Episode 26: Diary of the Jewish People (with Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman)
9:18PM Jul 4, 2022
Rabbi Lawrence A Hoffman
Shalom, my friends. Before we start today's episode, I want to say a few words about what's been going on. In our world and especially in the United States this past few weeks, it's really difficult to put into words how I feel, combinations of shame, rage, heartbreak, and a vague sense of hope that underlies at all. The support I know that we can give to each other as a community, even as our institutions fail to protect us, and it's hard to put into words, because it's a feeling. For me, I think T'fillah in days is a vessel for whatever it is I'm feeling to feel as a response to life. My prayer then moves through the words of my ancestors, reminding me that I am not alone in this struggle. You know, today during my weekday Amidah I'm here at camp with these kids. And it strikes me and it struck me today over and over again, that we keep praying for a better world to come. And we know that it must be possible. It is sad. And Josh mentioned this on the last episode we aired. That we're discouraged from praying for things that we know can't happen. Which means that if we're praying for something to happen, then it could happen. And so to feel on that way, is both a vessel for my rage, my sadness and my frustration, but also for my hope, Zichrono Livracha said that the bracha the blessing formula, especially as it functions in the liturgy is a reminder that g?d has done something before, which means it could happen again. And to me, that gives me a sense of hope, we experience your blessing holy, one, redeemer of our people, which means if that is a name that we call the holy one that is possible in our world. It can be very easy to feel powerless. And that is a feeling that is worth feeling. But for me, it's feeling reminds me that in fact, I am connected to a people to a community and to a universe. And that there is more that we could do always to hold our institutions of power accountable. Because there are things that could actually change and to continue to take care of each other. We balance in Judaism, I think I've brought this up before because it keeps playing over in my mind. We balance the gratitude and the awe of our float. We balanced the Accepting of the world as it is as we are encouraged to do on Shabbat with the holy rage of the prophets and the pieces of liturgy, from our heritage that cry out for help. We have both, we can find joy in our everyday lives. And we can hold our broken hearts. You can do both of those things, but only if we do them together. So friends, I just wanted to share that from my heart because I am with you. I am here and perhaps our T'fillah is with us too. And perhaps I think the Holy One is with us too. Now here's today's episode.
Shalom everyone. Welcome to another episode of the light lab podcast. My name is Eliana light and I am coming to you from Ramah Sports Academy. Yes, summer is in full swing. And I am here at sports camp. What am I doing at sports camp? Coaching lacrosse, of course. No, absolutely not. I'm doing T'fillah What do you think I'm doing? I get to sing and pray with these amazing campers and counselors almost every day. And it's pretty great. If you know anything about me listeners, you know that I really love T'fillah and that is why I am really excited to share this interview with you. If you've listened to the show before, you have probably heard Ellen, Josh and or I referenced the My Peoples Prayer Book series, it has been an indispensable resource to our T'fillah teaching before the podcast, and especially as we're putting the show together, we learn so much it is such an incredible tool. And when Ellen said, you know, I am friends with Larry, I could connect to you. We were overjoyed. Rabbi Lawrence A Hoffman was ordained in 1969 and received his PhD in 1973. So we really should be calling him Dr. Rabbi or a rabbi doctor. He is a professor emeritus now at the New York Campus of the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, where he served for almost half a century teaching and liturgy, ritual worship, spirituality, theology, American religion and synagogue transformation. He's really one of the foremost scholars of liturgy in the United States. And we're really, really lucky to get to talk to him. He's written or edited. 45 books to date, incredibly impressive, including the my peoples prayer book series. The follow up my peoples Passover Haggadah series, there's a series called prayers of on the holiday liturgy, which is incredible. And he's also done writing around rethinking synagogues. In 1994, he was one of the cofounders of synagogue 2000, which then became synagogue 3000, an initiative to help us think differently about what synagogues should be and can be moving into the future. He has taught at so many different places. He was the visiting professor for many years at University of Notre Dame, and he has even worked with the United States Navy to create a course on worship for Navy chaplains. He is currently retired living in the greater New York area, and continuing to do this incredible work. He has a blog that will link to called life and the literal liturgy. I can't tell you how thrilled I am to share this interview that Ellen and I did with Rabbi Lawrence A Hoffman.
Larry, welcome to the light lab. It's so great to have you.
Thank you very much Eliana. Wonderful to be here with you. And with Ellen,
with Ellen, thank you so much, Ellen, for connecting us. We quote your books and thoughts all the time. So it's so great that we finally get you in the room in the zoom as it were. And as we like, I want to start by asking you about your T'fillah journey. What was your relationship to T'fillah as a child as a young person,
I was raised in a very small Jewish community in Canada, Southern Ontario, the only synagogue in town was orthodox. And so of course, we all belong to it. It was unthinkable in those days that you wouldn't belong to the synagogue, whether you went or not. My parents were serious Jews that they were more like conservative, probably though we didn't really know the difference. We were all just Jewish and went to the same place. And our rabbi was Orthodox, though it was an orthodox school. And I was a shul kid, I loved going there. So I went pretty regularly. On Shabbat morning, my parents that had to work, we didn't have very much money, they worked on Shabbat, but they dropped me off regularly. And I can remember dearly loving whatever happened there. All the old men thought I was terrific. Eventually, I actually was taught by the rabbi to lead services. So I was the I was the Shaliach Tzibbur And I didn't know that word, of course. But I was. I knew how to lead services for my Bar mitzvah I davened, the shachrit service from scratch, completely and thought nothing of it. It was wonderful.
