Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D., Awarded the Abraham Geiger Medal in Wroclaw, Poland

Monday, November 3, 2014

From left: Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D.; Rabbi Walter Homolka, Ph.D., Founder and Rector, Abraham Geiger College; and Rabbi Walter Jacob, President, Abraham Geiger College

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D., Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at HUC-JIR/New York, was awarded the Abraham Geiger Medal by the Abraham Geiger College in a special ceremony held on September 3, 2014 in Wroclaw, Poland (once Breslau, Germany).  The citation, which was prepared in both German and English, paid tribute to Rabbi Hoffman’s liturgical contributions as well as his concern for synagogues and for the revival of European Jewry. 

The ceremony took place as part of an academic conference on Progressive Judaism and its origins that marked the 160th anniversary of the founding of Breslau's Jewish Theological Seminary as well as the 140th yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Geiger (1810-1874). Geiger, who had conceived the idea of the seminary, had been a rabbi at the city's grand White Stork synagogue for more than 20 years.  In 1931, the Prussian government approved the addition to the seminary's original name of that of Hochschule für jüdische Theologie, thus creating a model for today's Geiger College as the School of Jewish Theology at Potsdam University. 

Expressing his "solidarity with the Jewish People in its historic revival in Europe," Rabbi Hoffman recalled the legacy of the Holocaust and noted that the rabbinical and cantorial ordination taking place not that far from Auschwitz, "here in a new Poland, allows us to dream of a future once again. Am Yisrael chai!

Rabbi Hoffman concluded his acceptance speech (see below) with the following words: "No religion understands the pathos and promise of the human condition than Judaism does.  Our history exemplifies the life of exile and insistence on return -- return to our ancestral homeland; return now to Europe; and spiritually, the return to believing that human beings can be good, that God's purposes remain intact, that there will come a better day, that -- working together with good men and women everywhere -- we can bring that day to pass.  This is the essence of the progressive Jewish vision from the prophets to Geiger to our own time.  It is the reason to be Jewish." 

Events surrounding the award ceremony included the ordination of seven graduates of the Abraham Geiger College, located in Potsdam, Germany the day before, on September 2.  This was the first ordination ceremony in Poland since the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, and the first one to be conducted abroad from its Potsdam location. Rabbi Daniel H. Freelander, the new Chief Executive of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, addressed the graduates, saying "Yours is the responsibility to create 21st-century Judaism. Yours is the privilege of engaging individuals who do not yet fully appreciate the beauty, power, and wisdom of Judaism."   He later remarked, "Abraham Geiger College is maturing and growing, creating a new rabbinate for Europe." 

German Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was one of the guests of honor at the ceremony and spoke about the significance of Germans and Poles jointly shouldering the responsibility for a free and open Europe.  He said, "This momentous ceremony is no less than a blessing -- a miracle of history and an almost unimaginable achievement of reconciliation." "We must not allow anti-Semitism to take root ever again," he asserted, warning that everyone had the duty to speak out wherever and whenever anti-Semitic sentiments were expressed. 

The evening before, the College marked the 75th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland with a memorial concert for the victims of the Shoah. 

The Abraham Geiger College was established in 1999 at the University of Potsdam.  Its graduates serve Jewish communities throughout Europe and beyond, including South Africa.  


Rabbi Professor Lawrence A. Hoffman

Acceptance Address

Abraham Geiger Medal Ceremony

Wroclaw, Poland -- September 3, 2014


To begin, I must say to my dear student, friend, now colleague, Rabbi Daniel Freelander, how grateful I am for your being here, and your kind words about me. I can think of no one more dear to me, more welcome as the person charged with speaking about my calling. As the newly appointed director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, you bring hope to the dream that animated Abraham Geiger as he plotted the course of Judaism from this very city of Breslau/Wroclaw. He was moved, as you are, by the promise of spreading a progressive but authentic message of Judaism throughout the world.

It is originally a prophetic message, evoked by Israel’s discovery, already in biblical days, of a wider world beyond itself, a world of geopolitical conflict and conquest much like our own. The prophets, however, spoke of physical exile and promised a return to the Land of Israel from which we had been exiled. Today, we remember physical extermination and the promise of returning to the many lands of Europe, as a people great in numbers, rich in heritage.

In that regard, I salute Rabbi Professor Walter Homolka for taking steps that others did not dare even to imagine. If Jews could return to their homeland from Babylonian exile, then why indeed can we not be restored to our proud condition of being full-fledged members in what is now post-Hitler Europe? I was born in the years of the Shoah, spared its immediate trauma because I lived in Canada, but raised with the mentality of those years when no one would have thought to see Jewish life in Berlin, Frankfurt, Warsaw, Wroclaw, and so on. But here we are, with rabbis and synagogues (no less), in no small part because Professor Homolka insisted we might be.

