Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Hebrew Matters

I am a fervent Hebrew enthusiast. I love Hebrew; the words, the charming expressions, the subtle connections and the ancient reverberations in its lilt. Make no mistake, the speaking of Hebrew is no simple issue, indeed it is a question that scholars and philosophers have wrestled with generation after generation, starting perhaps from the first Diaspora in 586 BCE in Babylon after which Aramaic became the vernacular. Though our holiest texts are in Hebrew; through years of exile our popular spoken tongues became Aramaic, Ladino and Yiddish. Hebrew became a language of books; read in the study house and in the synagogue.

In spite of this, remarkably, miraculously, amazingly - on account of population censuses - we can project that we are approaching an era when Hebrew will be the spoken idiom of the majority of the Jewish people. For that alone it may be well worth giving it another shot. Know however, that utility does limited justice to the phenomenon of Hebrew study; there are huge ideas that encase the noble study of the Holy tongue.

A Midrash concerning the enslavement in Egypt wonders about our redemption and offers reasons for God’s deliverance of the Israelites; they did not alter their mode of dress, they maintained their Jewish names and they did not change their language. This teaching reveals a vital notion of our sages; retaining one’s language is essential to one’s survival. Of course, a common language binds a people together, solidifying their identity. Language unites, hence the multiplicities of language signals dispersal and disunity in the Tower of Babel narrative.

But, we are talking about more than simple cohesiveness – we are discussing survival. And this Midrash is about a unique kind of survival; a spiritual survival; redemption. Here the redemptive quality of survival is linked to language.

On these same lines the Sifre teaches us that the instruction found in the central prayer of declaration, the Shema, “vedebarta bam” and you shall speak of it, refers to the speaking of Hebrew. As soon as a child is able to speak, parents are enjoined to engage them in the speaking of language of our people. Now, this speaking of Hebrew is being elevated from practicality and survival, to a level of Mitzvah, commandment of the Almighty. Indeed, Maimonides echoes this thought in his commentary to Mishnah Avot, where he identifies the speaking of Hebrew as a mitzvah, albeit not the most major of commandments, but a mitzvah nonetheless.

For me this spiritual approach towards language is particularly powerful. There is something mystical about this language of revelation, it bespeaks an emotion experienced in the soul but articulated by the body. The learning of language may begin with painstaking learning of letters but as the words are formed and ideas articulated – language quickly transcends the confines of the letters and leaps into the lofty sublime realm of ideas. Moshe Greenberg puts it this way, “The uniquely Jewish store of concepts and values cannot be transmitted in translation.” Languages communicate the particular ideas of the people who speak it and in it lives their particular metaphors.

In the case of Hebrew, words give voice to the pathos of its speakers. I offer the classic Yiddish lullaby, “Oifin Pripichek”, as an example. Here the traditional melamed, teacher, sits by the fire place and urges his precious students to learn the letters together with the vowels. The tender sweet picture of the long white bearded rabbi somberly segues into an entirely different image. In the last stanza of the song the teacher cannot but help himself and asks his students movingly, do they know how much tears and how many feelings lie in these letters?

The teacher has given way to temptation, he pulls away the protective curtain, his didactic demeanor dims and he reveals himself. He allows his students a glimpse of the eternal pathos contained therein. How do we understand these tears? Are they tears of the struggle of study? Tears of lives risked at Torah study? Maybe they are tears of the deep knowledge of just what is at stake in the learning of these letters – everything.

This learning of Hebrew is huge; you need to ask yourself if you want to live a life in translation. You are right, all of our great works have been translated, the Torah, Mishnah, Midrash, Talmud, the Zohar and of course the siddur. But there is something missing, lost in translation. Gershon Shaked puts it this way, “Literature written for an imaginary audience which does not speak its language, is counterfeit and untruthful.” Though I can live without the nuances of Virgil in Latin or Aeschylus in Greek, or Voltaire in French, I cannot live without Torah in Hebrew.

I know it is not easy, I have experienced the challenge of attempting to learn a language – I have tried my hand at French and Russian and can claim little acquisition and no aptitude. But this is your language. The early Zionists had a dream of resurrecting a language; you can too be a part of that miracle.