What do you think drew you to synagogue at such a young age?
I wish I know. I don't know. Maybe I was, I think of myself was kind of an old soul who was born and an adult, but in a child's body. And so I just loved being there. There was something about the rightness of it. I don't know really, why wish I could tell you. It's not as if I loved long service minute. And on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I was very happy to skip out some point when we got to yizkor of course, in those days, we were not allowed to say if we had living parents, so we would be shunted out of the room for yizkor in in a unorthodox tools very, very short. So you could just walk outside and walk right back in and you'd probably be just on time, but I didn't walk just outside. I walked blocks and blocks and blocks away and stayed away for as many hours as I could as a service was endless. I never did like long services.
gives me such great joy, Larry, to hear you say that that, that even you can find certain services, rather on the lengthy side. And do you recall I'm so curious if if the feeling of like leading as the young person in it, and leaving the davening, which is a style that many of us don't use so much today?
Well, I certainly loved it, then I felt very proud. And I even thought perhaps I would be an orthodox rabbi just lasted only two or three weeks. But as I put on chillin and daven, each morning by myself, and I soon realized that I actually didn't like that at all. It didn't mean anything to me. But I always knew that I was kind of interested in the community gathering and tell me what the noise and spirit and togetherness and the rightness of it too, is talking about talking about our services that are too long. However, that's still one of our problems. I have not developed any more patience, I think with services that are long, overly so in the don't take into into consideration the people who are there. We often mistake and we still do. It's our problem. Today, we mistake our comfort zone with everyone else's. I maybe know I'm jumping ahead in the story. But I don't have a congregation as a rabbi. I'm a professor, I'm a PhD, I study prayer. And so I read about it. So I felt ready to belong synagogue, of course. But I go to the High Holidays, for example, in one synagogue, or another doesn't matter which one. And sometimes I sit at the back, because I don't get there really early. You know how everyone gets there early the regulars, they fill up all the really good seat. And I never liked getting that early. So I would arrive with everybody else. No one knew who I was like, go sit in the back like other people. And I would look around me. And it's such a different view to be sitting back there with all those kind of non educated Jews, instead of the front, where you have the the in the inner circle of congregants, and you look around and see what are they doing? Mostly, they're just doing nothing, yet a fair book. So sort of open sort of not to kind of look at ceiling. Someone tells them what page you're on and move to that page, maybe there's an English reading, they follow it. But most of them don't know what's going on. They're just putting in their time there. So I'm very concerned about the way we take cognizance of the people for whom we are leading this service. It's not ourselves and it shouldn't be in fact, I really don't like very much the current fetish with the prayer leader having to have a spiritual experience themselves. And they people say to me, gee, if I got to pray myself, or else I can hardly beat it for everyone else. I think that's nonsense. I think if you get the prayer experience yourself, that's gravy. We're there for other people, it seems to me, but I'm jumping ahead.
No, this is great. This is great. It does sound like when you were a child, it was about the community aspect. It was about the sense of accomplishment from having learned all of those pieces, which was certainly the case when I was a kid, definitely something to be proud of. I'm wondering where g?d was for you in all of this. And if there were experiences or teachers in your young adulthood, that changed your understanding of what T'fillah is, or it could be.
I don't think I looked seriously at g?d or anything theological until relatively late in in my development. My Rabbi talked about g?d, of course, but I didn't give much thought to it. And my parents hardly ever talked about g?d. My father was a budding Reconstructionist. By that, I mean, we could not afford a lot of books My father liked to read. My uncle was a rabbi who graduated JTS and was a student of Mordecai Kaplan. And he sent my father subscription to the Reconstructionist. And every two weeks is rather boring. Looked like a newsprint little tiny journal arrived with four or five articles listed in front, my father read it from cover to cover. So it was clear that he was not what you'd call a g?d believer in the sense of a traditional kind of g?d. I knew that. I didn't know what my mother believed. We just never talked about that sort of thing. And those days we were part of what was I called the Jewish ethnic family. We were ethnics. Every Jew was supposed to belong the shul because that's the Jews did. And don't forget I was born in during World War 2, 1942. So after the war, our city filled. up with people as it were actually from Germany because my city though called Kitchener was originally called Berlin into World War One. It's a very German city. My father said when he moved here, he actually saw the Nazis marching down the main street. He said the best thing that ever happened was when the war broke out, as he found out that half the Nazis marching were backed by the Nazis, but there are Mounties mounted police who had infiltrated the group and that was that. But there was a lot of German spoken on the streets of my town. And so we knew we were Jews, I never said I did not ever find a great deal of anti semitism, despite the nature of the town. My father was well respected, and they got along with everybody. But we knew that we were Jews, that ethnic kind of Jewish life was the same in America, you didn't have to live in Canada, and he didn't have to live in a in a German neighborhood or a German town, Jews knew they were Jews. And don't forget until after World War Two, we do is we're not allowed into Country Club and we weren't allowed in pay into businesses. There was a lot of quiet anti semitism. You can read that book, gentleman's agreement by Laura Hobson, and you can see what it was like back then. As long as you think of yourself as an ethnic group, you realize that you're part of a worldwide people kind of build his real those days, then you don't think too much. But g?d, most of us came from Eastern Europe. He was nice to hear I didn't think much about g?d, they've mostly given up on it. I think. They were ethnics. That's what they were. So I didn't think much about g?d even until I got the Hebrew Union College probably. And Hebrew Union College, I was fortunate to study with Professor borough, it's Eugene Borowitz, who became a mentor of mine throughout my life. And he was a he was an art g?d believes or he made a think about g?d for sure. But it didn't really take. That is to say I thought about it. But I didn't really have strong views on it. I was too busy with other things, learning Talmud and doing the things that rabbis do. And then finally, pursuing my doctorate. The big change that occurred came when I moved when I began lecturing, partly first, just one lecture, and then summer courses at the University of Notre Dame. And then they started asking me whether Jews believe, and I discovered I had to believe something. That's where I first was. That's where I first was introduced to spirituality. Somebody asked a question in the audience at a public lecture I gave about Jewish spirituality of the Seder. And I thought, What in the world does that mean? And that night, I went up to a faculty club with her. Turns out she was a nun in the community. And she goes on faculty. And I asked her what did you mean by that? I've been I've never heard the word spirituality used seriously. No Jews were talking about it. No one. She explained to me her Catholic spirituality. I was very moved by it. And I thought I have to learn about this. But then only then did I really start thinking seriously, about g?d.
