Words of Meaning…

By Leah Hochman, Ph.D., and
Rabbi Michael Marmur, Ph.D.

It was the weirdest of times, it was the wordiest of times. Perhaps we will remember these extreme days in which we continue to find ourselves with such an adage. Stuck at home with children, partners, or ourselves and with the keyboard and chocolate for inspiration, many have felt called to reflect on our current predicament. In recent months, of course, the COVID-19 crisis has become interlaced with environmental, political, social and moral emergencies.

This month the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion is launching a site called Scriptions: Jewish Thoughts and Responses to COVID-19 (scriptions.huc.edu). Almost 30 faculty members from across our four campuses have participated in this project, each of them drawing from their own areas of expertise in response to these extreme times. Historians draw readers’ attentions to parallels ancient and modern, while sociologists and our education faculty analyze contemporary realities. Biblicists turn to the Bible, and Talmudists to the Talmud. Theologians also offer insights, some tentative and others more strident in nature.

For HUC-JIR’s President, Andrew Rehfeld, it was the need for a theological response which sparked this initiative. Observing as we all have the undermining of science, the erosion of leadership, the sullying of values and the blurring of focus which has been so much a feature of these months, Rehfeld wondered whether the intellectual and religious traditions upon which the College-Institute is founded might offer insight, succor and stimulation at such a dark moment.

Early in the pandemic, our colleague, Rabbi Elliott Kleinman, HUC-JIR’s Chief Engagement Officer, recalled the collective work of the faculty as they discussed the ordination of LGBTQI students. That study effort in the 1980s served as the basis for discussion of many important issues about inclusion for the Reform Movement and beyond. Kleinman urged President Rehfeld to consider a similar undertaking around this pandemic and the liberal Jewish view of the issues of the day. Scriptions is the result.

The two of us (Hochman is Associate Professor at the College-Institute’s Los Angeles campus and Marmur in Jerusalem) decided to divide the essays into three groupings: DEscriptions, with an emphasis on historical accounts and sociological analyses; INscriptions, in which texts of the Jewish tradition are interpreted and explored for meaning and resonance; and PREscriptions, in which a variety of theological and political interpretations are proposed.

What emerges from this project is not a systematic response to the woes and confusions of our world in 2020. Instead, in manageably-sized portions and in what is designed to be an accessible style, scholars and practitioners of repute offer ways of thinking about our common predicament. The pandemic is at the heart of these initial essays, although it would not surprise us if in the coming months some of the other epoch-making developments swirling around us also find their way into the discussion.

If Scriptions informs and enlightens, if it stimulates discussion and provokes hearty response, then it will have achieved its goals. While the men and women who have penned these initial essays are all members of the HUC-JIR faculty, they offer diverse perspectives. No attempt has been made to harmonize the views express or the tone of the essays. Some set out to offer solace, others to spur argument. This combination of approaches, offering comfort alongside creative discomfort, is characteristic of Jewish responses to upheaval throughout the centuries. In this regard, Scriptions is an expression of tradition at a time of crisis.

It is our hope that the words marshalled in Scriptions give curious readers an opportunity to engage with ideas and historical periods to which they may not usually give much thought. Covering everything from child mortality in biblical times to Zoom pedagogy today; from the position of Jewish Law on science and public policy to the resonances of modern poetry; from the Book of Psalms to new liturgy exploring the meaning of the Sabbath in a time of lockdown, Scriptions hopes to offer more than meaningless wordiness. It hopes to offer words of meaning.

Leah Hochman, Ph.D., is Director of the Louchheim School for Judaic Studies and Associate Professor of Jewish Thought.

Rabbi Michael Marmur, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Jewish Theology.