The Half-Dead Language

Allen: Aron, I still remember meeting your friend who was saddled with the unenviable task of teaching public school Jews Hebrew spelling. Hopefully he’s by now recovered from the diatribe he received at our place. You and I both argued at the time that Hebrew schools make a serious mistake in devoting fruitless hours to language drilling at the expense of Jewish history and ideas. No one I know’s ever become fluent, or even mildly proficient, on a diet of two hours of elementary Hebrew per week. On the other hand, a two-hour lesson on why we should care about Judaism could lay the foundations for a deeper engagement with our religion in all its profundity and difficulty.  It seems to me we’ve been putting the cart before the horse. Our teachers used to say: “Learn Hebrew, so that you can engage with Jewish prayer and text later on.” I submit the opposite: “Learn Jewish text, so that you’ll understand the value of knowing Hebrew in the first place.”

So far we agree. But let’s pursue the point a bit further. To what extent do most liberal Jews require any Hebrew literacy beyond the words of the prayer book? The traditional canon is almost entirely available in English translation, so why waste time sweating over the original? For that matter, does it really make sense to hold a two-hour service in a language eighty-six percent of the movement can’t understand?  Why not at least take a small step in the direction of English liturgy, as Reform and liberal Catholic congregations have already done?

Aron: As you suggest, there might certainly be benefits to incorporating more English. One’s level of Hebrew fluency is often highly correlated with the amount of Hebrew schooling one received as child, which is itself highly correlated with economics. As such, I’m sure there’s a degree to which one’s comfort with Hebrew — and, by extension, the degree to which one feels connected to/disconnected from services — is determined by one’s economic status.

Beyond that, more English might generally have a more democratizing effect on services and Judaism in general, allowing those with less formal schooling to access more of the liturgy without the aid of a gatekeeper. From the Septuagint to Buber and Rosenzweig’s German translation of the Tanakh, it generally seems that translating Jewish text into the lingua franca allows for a more robust popular engagement.

On the other hand, there’s a tendency — particularly among some Yiddishists — to devalue Hebrew and treat it as if it were just any other language that some Jewish communities happened to speak. There’s no getting around the fact that the foundational texts of Judaism are written in Hebrew (and Aramaic), and that something inherent and fundamental is lost in translation. It is impossible to access the full richness of those texts and the accompanying traditions without encountering them in the original Hebrew (or Aramaic). Beyond that, I think it’s valuable for a religion to have a sacramental language. As with other boundary-creating traditions — Shabbat, kashrut, eruvs — our use of Hebrew for liturgical purposes, if done right, can help elevate ritual moments.

That leaves us with two questions: how much English is “enough,” and how do we use our communal resources to create widespread Hebrew literacy given our failure thus far?

Allen: Both good questions. Language learning scholarship tells us that immersion is by far the most effective method of instruction. But it’s hard to imagine any sort of immersion program in the understaffed Hebrew schools of my youth. The closest approximation is Ramah, which at least provides a bare-bones vocabulary without formal classes. Here’s just one quixotic proposal: four-week Hebrew language “boot camps” for high schoolers in the style of Middlebury’s Spanish and French programs. All we need is funding– if you’re reading this, Sheldon Adelson, we take back all the bad names we ever called you!

I don’t think there’s a single right answer to the question of how much English to include in services. My own tendency is to resist the elimination of Hebrew on the traditional and spiritual grounds you’ve described above. I’m skeptical of some of the more New Age English alternative liturgy, which sometimes gains in accessibility what it loses in the emotional power of a more rooted religious practice. Hebrew does deserve a chance, but it’s bound to be an uphill battle. Any suggestions from your end, Aron?

Aron: I’m with you on the idea of learning text and spirituality before Hebrew. It alludes to the ways in which the motivation (or lack thereof) for learning Hebrew is contingent upon the meaningfulness of our communities. If we tell our kids (“our” being broadly defined) that they should learn Hebrew so that they can participate in services like their parents, but if those services are boring and spiritually dead, learning a foreign language will seem even more unappealing. The reverse, though, is also true. Call me overly optimistic, but I think that in those places where services are lively, engaging, and felt, kids will want to learn Hebrew so that they can one day join in those prayers.

The irony about your quixotic proposal is that a very distorted version of it is being experimented with by Michael Steinhardt, the founder of Birthright. Over the past few years, Steinhardt has established several Hebrew language charter schools. Leaving aside the broader debate over charter schools, another issue is that Steinhardt totally devalues Judaism qua Judaism. He recently explained that, the kids at these schools learn “a great deal [about]… Israel, Zionism, stuff like that, but zero [on Judaism] as a religion…  Israel has become, for me, the substitute for religion.”

In other words, one of the programs currently best-equipped to provide children with the Hebrew necessary to critically engage in Jewish thought and practice is discouraging those children from engaging with those things at all. If Steinhardt and his ilk succeed, we may one day have a large number of American Jews who can wax eloquent on cherry tomatoes and geostrategic threats in Hebrew but can’t speak in English about Judaism.



One thought on “The Half-Dead Language

  1. Once again, you guys identify a pressing problem of contemporary Judaism and consider it thoroughly, thoughtfully and articulately. That fact that I’m Aron’s mother does not detract one bit from that conclusion. There must be something you guys can do with this blog to get these ideas to others who might be in more of a position to act on them. I will just add that I agree that there is something to be said for learning the prayers and reading the texts in the original, not solely because Hebrew is a sacramental language, but because, as I’ve learned from studying Hebrew, French, and Russian, the translation rarely, if ever, captures the exact meaning or the linguistic and lyrical beauty of the original.


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