I express my profound gratitude to the Geiger Kolleg that Professor Homolka established, for bestowing this honor upon me. I have much to be proud of in my own life as a rabbi: my 40 some-odd books on liturgy, worship, synagogues, and the Jewish condition; my 40 some-odd years of teaching at my own great institution, The Hebrew Union College in new York; my students there and my students’ students everywhere. But especially high on that list is the tiny role God has granted me in the historic mission of the Geiger Kolleg. I have welcomed each and every opportunity to teach the extraordinary student body gathered there – some of whom, now ordained, gave papers here this morning. If I am remembered for my solidarity with the Jewish People in its historic revival in Europe, I shall be happy indeed. 

Last, but not least, acharon acharon chaviv, “the last mentioned is the most beloved,” I thank my wife, Dr. Gayle Hoover, who has traveled with me this day, and who so willingly and ably supports me in all I do. To you, Gayle, I offer my gratitude, admiration, and love in greater measure than words can say.

Before we left home, a member of my wife’s extended family wrote, “The family of my great-grandmother (from my mother’s side) lived in Breslau. My grandfather Horwitz got arrested by the Nazis there and sent to Buchenwald.” The tie I wore yesterday for ordination (with its décor of brightly colored autumn leaves) was designed by Hanka Kornfeld-Marder  -- another survivor in my wife’s family circle. She recalls being served soup made of just such leaves at Auschwitz. Now, leaves intended for bitter soup with no nutritional value and served to Jews who would die anyway, have been transformed into a festive tie that another Jew wears to celebrate Jewish rabbinic and cantorial ordination not that far from Auschwitz, but here in new Poland, allow us to dream of a future once again. Am Yisra’el chai!

These stories are like so many others – the stories of many of you gathered here, for example -- but I cite them as my own examples of the miracle that finds us back in the city of Abraham Geiger. If we have reason to anticipate renewed Jewish greatness in Europe, it will be because of the vision and tenacity of Professor Homolka and his associates – I mention especially Dr. Walter Jacob, who has so kindly bestowed this award upon me, and whom I have known these many years as my teacher from afar, a scholar and pioneer in interpreting Jewish sources for us all.

I referred above to the historic role of the Jewish People, to our prophetic calling. The ultimate question facing Geiger Kolleg, Jews in Europe, Jews in America, and yes, even Jews in our historic homeland of Israel is whether we still believe in it. Are we here merely as accidents of history or do we actually make that history, playing our destined role in bringing it about, as God would wish us to, and in God’s good time? From the prophets of antiquity to Geiger himself, in whose shadow we now gather, it was taken for granted that we Jews are here not for our own sake alone but for the sake of the world community, the betterment of which is our Jewish mission. That being the case, I feel obliged not just to express gratitude to you today, but to give voice, as well, to the monumental hopes that Geiger himself would have spoken (far better than I) were he here in person not just in memory.

He framed them especially cogently at the Brunswick rabbinic conference in 1844, when he said, “The true Israelite testifies gladly to Israel's high vocation to carry the faith in the one and only God in all its purity to the world.… Joyfully he expresses his gratitude that this holy and life-giving thought of Israel is increasingly realized in the world, and with all the fervor of his confidence he looks to the day when this thought will bless all mankind and bind it into one brotherhood.”

Geiger’s language, in the original German and in my English translation, sounds quite lovely, but (you may say) painfully out of date, overly optimistic, and even quaint.”How charming,” we are likely to respond. “But Geiger lived so long ago. The poor fellow took the Enlightenment too seriously. How little he knew of reality: why, he had not even experienced the First Great War that ravaged all of Europe from 1914 to 1918, much less the Second World War that practically wiped out the Jewish people itself, along with countless Roma, gays, Poles, Russians, and on and on and on. Nor had he witnessed the Stalinist butchery of the bloody 20th century. Having ourselves seen both, must we not wonder at Geiger’s naïve belief in Israel's mission to carry the “faith in of the one and only God in all its purity to the world”?

In all this optimism, Geiger spoke as a modernist, a position that has been challenged by rampant post-modernists who laugh at the naïveté of Geiger’s generation. Master narratives of historical progress and divine intent are scorned nowadays as the foolish residue of unsophisticated fantasy. Instead of faith in the nobility of humanity, we are treated to ever newer versions of Nietszche’s charge that God is dead and Dostoyevski’s reminder that in a world without God, all things are possible. It follows that we should not be surprised at the emergence of evil in the Shoah’s concentration camps, the Stalinist gulags, and the villainous schemes of our own time as well.

Jews have the right to survive, of course; hence our right to be committed to a Jewish state of Israel -- but as Hochpolitik, not as a matter of faith. Jews have the right to culture and enjoyment also – – who doesn't? So we invest in Klezmer concerts, Jewish art, Hebrew as a living language, and novels to explore the Jewish secular soul set free from the need to believe in anything anymore. But belief itself? The faith of Amos, or of Geiger, Frankel, Hirsch, and the other giants of the nineteenth century? Don’t be ridiculous, we are told. How absurd! Forget it and face reality.

