Conversation with Joel M. Hoffman, PhD

Did the animals actually board the ark two-by-two? (And other insights into what the Bible really says)

By Cindy Mindell

book-bibleDr. Joel M. Hoffman, whose focus on bringing the Bible to life has been praised for providing fresh insights and interpretations about religious life in the 21st century, will be keynote speaker at the community-wide Taste of Torah adult-learning event on Sunday, Jan. 22 at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport.

A resident of Westchester, N.Y., Hoffman holds a PhD in linguistics and has served on the faculties of Brandeis University and Hebrew Union College. He is chief translator for the 10-volume series, My People’s Prayer Book (winner of the National Jewish Book Award) and for My People’s Passover Haggadah. He is the author of the critically acclaimed In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language (NYU Press). Writing under the pen-name J.M. Hoffman, he is the author of the thriller series, The Warwick Files.

Hoffman is the author of three books on biblical interpretation – And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning (2011) and The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor: The Holy Scriptures Missing from Your Bible (2014), both from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. His latest book is The Bible Doesn’t Say That: 40 Biblical Mistranslations, Misconceptions, and Other Misunderstandings (Thomas Dunne Books, 2016).

In The Bible Doesn’t Say That, Hoffman explores what the Bible meant before it was misinterpreted over the past 2,000 years, devoting 40 short chapters to one topic each – mixing weightier issues such as evolution, abortion, homosexuality, and war, with lighter questions such as whether the animals actually boarded Noah’s ark two-by-two. Hoffman takes on some of the most hotly debated texts and ideas in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, which are often not fully understood, he says, because of five main reasons: ignorance, accident, culture gap, mistranslation, and misrepresentation.

Hoffman spoke with the Ledger about that endless source of linguistic and conceptual inspiration that represents the core of his academic and writing world, the Bible.


Q: You are known as a scholar both of linguistics and biblical texts. Which provided the initial motivation for The Bible Doesn’t Say That?

A: I’ve always been interested in language and equally, my father is a rabbi [Lawrence A. Hoffman] and I grew up in a rabbinic home. So I ended up studying the language of a Bible. I think there’s incredible beauty and depth and meaning in the Bible, and a lot of it is being hidden through the mistranslations and so forth and I wanted to sort of peel back those mistranslations and misconceptions and misrepresentations that hide the original Bible and make it harder to see its beauty.


Q: How should people study the Bible in order to best understand the intention behind the writing?

A: You want to read the Bible in a religious community, even if the religious community distorts the text – because that is what religious communities are supposed to do. For example, I went to summer camp singing “Lo yisa goy el goy cherev,” “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,” based on the famous statement in Isaiah 2:4: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sward against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore.”

My namesake, the prophet Joel, also goes the other way around and says, “Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears,” and go off to war, but no one’s written a folksong about that.

On the one hand, if you are just accurately quoting the Bible, you have as much support for beating swords into plowshares as for beating plowshares into swords – you can take your pick. The more interesting phenomenon is why our Jewish tradition chose to focus on one over the other. In this case, it’s actually the misrepresentation that is more important than the original text, but you can’t see the misrepresentation if you can’t see the original text.


Q: How do you see religion coming up in American public discourse these days, especially in the wake of the recent presidential election?

A: There are two communal conversations about religion: one is inside religious communities and the other is what I would call a general national discourse. Unfortunately, the conversation in general national discourse tends to be fairly ignorant, which can have pretty unfortunate results. When politicians talk about religion, it tends to be fairly ignorant. For example, one of the states in the South wanted to make the Bible its state book. Whether you like the idea or don’t like the idea, my question was, which Bible? There’s a Jewish Bible and a Catholic Bible and a Protestant Bible, and there’s Apocrypha and the books go in different orders. Even if you’re going to make that a law – and people can disagree over whether that’s a good idea or not – how can it be a law if you don’t say which Bible it is? This is a state law. It passed one of the chambers but it did not pass. To have a law being debated at the state level where they haven’t even defined the terms of the law is pretty surprising.

The media has an uneven track record: some people do an exceptionally good job talking about religion and, sadly, some mainstream outlets don’t. I actually spoke out, for example, in 2012, when Piers Morgan of CNN had Pastor Joel Osteen on his show and didn’t ask the most basic follow-up questions that you would ask of anyone else. Basically, Mr. Morgan just gave Pastor Osteen a platform to give a sermon [claiming that the Bible calls homosexuality a “sin”]. Joel Osteen would say, “The Bible says…” and Mr. Morgan didn’t even say, “Where does it say that?” or “Give us the text” or “Can you show us the language?” If a lawyer comes on and says, “Here’s what the law says,” a reporter would say, “Where can people learn more about this?” On the other hand, religion comes up a lot [in public forums] and a lot of people are doing a great job.

One of the things I talk about in the book is the professional atheist. A lot of atheists’ claims comes from a very unfortunate misunderstanding of how religion works, just like, for example, a lot of people show up at synagogue expecting to get an academic lecture, and then they’re disappointed when the rabbi gives a sermon that’s not an academic lecture and they think the sermon is bad. They just don’t know what the sermon is supposed to be.

For more information about Taste of Torah: jewishphilanthropyct.org.

To learn more about Hoffman’s work: Lashon.net.

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