Larry, when I met you, it was the summer of 1973. And I was a camper at the URJ Kutz camp and you were one of my teachers, and to hear and I guess you had you were had graduated from HUC. At that point, you already ordained right.
I was ordained and I actually had my doctorate by then I think I think I got my doctorate in June of 73.
Right. So here, you've gone in, in your early adulthood from the Orthodox upbringing in Canada, to my meeting you as a reform rabbi, right. We've got the song leaders and the guitars and the poetry and the dance and the visual art going on during T'fillah. What did you make, of of all that such a difference and such contemporary stuff going on? What was your take on that?
Well, I'd had some experience with Reform prayer. I, during my of my college days, I worked my way through college by running youth groups and teaching in two different religious schools, one conservative and one reform. So I knew something about reform prayer, but the reform prayer book I knew about was union prayer book, rather by it the classical reformed model where nobody talks and sings and everybody just stands together and sit together and someone drums on in the front, and there was a voice that apparently belonged to someone called a cantor that you heard but it didn't mean much to me. That I did not become reform Jew. Because I love the worship service. I became a reform Jew for other reasons. When I went to Kutz camp for the first time, I cannot tell you the impact that had on the first time I had no The experience of joyful singing. It's the first time I had the notion that adult community could be singing, other than droning in the kind of orthodox way, which I'd like too mind you. But just to see the look on the faces of the people at camp, and to to actually watch the song leaders during those days was Meri Arian and Doug Mishkin. And to watch the enormous capacity they had to bring out the best of people. And to raise the level of, of the level of understanding of oneself, No, that's wrong. To raise the sense of depth that people had within them, by giving them that communal experience. That was one of the formative experiences of my life.
That's what pops into my head when you were speaking before about the leaders not having an idea of what's going on in the congregation. Right. And that this was a time when it seemed like the leaders were really in touch with who you know Da lifnei mi atah omed, you got to know who you're standing in front of, of course, I know that originally means something different. But for prayer leaders, I think it's a great advice.
It's fabulous advice. And I discovered then what what I noted no word for it yet. Don't forget, I still didn't know the word spirituality. Nobody was talking about it yet. But I had the sense that there was something there. And I could see also the importance of music. I had never really appreciated that. Now, mind you when I was 10 years old. I was in a boy's choir for the High Holidays. Mr. Pearl, who was mostly the shochet, hey, you know, you slaughtered the food for us. He doubled as the chazzan because he had a decent voice. And he collected eight or nine of us boys. And so I learned how to be a Boys Choir for the High Holidays for him. They did appreciate some music. And I liked listening to Mr. Pearl who later developed a great fondness for chazzanute, which they still have. And I have a high regard for the Orthodox service. Don't get me wrong. By the way, I've also developed a high regard for the classical reformed service. So I matured, thank g?d, you know, I realized that there are many different ways for people to pray. And I've gone through many of them I was at the Orthodox service I was at I have appreciated now the classical reformed service very much now I like to go to it sometimes. But then at camp, I discovered this new service that was just an amazing, it was not yet widespread. Do you remember that Ellen? In fact, there was an objection in the CCAR by many rabbis that they shouldn't send kids to KUTZ camp, because they would only learn this music that was coming out of the camp. And since that wasn't the music of the synagogue yet, that would turn kids off from the synagogue. I couldn't believe that. But I saw that. I was not about kind of believing in prayer. I when I taught at Notre Dame, I felt obliged to go to church. I mean, they had 11 o'clock mass, and I do I better go and they wait, you don't have to go to this, you know, okay, well, you know, everybody's going, I don't know, and actually did go quite frequently. And I got to appreciate the Catholic kind of service as well. Eventually, I joined something called North American Academy of liturgy. And that was probably the most significant part of my education. And all in all, this is an organization started after Vatican two, which was the meeting of the Vatican in 1962, to 1965, to determine how Catholosism could move into the modern world, and it changed its worship completely. And the Catholics and Protestants who decided that they wanted to change worship formed an organization and I was the only Jewish member. And so I was in many conversations with them. And some of us decided that we would meet independently as a little group. That is to say, this organization had not papers that people delivered to one another wasn't like that we prayed together. And we studied together. And I studied in a small group that wanted to learn ritual. So for about 10 or 15 years, we taught each other ritual studies, though we didn't know it yet. That that was the title because it hadn't come into being. But that's how I learned all about ritual. And that meant that I had to appreciate the many ways in which people do it. So I've been very, very fortunate to be exposed to many different ways of prayer.