As an example of this anti-religious consciousness, take the 1910 award-winning novel from England, The Finkler Question. The book is filled with Jews whom the author calls “Finklers,” after the name of the main Jewish character, Sam Finkler.  But believing in nothing profound at all, these Finklers have no good reason to remain Jewish -- the only person of who really wants to be Jewish is a non-Jew, who concludes, “ A Finkler is a Finkler is a Finkler. And Finklers have no faith.”

The events of the 20th century really have shattered the easy faith that we once held, the faith of Geiger’s generation. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur has aptly called that faith “our first naïveté,” which we have rightly lost  so that we now live with the obsessive suspicion regarding anything Geiger and his generation represented. But suspicion of all that is great and noble destroys the soul, so Ricoeur urges us to replace the dampening effect of suspicion with the faith of “a second naïveté,” a naïveté that denies nothing of reality yet finds some expression of ultimate promise nonetheless.

How might Jews find the faith of a second naïveté and be able to reframe for our own time the ringing endorsement of the future that was so central to Abraham Geiger?

I find it in a reading of our Torah that takes as its beginning the remarkable story of Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden. The story is just a story, but look how the Rabbis read it. They have nothing to say about a fall: there is no primal fall of the human race, no primeval sin attached to human beings ever after. Instead, they read it as the beginning of exile, and portray the Jewish narrative ever after as a tale of exile and return, exile and a yearning for home. The careful reader closes the chapter on Adam and Eve already knowing how the biblical tale itself will end: Adam and Eve foreshadow Israel, who will be exiled from their land just as Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden. This is a far cry from Geiger's insistence that Jews are at home in the diaspora and not in exile at all, but I am not arguing for the classic Zionist platform that sees us in actual physical exile in Germany, America, Poland, and elsewhere. By exile I mean a metaphysical category, not a geographic one.

I mean the Kabbalistic understanding of exile as the human condition itself. We are all strangers in a strange land, dependent on forces beyond ourselves, never fully at home even in our own lives, yearning always for a sense of peace and harmony and wholeness. Were Geiger alive and with us here today, he would not have appreciated my citing Kabbalah (which he considered the epitome of irrational mysticism) but he would have appreciated what I am doing with it. He would have applauded my saying that it is not enough to be a Finkler. Without some faith in something, our Judaism is a cardboard caricature that is hardly worth maintaining. And the only faith worth having, Geiger would have held, is the prophetic insistence that we are a particular people with a universal goal to address the human condition from a Jewish point of view.

No religion understands the pathos and promise of the human condition better than Judaism does. Our history exemplifies the life of exile and insistence on return – return to our ancestral homeland; return now to Europe; and, spiritually, the return to believing that human beings can be good, that God’s purposes remain intact, that there will come a better day, that (working together with good men and women everywhere) we can bring that day to pass. This is the essence of the progressive Jewish vision from the prophets to Geiger to our own time. It is the reason to be Jewish.

We must trumpet that vision bravely, boldly, consistently, and courageously. It is Judaism at its best, a message of hope and of inspiration for a world that needs both. As in Geiger’s time, there will be those who barely comprehend what we progressive Jews are doing and will only seek to block our success. But what we are about is good, right, just and necessary; it is a progressive Jewish vision with world significance. And it will prevail.

We can, of course, settle for less: Klezmer concerts, film festivals, museum openings, and all the rest – meritorious expressions of Jewish culture, but hardly a compelling rationale for the Judaism of the Bible and the Talmud, of Moses Maimonides and Judah Halevi, of the Tosafists and Kabbalists, or of Abraham Geiger himself, the visionary whose memory we mark today. Geiger would have been appalled at our timidity. He would have given sermon after sermon, right here, in his Breslau synagogue, urging us not to settle for the emptiness of Judaism as entertainment, but to reformulate the Jewish promise of the centuries for a world that needs reminders of what it means to be created in God’s image and to strive ever after to act in league with God.

I accept this Abraham Geiger medal with more gratitude than you know; and with the humble recognition that all of us here can learn from the great founder of Reform Judaism after whom it is named. Geiger's 19th century was revolutionary in nature, only the second great revolution in Jewish history– – the first being the Rabbis of antiquity who gave us the very rabbinic Judaism that Geiger both accepted and reformed. We now live in just the third such revolution, a time that follows a century of trauma but inaugurates a century of opportunity, if we but have the courage to be utterly thorough in re-reforming reform; restating for all to hear our age-old certainty of mission; welcoming to our midst all who would join us with that mission in mind; and refusing to limit Judaism to simpleminded pieties, nostalgia for the past, secularized versions of what is readily available elsewhere, or petty-minded simplicities that fall short of all the greatness that Judaism was meant to be.

Pray God that we shall be up to the task. When this Abraham Geiger Medal is awarded 100 and 200 years from now, pray God that the recipient will look back at us as we now look back at Geiger himself, and say that we did not squander our opportunity to matter, that we were worthy successors of all that Abraham Geiger held dear. 


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