Hoffman to explore changing ethnic identity of Judaism

Judaism has a history that spans more than 3,000 years, and it is disappearing.

At least, that’s the case with traditional forms of Jewish identity. But, according to Lawrence A. Hoffman, new Jewish forms of identity are also forming.

Hoffman, the Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at Hebrew Union College, will discuss these patterns of emergence and disappearance at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy. His lecture is titled “Beyond Ethnicity: Religion for an Age of Anxious Identity.”

Before the 1960s, Judaism was not only a religion, but a deeply felt ethnic identity, Hoffman said.

“We knew quite firmly who and what we were,” he said. “Judaism was not just a faith, but a family, a certain kind of food, remembering the old country.”

However, this ethnic identity began to fade after three generations, when children were be born to parents who had no direct connection with their family’s national roots and traditions, Hoffman said.

“After the 1960s, what could be best described as our hermetically sealed community was cast open, and we rediscovered a very broad world,” he said. “Our sealed community began to disappear, but so did our certainties.”

In addition to his teaching, Hoffman is the author of more than 40 books and a founder of Synagogue 3000, which encourages the study of Jewish congregational life, trends and changes both in synagogue clergy and leadership and in rabbinical schools.

“The idea [behind Synagogue 3000] was that we needed to challenge synagogues to look more closely at what they were and consider more deeply what needed to change,” Hoffman said. “Much of what I do in the classroom [at Hebrew Union College] is encourage the courage to encourage [the development] of a vision of what still might be.”

A large portion of Hoffman’s vision of Judaism’s future is the use of the synagogue congregation as a means of creating an identity for members in a post-ethnic society.

“Religious communities can now provide a post-ethnic anchor for identity at a very deep level,” Hoffman said. “Our identity today is very complex and variegated, so one has to imagine a deep level of identity that has been called ‘moral space.’ Religion provides that.”

Though Hoffman’s lecture will provide a Jewish perspective on these issues, he said, the problems faced by synagogues are also faced by other religions as they adjust to the changing needs of the 21st century’s faithful. However, recognizing these shared challenges requires a willingness to seek out new perspectives.

“I’ve had the good fortune of teaching at Hebrew Union College, which encouraged me to be honest and to learn from as many people as possible,” Hoffman said. “I’ve also learned that we religious sorts hang out with each other to the point where we forget that the rest of the world isn’t like us. [We need to determine] how do we make their conversation our conversation, and our conversation theirs?”