So through all of these incredible encounters, with this new style of praying, it KUTZ camp to the people that introduced you to spirituality as a term to your cohort of other religious thinkers of other traditions. How did your understanding of the goal or purpose of T'fillah change Both prayer in general as a human and universal thing, as expressed by different religions, and T'fillah as a particularly Jewish thing, what was your thinking about? What was the point of all of that?
When I went to HUC, No, I'll start earlier. In my, in my childhood prayer was just something you went to. I didn't ask any questions about it, that the Jews did. So I went shabbos morning, and I went on, you can hear me say shabbos, because that's how we've crafted back then. And I went in the High Holidays, because that's what you did. I had no idea about liturgy as being something broad. We make tradition, our home, we lit candles, we kept Shabbat and ritual in that sense. I had never, on the other hand, havdallah. This was something new to me, I didn't discover that until much later in life. It was a limited repertoire that we had in our home. It's what my parents had learned and what we therefore did. And so prayer in those days was done just because that's what you do. The next step probably is when I went to a HUC. And then I learned all about prayer as a mitzvah. I had never heard of that before. As far as I was concerned, and mitzvah, who as the Yiddish Word about doing a nice thing for somebody, I didn't know such thing as mitzvah, which is different than a mitzvah, sort of. So then I learned that Oh, prayers and mitzvah and we had all these mitzvot, and we had Talmud, and so on and so forth. I did not take to that. I know that there's been research done over the last 15 years or so that has demonstrated the fall off in Jewish appreciation for the word mitzvah. Arnie Eisen, recall, saying, and then eventually, a book was written by him and by Steven Cohen . And the book was called, I think, the soverign self, something like that. And one of the things they said in there is that Jews don't like the idea of religious duty. And they don't like the idea of a mitzvah really. And so in fact, it was no surprise to me that that appeal would only hold with those who had bought into the system of mitzvot is something necessary, a good number of Orthodox Jews to follow that, and I actually in hiring have a high regard for their ability to do so. And I like going to their services where, you know, I can, I can, I can appreciate the rationale behind it. And I can identify with it for a period of time, but in my own life, that's never worked with me. It's done a lot of time in my life, trying to think of what what language means and how language is used. And they recognized that HUC, for example, or us on the screen, we live in a language bubble. So we use language all the time. It's never everybody else knows that we're talking about and agrees with it, even though they don't and even though many of us don't think about it all it's just how we talk. So I, I never kind of understood or took the idea of prayers and mitzvah. So when I first started studying it, it was probably my first major talk after they gave it the at a venue UAHC, now that is now the URJ Biennial, I was a new professor probably wasn't 19 probably wasn't in 73. Alan, when I first met you, or maybe a year or two later, I don't know. And I gave a talk called the liturgical message. And it's now been printed in a book called gates of understanding Volume One, it's hard to get by, you know, it's it's an libraries anyway, the book was published by the UAHC at the time I think, at any rate, I said there that that prayer was primarily a means of identification, the way we identify as Jews. It was clear to me already, though, I haven't hadn't studied the academic side of it yet. But it was clear to me that when Jews came to pray, they came to identify as Jews. And that's why in crises to this day, we still come to the synagogue. You want to say, Well, I'm Jewish. I want to show up for this as a Jew. Now, there may be other places we show up as well. But if we were in person now, let's take the war against Ukraine going on now. Putin's war in Ukraine. I have no doubt that more people would come to services now because they want to they want to respond by supporting Ukraine and by opposing Putin and saying we believe in what is right. And they want to do it as Jews. We want to do it the right community. So we belong to many communities. But our religious community for many Jews still count even though you don't see them very often. That's why they come on the High Holidays. Here I am. It's putting in your you know, suiting up and show Being up for at the right time and right place and saying I'm still doing it, this is my community still. So I began to see prayer as, as the way in which we give a message to people about their Jewish identity. And that came about variety of ways. But I still think that's primary. And I now try to understand whether we are doing it well or poorly, and what's involved as our community shifts, and we become no longer ethnic. But we come now exceptionally diverse. And so Are you Jewish, our Jewish identity is now not what it was, at the time when I first saw that, but I still think of prayer as an identity and a form of identity formation. Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to believing in g?d. And, and I think in terms of a mitzvah did something we should do. I'm in favor of that. But I'm trying to put myself as I told you, before, in the mind, of the people out there sitting out somewhere in left field on high holy days, you know what I mean? And they're just sitting there with a prayer book, what are they thinking? So they're not there because they believe that the mitzvah, and they have thought to do it, although, yeah, they do it, but they don't think of it as something commanded by g?d, certainly. And they may or may not have some views about g?d, we never asked them we don't really know.
Larry, in that light, can you say something maybe about the the liturgy and the Siddur? Like, what are people really looking at? I have heard you, once upon a time, say that the liturgy was possibly like a political platform, because different movements come out with different versions of the Siddur. And it's basically our leaders telling us what they think we believe, or ought to believe. And then also, more recently, but still, not yesterday, have read your writings about spiritual translation, and about what one does with the Hebrew and how it's important to not only look at a literal translation of these Hebrew words, but to translate them in a way that they are still relevant for our lives today. Can you talk about the liturgy and the Siddur. And certainly, I hope that takes us to Minhag Ami and how that entire project started, perhaps.
