Fundamentalists and atheists masking beauty of Bible


BIBLICAL scholar Dr Joel Hoffman says the Bible does not call homosexuality a sin and it does not advocate for the one-man-one-woman model of marriage.

Joel is known for his fresh insights and interpretations about religious life in the 21st century.

He told me from his home, in Westchester County, New York: "The Bible has always been a pretty hot topic.

"In the UK, especially, you have what I call professional atheists, such as Richard Dawkins.

"I have seen t-shirts which state, 'Religion: We Can Find a Cure'. That is massively insulting to huge numbers of people.

"I think people like Dawkins have only listened to those such as Pastor Joel Osteen (an American televangelist), who presents a warped view of the Bible.

"The fundamentalists and atheists are masking the beauty of this incredible work which is the Bible."

Joel's latest book is The Bible Doesn't Say That: 40 Biblical Mistranslations, Misconceptions, and Other Misunderstandings (Thomas Dunne).

"Modern people are demanding, by and large, to know what the interpretations are and what they are interpreting from," the 48-year-old said. "They can get that from this book."

In 40 short, straightforward chapters, Joel covers such subjects as morality, lifestyle, theology and biblical imagery.

He explained: "Joel Osteen is one of the most listened to preachers in the world and certainly in the English-speaking world.

"He went on Piers Morgan's show on CNN and said that homosexuality is a sin.

"One of the things which was frustrating for me was that Morgan did not question him on this.

"While it is true that the Bible frowns on certain homosexual activities, it does not address all of it and it does not call homosexuality a sin."

Joel was born in New York City and raised in Cincinnati and Westchester.

His parents are Sally Hoffman and Lawrence Hoffman, a well-known Reform rabbi and scholar of Jewish liturgy.

Consequently, Joel grew up in a religious environment.

"We kept all the High Holy Days and I remember we had lovely siddurim in the house," he recalled. "I have good memories of Shabbat dinners, too."

Joel gained a BA in theoretical linguistics from Brandeis University, Massachusetts, before he moved to Israel for a year as a visiting student in computer science at the Technion, in Haifa.

Joel, who is of Polish and Russian descent, explained: "I actually almost did not come back from Israel.

"I had a great-aunt who lived there. She was like a grandma to me and was an ardent Zionist.

"I was not, though, the kind of person to branch out on my own and move to Israel. I had too strong of a connection to my family in America."

On returning home, he spent a year deciding what to do with his life.

"I discovered that I hated computer science, although I did love Haifa," Joel laughed.

"I toyed with philosophy, but I had always loved language and linguistics. Language is the human behaviour we know most about.

"Everyone who speaks English, for example, knows that 'I am' is the same as 'I'm'.

"You can say 'taller than I am', but nobody would say 'taller than I'm'.

"Every English speaker agrees on that and I found that kind of thing remarkable.

"When I thought more about language, I found it even more fascinating."

After gaining his PhD in theoretical linguistics from the University of Maryland, Joel decided to move into academia.

He taught at Brandeis University and at New York City's Hebrew Union College and Academy of Jewish Religion.

Joel also taught Hebrew at a local cheder and worked with his father on the latter's synagogue 2000, a national project which envisioned the ideal synagogue as a moral and spiritual centre for the 21st century.

"I used my computer skills combined with my linguistic skills at the beginning of the internet age," Joel recalled.

"I found teaching Hebrew to 11-year-olds exceptionally rewarding.

"The challenge of making Jewish and Hebrew stories interesting to them was wonderful.

"I ended up teaching some wonderful classes and I am still in touch with a few of those I taught."

His first book, in 2004, was In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language.

"I was lecturing at Hebrew College and an acquisitions editor at New York University Press asked me if I would turn my lecture into a book," Joel said.

"What I needed most at that point was a university publication.

"When I was younger, I did not think I could write. It took me one summer to write it."

He went on to pen The Bible's Cutting Room Floor, And God Said: How Translations Conceal The Bible's Original Meaning and My People's Passover Haggadah.

Joel and his father also teamed up for My People's Prayer Book, a 10-volume series published over 10 years.

His father edited it, while Joel provided the translation and commentary.

Nowadays, Joel is in constant demand and lectures all over America and around the world.

He still occasionally substitute teaches at Brandeis, but prefers being, for a better word, "freelance".

"My particular world outlook was not sited to a university because they focus more on what they are teaching rather than who they were teaching," Joel explained.

"I believe in what I call the 'bumble along theory'. Career-wise, I am happy with what I am doing.

"I love teaching and lecturing, but I also love interacting with different communities.

"My lifestyle gives me the flexibility to take off work whenever I want and it gives me the chance to make time to see my parents, who live in the same area as me."

He describes his Judaism as "cultural and practising".

"I keep Shabbat, but not in the sense some people may mean," Joel mused.

"I don't work on Shabbat, though, and I take the Jewish holidays off. I believe in the Jewish community."

He is not just a serious factual writer, though. Joel has also written thriller series The Warwick Files.

And his work has seen The Times dub him as a "master raconteur" who writes "with flair".

Joel said: "One of the reviews for In the Beginning said it read like an adventure novel, which was exceptionally gratifying because I want to write in a way which engages the reader.

"I was on a six-hour flight and wanted to start a new writing project.

"But, because I did not have my library with me, I had to start from scratch so I began to write a fiction series

"In a sense, writing my factual and fictional works are the same.

"My job as a writer is to find a compelling way of conveying something to the reader."

© 2017 Jewish Telegraph