Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hebrew; A language that is a tapestry of history

Homage to Hebrew in Honor of Israel Independence Day

I admit that as a child I despised attending Hebrew school after a day of going to school all day. I was no different than a lot of Jewish kids growing up in America. Many of us swore that after Bar or Bat Mitzvah we would never go back and never wanted to learn more Hebrew. The truth be told was that I did continue to pursue my studies at the congregation on Sunday mornings until 10th grade and then Confirmation. But I never learned more Hebrew. And I was just fine with that.
Years later my life’s purpose took me to Jerusalem and in Rabbinical School I was in the middle of a classroom learning four kinds of Hebrew from modern, rashi script, biblical Hebrew and Talmudic Hebrew. How else would I learn to read our ancient texts if not in the original language? There was no question that it was the holy work as compared to the torture I experienced as a middle school kid. Now I was studying four or five hours after classes. Then I was going out into the Jerusalem streets trying out my burgeoning Hebrew skills making mistakes but each day learning a little more how to communicate with Israelis.  Soon I could start to read newspapers and have light conversations with people. What a liberating feeling! I started to love Hebrew and feel that the language was the portal into the world not only of the Jewish past but also into the future of our destiny.
I was amazed to learn about the story of Eliezer Ben Yehudah the founder of Modern Hebrew. Most people hear ben yehudah and they think of the street in downtown Jerusalem where everyone finds the tourist shops in the center of Jerusalem.  Indeed, many cities in Israel have streets named after Eliezer ben Yehuda.  Eliezer ben Yehuda grew up in eastern Europe with a traditional yeshivah education. His life took him to the beauty of Hebrew and in the midst of the early years of immigration to Palestine he started his quest to adapt the classical languages of Hebrew to the street and into the mouths of Zionists of all stripes who came to settle this holy land.
Stories abound how he made his children speak Hebrew in the house at the beginning of the 20th century without having anyone else to speak with in the school yard. But at the end of the day it all paid off and his scholarly genius reached into rabbinical and biblical texts and created the first modern Hebrew dictionary. By 1919 when the Institute for Technology  (later to be named The Technion) adopted Hebrew as the official language of the school and instruction (1924), the Hebrew language took off and gained nation wide acceptance. There are dramatic stories of fights in the faculty many of whom were from Germany and who  insisted on German as the language of instruction. The the majority of faculty and staff prevailed with Hebrew as the language of instruction.  Other moments occurred when the British took over Palestine after World War One, the military administration recognized Hebrew as the official language of the Jewish people. Then Eliezer ben Yehuda formed an academic institute that would study Hebrew and introduce new Hebrew words into the language to keep up with the times.
Most American Jews can make their ways through the prayerbook with varying degrees of comfort. Younger generations who have visited Israel can incorporate more Hebrew into their vocabulary than their forbearers. Hebrew is an amazing language when we think that a hundred years ago Jewish intellectuals were struggling how to reinvigorate Hebrew from the scholarly language into one that the popular culture of Jews around the world could embrace as part of a new image of national pride for Jews around the world.
Today Hebrew has matured and has so many distinctive features like any language. Its sounds and nuances differ based upon where the historic backgrounds of Israelis. Jews from Arab countries speak in an accent that sounds distinctive in the same way as those who come from Ashkenazi cultures speak the language. The expressions and uses of American English have certainly crept into the language as it has influenced all the languages of the world.
When we speak Hebrew not just in worship services but also in modern Hebrew we are blending our history from the Bible and Talmudic times through the Middle Ages into the world today. We may not know it but the words of Hebrew are truly a tapestry of Jewish history. In honor of Israel’s Independence Day let us celebrate the beauty of the Hebrew language and the miracle of resurrecting it. It is just one more example of the miracle of Israel that arose out of the dust to a new life that we celebrate on the 63rd anniversary of its declaration of Independence.
For all my local low country readers, don’t forget to attend the low country celebration this Thursday beginning at 5pm at the Temple.


Rabbi Arthur Segal said...

part two of two:

In point of fact, Eliz. B' Yahuda was quite brave in what he did with Hebrew, as by then, the Ashkenazi traditionalists (read 1700's Polish), considered Ivrit a Holy Tongue, and not one to be used for daily social intercourse. They had Yiddish for that.

In the USSR's and now Russian Jewish Autonomous Oblast, the Yevreyskaya Avtonomnaya Oblast's, capital city of Birobidzhan, Yiddish is today still spoken in the streets, with Hebrew used for tephila only. Yiddish and Judaism are taught in the 14 Russian public schools.

Indeed the newspapers in Israel of the so- called Orthodox sects, are published in Yiddish and not Ivrit, especially when they photo- shop out the head of the USA's Secretary of State, for their 'modesty' halacha.

USA and world wide Judaism has a lot of catching up to do since WW 2. We have devoted, and correctly so for self- preservation, much time, money, and energy into Israel and Holocaust awareness. While these still need to continue, along with the learning of Ivrit, the URJ 1999 Platform also said that we Jews need to do the mitzvoth of ,bein adam la-chaveiro, of our relations to other human beings. This Derek Eretz of behaving properly to other humans is of primary importance in Judaism. It is taught by our sages that all of Torah and Talmud is to teach us chesed, kindness.[Talmud Bavli Tractate Kiddushin 40b].

Eating falafel, [an Arabic, actually a Coptic Egyptian dish, which the Jews of Palestine co-opted], singing Hebrew songs, and being a ba'al lashon ha ra, does not a good Jew make.

To quote the 1999 URJ rabbis again : "We are committed to a vision of the State of Israel that promotes full civil, human and religious rights for all its inhabitants and that strives for a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors....Baruch she-amar ve-haya ha-olam. Praised be the One through whose word all things came to be. May our words find expression in holy actions. May they raise us up to a life of meaning devoted to God's service. And to the redemption of our world.'' Amein.

Your chaver:
Shalom uvracha v'ahavah,
Rabbi Arthur Segal

Rabbi Arthur Segal said...

Shalom chaverli R'Brad:
in 2 parts with your permission.part one of two.

I agree with you that Hebrew is definitely the language to learn for the modern Jew. I was happy that the new Reform Platform of 1999 agreed : " We affirm the importance of studying Hebrew, the language of Torah and Jewish liturgy, that we may draw closer to our people's sacred texts. ''

Note that this was not for conversational Hebrew, although that is a worthy course of study, but so that we can study our texts.

When we look at translations of the Torah by Plaut , Stone, and Hertz, they all differ, and when we read the King James version in hotel rooms, they call ''meal, i.e. grain" offerings, 'meat' offerings. Understanding helps us understand the meaning as opposed to some author's political or religious agenda.

The irony however is that many of our texts, indeed the entire Talmud's Gomorrah, are in Aramaic, and many from our Golden Age in Moorish Spain are in Arabic.

Most Hebrew classes teach one how to READ Ivrit but not how to UNDERSTAND Ivrit. Our sages were very clear in the Gomorrah that while Hebrew is the best, it is much better to pray in our 'street' language, with understanding and with kavenah, spiritual intention, than to pray in Hebrew while not understanding half (if that) of what we are saying [Talmud Bavli Tractate Beracoth 5a].

''This is not an excuse to drop Hebrew study, but the sages are trying to express that prayer is a personal communication between you and God. Kavenah is not found in the words, but in the honesty behind the words.'' [The Handbook to Jewish Spiritual Renewal: A Path of Transformation for the Modern Jew..Rabbi Arthur Segal]

The sages even go so far as saying that we are better off hearing three verses of Torah in our street language and understanding it, than to hear an entire Parasha chanted in Ivrit, not understanding much at all.