That is a big set of questions, Ellen,
but there we have 15 seconds. Go right ahead.
Okay, good. I've already wasted five of them. First of all, a political platform. I don't know that I do political anymore. Especially because political now has ramifications in a divided country, where politics means they're either on this side or that, and I don't mean it that way I never did. Moreover, politics seems to imply a sort of action. You know, what, what, what do you think about immigrants on the border? What do you think about Black Lives Matter, so on and so forth. And and it becomes politicized easily as different groups in the country take opposite side than any of those questions. But I do think when I talk about identity, that the same thing is what you're implying, that is to say, the prayer service, the experience, is an exercise in what we Jews believe. Now, because we are coming from various positions, there are conservatives, there are liberals. They're all people. The prayer book, and the experience of prayer handles these questions without going into any detail. At no point, for example, will the prayer book tell you exactly what they think we ought to do and become an argument in terms of detail, Because then you have to stop, You'd say, wait, I agree with that part, but not this part. Wait, what do you mean by that? We don't go in that detail. But we use various general descriptions of responsibility of Jewish responsibility of the great values that tradition maintains, and we use certain words that are the that that are the catch off phrases, for things that resonate with us. So we'll say justice, justice, you shall pursue Well, everyone believes in justice now who you'd say okay. Now, that doesn't tell us what we mean by justice on the border. But prayer tells us that at least we should aim for whatever justice does do walk away feeling that we now are on the camp that believes in justice, and that we now have a line as well. So you find yourself at a cocktail party or something and people say, what are you Jews believe? And someone says, Well, justice and justice we should pursue. And now you sound like Yoda. And you say, where did I get that idea? Well, you got it from the first service. I want to interview the woman who told me that she she had lit, shabbos candles every single week. Why did she like about candles so firmly? And why was she so proud of us? Okay, 84-85 years old, you'd never missed a Friday night. And I said, What does this mean to you? And she said, Oh, light is a symbol of the Divine. Where did she get that? Union prayer book page seven. She'd been reading union prayer book though lock. She thought that was her idea. So we integrate what the prayer book says, If we understand the language, and she understood English, and that was the beauty of a poetic English, English has to be poetic. I'm getting to your second question. Now. It's not just what the prayer book says, though. It's also other things kind of subtle things in the surface, that matter. Somebody loves the feel of a prayer book. And then that feel of that prayer book becomes part of their identity. They pick it up, they love it. There are people, for example, who never wanted to get rid of the Union prayer book, because they had used it for so long. They loved it. I had the sense that as long as they love the prayer book, the way they love their own diary, we could then think of the prayer book as a diary entry of the Jewish people. And when we write new prayers, we are adding to our diary, when we pick it up and pour our emotion into it, that becomes our diary. A diary is who you are your deepest level. And if you're gonna express that through prayer, and through the prayer book, then of course, you're saying to yourself again, identity, look, this is my diary. The Jewish people is my people. Here I am saying what Jews have said forever, even if they haven't said it forever. So I think the the go back to why we pray, I think very much, why we pray, is to find a sense of a diary in this larger picture. So it's not just our personal diary, but our personal diary means a whole lot more. And we draw sustenance from whatever is going on in that service. Just say, yeah, that's where I really am at my at my greatest step. Translation. So I graduated from HUC. In 19. In 1973, the new gates of prayer was already in congregants hands. I had written an article about a rather a letter to the editors about it, but I wasn't on that committee. I was, however, on the committee of gate to repent. And then I was on the liturgy committee for the next several years, many years actually. And there the question of translation emerged. Now, you may remember that originally, we did not translate prayers, necessarily, word for word. Some prayers were translated. But some prayers were not instead, you got a general sense of what the paragraph had to say. It was more poetic. Now, there are different ways of thinking about translation, it may be that word for word is not what you should do anyway. It should be at least phrase for phrase, but we weren't even doing that. We would just have nothing that gave you the sense of what the Hebrew meant. We heard from people who said, This is terrible. I want to know exactly what I'm saying in the Hebrew. And so you got to translate it exactly. So we started putting a little tiny circle in front of those prayers, that were not literal translations to let people know, Oh, this isn't the real translation. No, notice this little a little circle. I mean, what good was that? People still said, you know, everyone has a right to know. I don't actually know that. A lot of our people believe that. I think a lot of our rabbis and cantors believed that people believed that. They heard from a very specific slice of the congregation. One of our problems is that we play to as it were, only the regulars who come to our synagogue, and are always there on Friday night or Shabbat morning. They're the people who we know the names of them, they come to everything. They tell us our sermon is good. They like the way we sing. And indeed, they're there. They're people who love to pray there at best 10% of the congregation, adults, probably fewer than that. Whether the average person who comes on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur cares whether it's a literal translation or not, I rather doubt they don't give it a thought. But there was a belief at the time that we had to be literal. I objected to that. I said that the meaning of the Hebrew is not simply the word literally understood. The meaning of the meaning of the of the Hebrew is the entire experience of saying it. I never knew what any of the prayers meant when I was a kid going to the Orthodox areas, but I loved it. I didn't care what I was davening. If someone said to me, oh to prayer for peace, okay, that's nice, but I didn't really care. And at any rate people want Have a certain