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Find out what Wexner Members, Fellows and Alumni are doing. Register for upcoming Institutes.

The Jewish Life Cycle: The Shape of a Human Life with Rabbi Larry Hoffman

Even as thoughtful Jewish leaders, we often take life-cycle events for granted: bar/bat mitzvah, weddings, even funerals — the things we just do or the prayers we say, because we do them. But why do religions mark critical stages in life to begin with? The answer is straightforward, simple, and profound: among other things, it is the way religions measure what makes a human life worthwhile. In the days before psychology, even before books, before (in fact) people even had the sense of growing from one stage to another as the same person in process, religion sought to guide life’s destiny by punctuating time with reminders of the values for which we ought to stand.

In our first online course, specifically designed for Wexner Heritage alumni, Rabbi Larry Hoffman will teach a 4-part series on what he calls "The Ultimates" -- the nodal moments in our lives when we are filled with wonder, gratitude, grief, fear -- and rely on Jewish ritual to enrich and comfort us. Rabbi Hoffman will explore with us what our Jewish life-cycle ceremonies teach us about Judaism's guidance for living meaningful lives. Enrollment is first-come, first-served and will be capped at 18 people. Just like in your Wexner Heritage seminars, there will be homework, classes will take place on a weeknight, there will be an effort made to bond the cohort even though we are online together, and there will be time after class to stay online and hang out. 

Each 1.5 hour session will look at the history of the prayers we have said and heard so many times, drawing out lessons on them from the Talmud, medieval commentary, modern response: the full gamut of Jewish literature. Sessions will be interactive, with the first hour concentrating on the source material and unpacking it and the last half hour dedicated to questions and, conversation and suggestions for how to make the ritual your own.

All classes will convene online, on Wednesday evenings, in the first quarter of 2019 and run an hour and a half. We will be using ZOOM, which is easy and free to download and use but does require your using a computer or device with camera, mic, speakers and internet. The cost is $350 to participate and if you'd like to register, please click the registration button on the top left of your screen now. Enrollment will be capped at 18 Wexner Heritage Alumni. If you have questions, please contact Angie Atkins (, Director, Wexner Heritage Alumni. 

Session 1: The Shape of our Lives
Wednesday, January 16, 2019
5:00 PM - 6:30 PM PT / 8:00 PM - 9:30 PM ET

Session One introduces the whole idea of life-cycle ceremonies. Why do we call it a life “cycle” to start with? What are some various constructions of life-cycle in Judaism and in Christianity (by comparison)? What is the shape of your own life in progress, and what challenges face us as we see our lives changing in comparison to the lives of those who went before us?

Session 2: Bar/Bat Mitzvah
Wednesday, February 13, 2019

5:00 PM - 6:30 PM PT / 8:00 PM - 9:30 PM ET

Our first foray into the life cycle will be a relatively late ceremony, bar (and bat) mitzvah. We look at an ancient midrash, a one-line recognition of bar mitzvah which is so shocking, most Jews leave it out, and a 16th-century responsum that makes so much sense of it, with such psychological depth, you will think it was written by your therapist rather than a late medieval rabbi. Why did we come up with bar (and later, bat) mitzvah, in the first place? And what is its meaning for us today?

Session 3: Unveilings
Wednesday, February 27, 2019
5:00 PM - 6:30 PM PT / 8:00 PM - 9:30 PM ET

It might seem strange to handle unveilings but not funerals. Both topics are fascinating, but the core text for the unveiling is especially moving, so I chose that as our topic. We will focus on a responsum to a Shoah survivor who returns home to the grave of his parents who had died before the war, but never had a tombstone erected because the war intervened. I won’t give away the rest of the story — it is enough to bring tears to our eyes, as it cites ancient texts (and their values) to explain why we put up gravestones in the first place.

Session 4: The Role of Parents in Their Children’s Rites of Passage
Wednesday, March 13, 2019
5:00 PM - 6:30 PM PT / 8:00 PM - 9:30 PM ET

For our final session, we confront the role of parents in their children’s rites of passage — not just men, but women too; and even parents of Jewish children who are not themselves Jewish. The issue of women’s involvement turns out not to be modern at all. We will look at the medieval evolution of brit milah and of pidyon haben, the redemption of the first born, to see what halachah had to say in theory, but also how it was interpreted in medieval practice. Prepare for some surprises. The issue of parents who are not Jewish themselves is thoroughly modern, and we will just broach it as an example of the way life-cycle passages reflect the changing nature of life in general.


Rabbi Larry Hoffman, PhD, has been studying life-cycle ritual for over thirty years, unearthing the deeper messages that give those events their ultimate meaning. He is a professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and a world-renowned liturgist and holder of the Stephen and Barbara Friedman Chair in Liturgy, Worship and Ritual. His work combines research in Jewish ritual, worship and spirituality with a passion for the spiritual renewal of contemporary Judaism. Rabbi Hoffman co-founded and developed Synagogue 2/3000, a transdenominational project designed to envision and implement the ideal synagogue of the spirit for the twenty-first century.

Larry invites you to join him in this mini-course on what our life-cycle ceremonies teach us about Judaism’s advice on how to live our lives. If you have learned with Larry in a Wexner Heritage context before, you know that he translates the texts from the original Hebrew and Aramaic and somehow levels the playing field across the gamut of Jewish knowledge so that everyone gains new insights about the tradition and themselves. Larry notes, "you’ve probably never seen the texts before. The texts alone are marvelous. We won’t be able to do it all, but we can make a noble beginning. I guarantee you will love it."