No Ross, but parables aplenty at CAJE’s opening plenary


Joel Hoffman filled in for Dennis Ross as the CAJE conference's keynote speaker.
Joel Hoffman filled in for Dennis Ross as the CAJE conference’s keynote speaker.

Dennis Ross
was supposed to be the keynote speaker for CAJE’s opening plenary Sunday night. But he called in sick at the last minute, informing conference organizers Saturday night that he would not attend.

Nevertheless, CAJE-ians made out pretty well with Ross’ stand-in, Joel Hoffman.

Hoffman, an expert Hebrew translator and a professor in New York at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, was probably the more appropriate choice anyway. Ross essentially was going to give a sales pitch for his new book and to talk about his recent trip to Israel. Nice, but I don’t really think that jibes with a conference on how to teach Jewish kids.

Hoffman framed his talk – which he gave as a violent thunderstorm ripped through Burlington – with a parable.

Two people fell asleep while on a journey and both had the same dream. God came to them and told them to gather up as much sand as they could and carry it back to their town. They would be home in three days. When they got home, God told them, they would be both happy and sad.

Hoffman then condensed all of Jewish history into a half-hour snapshot and talked about how that history has been defined throughout the ages by debate between the Diaspora and Jews living in Israel. That debate almost always has been won by the Diaspora, he said.

For instance, Hoffman pointed out, there are two Talmuds – one written in Jerusalem and one written in exile in Babylonia. The one written in Babylonia is the one universally accepted and studied as the definitive Talmud.

It is important, he said, that the Jewish educators at CAJE view themselves as people who truly can and need to pass on Judaism to the next generation.

Hoffman ended his history of the Jews with the second half of his parable:

The two travelers gathered up as much sand as they could carry and continued on their journey home. When they arrived three days later, the found that the sand had turned to gold, which made them happy. But they were both saddened because they wished they had carried more.

Hoffman suggested that the CAJE-ians take home as much gold as they can.

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