experience of prayer. And the experience is essentially an aesthetic one, add to emotional. One, you put pey, you give people the exact translation of prayers that were written, you know, 2000 years ago, 1500 years ago, 1000 years ago in the Middle Ages 500 years ago before modernity. They want to agree with most of it. And it'll it'll sound stilted because those prayers were not intended to be translated into modern English. We get a feeling positive feeling about them, if we do them in Hebrew. But once you translate them into English, you lose the entire impact. I argued that the English in our prayer books should provide for the worst for what the Hebrew did for the worshiper once upon a time, which means that it would have to be emotional would have to be poetic, it would have to get the general sense of the Hebrew of it's about peace, good, but something and about peace, where there are some lines that you can draw upon, you can mostly follow the translation. But I wouldn't worry so much I said about making sure that everyone knew what the translation was. When we did Mishcon, , I was on the small subcommittee that did the final work on the on the book, we were charged with giving an accurate translation of each prayer. I was not necessarily in favor of it, because I said that people are going to read it. And if they read it, first of all, they won't agree with it. Second of all, don't be poetic. And third, don't have a positive experience of it. So why bother? However, I insisted that if we wanted it there, so you could point to it if you're teaching from the prayer book they looked at, but it really means, okay, people would tend to use the left hand side of the page, I thought, the left hand side of the page provides the poetry and the alternatives that I wanted. But I insisted then on what you would call a spiritual translation, meaning, a translation that does for the English worshiper, what the original Hebrew did for the worshiper, when the Hebrew had been composed,
the writing of yours or the, I'd say editing and writing of yours that we use the most frequently here on this show, and me and my life is mean Minhag Ami also called my peoples prayer book, which is for the listeners a series of books that provide in very great detail, many different facets and ways into different pieces of liturgy. There's the translation, there's the biblical allusions, there's chassidis, there's feminism, there's Halacha, Jewish law, all these different ways in what was your inspiration and impetus for this series? And what do you hope, both leaders of T'fillah and practitioners of T'fillah, people who just want to learn? What do you hope that they get out of the series?
Well, what a great question when I was still a young professor, so I by now had tenure out the full professor. But I was still pretty young. I had been at the college too long. I had a conversation with Dr. Borowitz, who, as I said, was a mentor for me. And Dr. Borowitz knew that I was running around the country lecturing and writing considerably and having being on committees and trying to have an impact on the college. I had, by that time already become the director of the now Debbie Friedman School of sacred music, which was a very important part of my life, because I wanted Cantor's to be recognized, and they weren't. So I wanted to bring cantorial education into the modern world. So I knew of something about prayer from not just the rabbinic perspective, but also the cantorial perspective, and I was developing my own theory of what prayer sould be. And I still had this great fondness for the judicial Siddur of my childhood. And having studied it, I could see in the Siddur is a diary of the Jewish people. I've used that term before. I was taken by a here's a story I was taken by a man who I met in the downstairs what they called the Vesti room and old tools, the downstairs kind of messy the area was called the vestry room. And I was giving a lecture in a small town in Indiana. And the last lecture was a Sunday morning in this little st room, and a bunch of people gathered and when I was finished, a man came up to me and said, I see you like prayer. And he was obviously listening. And he said you know something about prayer book, and I nodded. And he said, Me, I'm a prayer book myself. And I thought, Oh, what was he trying to say? And I don't know. And then he said to me, that he had gone through as I said, I went Hitler's camps. And as other people came and went, and they died along the way, and I was still there, I was young and strong. I began to wonder what will happen if I'm the only Jew left? When this is all over, and I decided what I would do is I would memorize, I would memorize the prayer service and be able to pass that along. I already had gone to shul a lot. He said, It was a reformed temple, but he had been raised orthodox. And he said, I went to the shul. And I knew all the prayers. And now I knew a lot of the reformed prayers as well. But at least a Hebrew he said they would die for sure. And I thought, if I, if I could daven my way through, then I would be the spokesperson for the next generation of Jews who arrived after me. I just thought that was enormously touching. And I thought he's right on. Most Jews, you know, never had a sense of Jewish knowledge. In its abundant. When the average dude didn't know Talmud, the average dude didn't know Midrash the average Jews know much Hebrew. Even in the Middle Ages, we tend to overestimate what people knew they didn't. The one thing they didn't know was the prayer book. They didn't g?dthey wouldn't regularly they knew the prayers. So I thought of the prayer book as kind of a hourglass where all of Jewish tradition is poured in from the top, you know, like a funnel, and it funnels down to us. And so the prayer book was the way all of this Jewish knowledge and Jewish understandings of the world that coats the Talmud, it boats, the Bible, both Midrash that's how people got it. So I began taking about, you know, what kind of what kind of book by rehab that would give that people. Now, as I say, Jean borrows came to me just sort of over that time. And he said to me, you know, you're very busy. But I recommend the following view, I pass it along as advice to everybody on your podcast, there comes a time in your life, when you want to say, instead of spreading myself so thin, what really matters to me, what's the one thing I really would like to do? And then you start tearing away the things that don't really matter, but you're just doing by habit, then put more time into what you really care about. So obviously, he was talking not about my family life, that, you know, I really love my children, and so on and so forth. That was another story. But he was talking about what do we would call my professional life, I decided that kind of one project that he suggested. And whatever else I do, I would want to get that project done.
