The Jewish Week editor back then, asked me to join the column that would roughly rotate between the different denominations. I loved the idea, and I’ll tell you why: Although I’m an academic, I think of myself first and foremost as a rabbi. That’s all I ever wanted to be. When I write for The Jewish Week, all your readers become my congregation. I do not write Jewish Week columns like a professor; I look for places where Torah text meets life. I lecture all over the country, and meet people who say, ‘Oh, don’t you write in The Jewish Week?!’ I am happy that people know me that way. Also, I am a child of all the movements, but I am proudly Reform and like being a Reform rabbinic voice in a paper that represents us all.”
When asked about sermons on social action, Rabbi Hoffman commented, “Rabbis should not discuss politics from the pulpit, but when we find Jewish values that impinge on issues of the day, we have a responsibility to teach them. We’re not simply a social action committee, much less a political party. But we are Jews who need to ask, what does God want from us? We need to fix the world — and ourselves, as well. We know a lot more than we did years ago, but we are not necessarily wiser. Our task is to make each of us more loving and discerning.”
During his time at HUC, intermarriage has become a concern, with the Reform intermarriage rate hitting 80 percent. Rabbi Hoffman’s understanding of the situation is that “the most important thing to know about Jewish life today is that old-world ethnicity is dying or already dead. In ethnically dense communities people marry among themselves. Once ethnicity is gone, intermarriage necessarily follows. Our only choice is livracha (as a blessing) or liklala (a curse)? I think it can be a blessing. If we demonize young people and their would-be non-Jewish partners we will lose them both. If we welcome them lovingly into communities that bring ethical and spiritual depth to their lives, many will become Jewish.”
It is several weeks from Rabbi Hoffman’s next Sabbath column for The Jewish Week. “I start looking at the parasha four or five weeks early,” he said. “Or I’m thinking about something and I wonder what, if anything, the parashah has to say about it. I have whole shelves of meforshim [classical commentaries] and I don’t always read through all of them, but at times I might think, ‘I haven’t read through Malbim, or the Baal Shem Tov, in a while. I think I’ll look at them today.
“There’s something sacred about the Torah cycle,” said Rabbi Hoffman. “The same stories mean something different with every passing year because our lives change.”
He once had a teacher who asked why even “the wise” are obligated to tell the Haggadah story anew, every year. “And,” recalls Rabbi Hoffman with delight, “the answer is wonderful: ‘Because it’s never the same story. The story changes as our lives change.’ It’s a spiritual moment for me, whenever I discover something new in a text that I’ve encountered hundreds of times before, and suddenly think, ‘I never thought of it that way before.’ There are these secrets in Torah that God hides and wants us to find — like a Divine afikoman that God has hidden away.
“My task,” said Rabbi Hoffman, “is to search constantly for the afikoman that God hides … . I’ve been a very fortunate person.”