Joel Hoffman, 2009 Goldstien/Leibson Scholar

[Archived from March 20, 2009]

[by Phyllis Shaikun]

Dr. Joel Hoffman’s various presentation as the 2009 Goldstein/Leibson Scholar in Residence had two significant things in common – they were universally amusing and were quite insightful as well. Saturday morning’s D’var Torah delivered at Adath Jeshurun during Shabbat services on March 14, was a case in point.

Entitled “Golden Calves, Red Cows and Other Ways We Prepare for Passover,” the holiday became a backdrop for Hoffman’s musings about how semantics play a strong role in life in general and in the bible in particular. He contends it is a misnomer to say God wanted a red cow to be sacrificed, but rather a “barbecued cow” – one that had been burned up – to be used for that purpose.

He also theorizes that the tradition of eating unleavened bread for the week-long Passover holiday did not begin when the Jews left Egypt without sufficient time to let their bread rise, but rather that they left quickly and could not take their bread “starter” (a combination of water, flour and yeast) with them. He figures the starter had been used for a year or so and was probably “gunky” and therefore unsuitable for transport). Since it takes seven days for a new starter to ferment, they ate only flat bread (or matzo) for the week.

Rabbi Slosberg commented he was nominating Hoffman for the Food Network!

The following morning at the Jewish Community Center, Hoffman addressed the  topic “The Bible Doesn’t Say That,” which gave him ample opportunity to expound on the differences between the literal and figurative interpretation of biblical texts and to use humorous anecdotes to illustrate his various points.

Basically, he considers the King James Version of the bible to be an inadequate translation of the text, but concedes it is famous and therefore unquestioned. The authors used the less formal “thou” instead of “ye” to make the text more approachable, but the language is so archaic today that it doesn’t seem to make much difference.

He related a comment on the King James Bible by a former governor of Texas that brought the house down. “If English was good enough for Jesus,” she said, “it’s good enough for me.”

Hoffman also quoted Noam Chomsky, known as the father of linguistics, who believes you must use a word or phrase in context in order to form a coherent structure. Knowing what the individual words mean does not always tell you what a phrase means. According to Hoffman, biblical translators by and large miss that point.

Leave a Reply