So putting that all together, I decided that I would do some kind of book that would bring all Jewish opinions together. And here would be that, that final into the final would be poured a traditionalist understanding through Tolman, what's the Bible? About? What What, what's a feminist approach to this? How are some theology theologians thinking about it, there would be people from Israel and from the diaspora, there would be men and women and people of all ages and there would be Orthodox, Conservative reform, constructionist people, it would be my people. So I went to Jewish lights, which was thrilled to do this. Seward, Madeline's who was the director and founder of Jewish light took the position that there were some books that were just worth doing. He didn't care if he made any money on. And so he said, Look, we won't be able to make a ton of money on these books. They're not potboilers that everyone's gonna buy. And some of them, he said, will be books that hardly anyone will buy if you're going to do the whole Siddur. I mean, it's one thing to read a book about the Shamar fine. But when you get to something, a tachnun, and no one knows what it is, why would anyone buy that? So, but he said, If you think we should do it, I'll trust your judgment. So he gave me a carte blanche. And with that, I proceeded to work my way through the entire traditional liturgy. With everything from what the traditional essay to why reformed Jews had changed it and what modern people were thinking of various sorts. And then I thought the way we present Jewish knowledge and Jewish Book is utterly critical. I remember once being called to do the union the URJ, but that time you HUC because they had a manuscript of the of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, and it was on a folio side, they, you know, big, big book, and he took two pages to turn two hands to turn the page. And it was very old. It was probably they thought from the 15th century or 14th century they weren't entirely sure Maybe even 13, they didn't know. And it had beautiful pictures in it with gold leaf. I mean, the page is breathing heavy it was it was something striking. And as I turned to pages, I discovered that there are that people had written in the market. At least one person had, I couldn't, I couldn't compare all the handwriting was all handwritten. But someone had written in the March, even in this beautiful prayer book, we would call that defacing it, you know, but obviously, at that time, they thought about it. Because this person was a rabbi, who was adding his commentary to what he saw as the Jewish tradition that had been handed down to him. Then I realized that that's, of course, how all our book their passed down. If you buy what's called the rabbinic Bible, you get the, you get the center piece, which is the biblical account. And then all around the edges, you have commentary, shown later, the Talmud is written that way, the middle part, the texts, and commentaries, and then there even commentaries on the commentary. So I said, that's the way it used to be composed. And I decided I would, I would organize the book so that the prayer tax would be in the middle. And then we'd have commentaries all around the edge. And then that would take you to other pages to finish the commentaries by looking at it, you would see oh, look, this is the whole Jewish people. You know, it's my people's prayer book, not just my people today who study it. But it's all of my people forever and ever, if it were, who pour what they say about prayer, into this funnel, and it comes out in this in this book, and I'm very proud of it. I think it's what I wanted to do. And I finished that I finished a traditional Siddur. And then of course, we did Passover Haggadah as well to volume. And then the second thing, the next thing I did was a little different. And that was an eight, I think, eight volume theories on the High Holy Days. But I didn't organize it that way only because the machzor the high holiday prayer book, it's so complicated. To do it that way was very hard. And I couldn't do the entire service, I could just pick various barriers. So I isolated very affair, the ones that are most important, and I oliday. And I think the right volume in that too.
Well, I for one, I'm so grateful for your work. And I hope that this podcast is a way to add to that conversation, to bring it into a different medium and to help the conversation move forward. As we begin to wrap up, I want to go back to a comment that you made at the beginning of our conversation about the quote, unquote, uneducated Jews in the back of the room during a T'fillah service, particularly during the High Holidays. But I would think anytime someone who doesn't necessarily think about prayer, or g?d comes into a Jewish prayer service, this is a two part question. What ideally, would you hope that person's experience is? Or what could that person's experience be? And what could the leader of the prayers do to help make that experience more of a possibility?
I was attending a service once in New York City, that synagogue doesn't matter. There was a very fine rabbi and Cantor and I like to go there. Sometimes I would travel all the way in this to go to services there on Shabbat Eve. I know it was a long time ago. And I noticed that somebody walked in the door, I sat at the back, someone walked in the door, I would say she was a young woman in her 30s Possibly kind of looked around wasn't quite sure what to do. And she sat down, she found a pair of books sitting in front of her and she picked it up. And I was watching her from some distance. And I could see that she didn't know what the book was. He wasn't quite sure what was going on. And everyone in the room felt that this was really a community that Rabbi and Cantor had created that kind of a feeling. But of course, all the people who were there were the people who I call regulars, people who come to that. And she wasn't. And she turned the book around, looked at it looked up both it listened for a while. The cantor was singing the everything in Hebrew, almost everything was in Hebrew. And she left. And I've often wondered what she was thinking, why did she come? What was on her mind? Why did she leave? How did she feel when she left? This is shall I say, not a success story. So the biggest mistake we make is thinking that because we love it, everybody else does too. We do not realize how difficult it is to feel at home. In a in an activity that culturally is not the norm, sitting around listening to Hebrew and people saying prayers. When you don't know the prayer is Don't know what's going on don't know what the acidity is stand, don't know why you do either one. And you're looking at a book, which is something you would never buy off the shelves and enjoy. So how do we, how do we satisfy the very sophisticated need of people who are regulars, but at the same time, not just welcomed people and say, welcome, welcome, but in some way actually make them feel welcome and feel a part of it. If we conceive of the prayer service, as an exercise in identity formation, that we should recognize that anyone who feels left out will say, not just I didn't like it. But oh, this is not for me, I am not Jewish, or I am not Jewish enough. I don't want to become Jewish, or that person I'm going out with who wants me to appreciate Judaism, I'm not even gonna go out with him, her them anymore. So at lot is at stake. I have this notion, therefore, that we need to rexamine the entire question. And I don't want to leave you with the sense that I know the entire answer. So a good way to end the podcast might be talking about the particular moment in which we, which we occupy today. If you think about liturgical change, you can see that following as in the 1960s, as it were, there was a sort of mood that struck the country. We were writing, we were we were now getting rid of the Union prayer book, saying that it was not sufficient for most of us, by the 1970s, the rebels of the 1960s, we're now growing up. And there was a sense of all these people got camp. And we were realizing we had to do something new. And we were changing our liturgy, changing our music, changing our cantorial education, changing everything. And we weren't doing it alone. I've been in rooms where in one case, meeting an Episcopal priest, who was involved in changing the Episcopal liturgy, was talking about his experiences on his committee. And I thought I was at that meeting only it was a different meeting. But we were talking about the same thing for Jews. And I realized this is going on all around the country. It was a reformation. We all know that in the 16th century, there was a reformation in which Protestantism got formed. And so people don't always think of it this way that reformation struck Jews, but only in the 19th century, because we were in debt owed until that time. So the winds of change, that it altered the worship, and the liturgy and the religious consciousness of millions of people in the Christian world, struck Western Europe, after Napoleon released us from the ghettos, and we got a reform with a small art wasn't yet Reformed Judaism with a capital art, it was a form that also regain ultimately became conservative in modern orthodoxy and so on. We then had a second we had we had that reformation late in time. That was our first reformation. And we became, I became a reformed Jew. By the time you got to the 19, the time I'm talking about the 1960s, which threw everything into question, the 1970s, where people from the East Coast moved dramatically, south and west. By that time, the Catholic Church, as I say, was changing its understanding of prayer. And so were the Protestants. And so were we. And so we came up with a new prayer book, a new diary entry, if you like. Well, I think we've come to the end of that era. And we are now in an age of remarkable creativity, potentially. But actually, that era began before COVID. We just are not forced into it. Everybody knew that. People coming to services were graying, the next generation who wasn't even showing up. Fewer and fewer people were joining synagogues and churches, of course, fewer and fewer people like organized religion. And the idea of just attending services because you should do I had a child that's gone forever. And the number of the kinds of people that we see are all different, we now understand better, the diversity in our midst, gender wise, terms of race. We have so many different kinds of people coming in even the old definitions of who's Jewish and who isn't, will have to go. We should rather be thinking about a rather fluid state, whereby people are differently involved and at different levels. And in different ways, in what I like to call the Jewish conversation. I think we should conceive of Judaism as a conversation in the making, in which we inherit a conversation of the past. And one is Jewish. To the extent that one is involved in that conversation. The service becomes, therefore a training ground for the Jewish conversation, how the question then is, how can we involve people in the Jewish conversation? And how can that training ground the service, provide an experience that is so positive, that they say this is a deep conversation? I know there's more to it than this. And I want to be part of it. So now, as we come out of COVID, we now we now see that our congregations can be worldwide, we see that Zoom is not going to go away, that technology is just going to get better. And we're reevaluating what a worship service looks like. Every week, it seems to me someone tells me I'm doing this is that all right, is this Can I try that is just too wild? My answer almost always is only history will tell. But you can't wait around for that. You have to judge do you have to use leadership. If you think this isn't good, then change it. See how it goes? Let the people decide they'll let you know. But I am now advocating enormous creativity and finally give worship leaders the rabbi's. The Cantor's the lay people who care deeply about worship. I'm trying to give them the tools and the permission to look anew at what our worship is, though, if our worship has to be our people's worship, like my people's prayer book, you know, then we're gonna have to expand our notion of who is our people are going to have to do worship differently in ways that we have yet to imagine. But I think all we're up all reformations are sort of like revolutions. When you're in the midst of it, you don't really know what to do. But you work at it day by day, and the good things live. If we use this time wisely, we will wake up and a decade or maybe even more, will discover that we have advanced the cause of Judaism and the Jewish people, Jewish identity, to the point where it in engages many more people than we ever could have imagined. As the future is bright indeed.
I just have to say, Larry, that I'm actually quite emotional now. And really, you know, close to tears here. And I'm so grateful for your insights and to be able to be part of this conversation with you today. When I think about that, as of next year, that I will have been in conversation with you about this in varying degrees for 50 years. And it's really quite, quite incredible. You have been such an important teacher in my life. I think that without meaning to it was your teaching that brought me to my own focus of being a lover of the liturgy and of Shlichut Tzibur, as I like to call it, prayer leadership. But thank you so, so much for this because of being able to hear how you have evolved and your ideas have evolved. You've really taken us all with you and worldwide Judaism with you as well. I'm so grateful.
Thank you for inviting me. It's been a sheer delight.
Thank you so so, so much, Larry, Rabbi Hoffman especially I have to say, there are a lot of people out there who are saying doom and gloom, they see a lowering the amount of people who come to synagogue and they say it's over and yet you are reflecting what I feel is that this is an opportunity to think about what are we doing and how can we do it, and I love the framing of Judaism as a conversation. I want to reiterate, I agree the future is bright. And I hope that this conversation can help inspire folks to go out and and make those changes. Thank you so so much for joining us. And thank you so much for listening. Our editing is done by Christi Dodge of Allobee. Thank you so much Christi. Our show notes this week were done by Melissa Kienan and thank you so much, Melissa, and thank you for supporting the show. Click the links wherever you are listening to this right now to read more. Support the show maybe get some of the books that you heard about on this week's show and we can't wait to see you again. Shalom everyone.