Hebrew: Is It Worth the Effort?

by Dr. Gil Graff

Writing in 1904, Solomon Schechter – President of the fledgling Jewish Theological Seminary of America – described Hebrew as the “great depository of all that is best in the soul-life of the Congregation of Israel.” He observed that, historically, Hellenistic Jews had experimented with abandoning Hebrew: “The result was death. It (Hellenistic Judaism) withered away….”

More recently, the Reform Movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis issued its Pittsburgh Platform (1999) affirming – among other matters – “the importance of studying Hebrew, the language of Torah and Jewish liturgy, that we may draw closer to our people’s sacred texts.” Notwithstanding the availability of so much material of Jewish interest in translation, the leadership of America’s liberal Jewish movements shares a very traditional view of the importance of connecting to the language and texts (in the original) of classical Jewish teaching.

In addition to providing a key to understanding ideas, values and images that have informed the lives of Jews through time and place, Hebrew is a language uniquely connecting the extended Jewish family across the globe. As a college student, I had the opportunity of stopping in Rome on the way back from a year at the Hebrew University. I shall never forget the following encounter:

As I stood at the Arch of Titus – marking the destruction of Jerusalem and the Roman army’s triumphant return (with Judaean captives and booty) – a Roman Jew approached me, and we conversed in the one language we shared: Hebrew. He proceeded to tell me of a practice among Rome’s Jews, that had prevailed for nearly 1900 years. The Jews who came (in chains) with Titus and were sold as slaves at auction vowed, even after obtaining their freedom, not to walk under the Arch: it symbolized destruction and degradation. My new acquaintance told me that when, on May 14, 1948, Israel declared its statehood, the Jews of Rome (he among them) gathered at the Arch and, singing Ha-tikvah, walked through it, considering that the renewal of Jewish sovereignty in Israel served to liberate them from the oath taken by their ancestors at the time of Jerusalem’s destruction. As memorable as the story, so was experiencing this encounter in the enduring language of the Jewish people.

Last summer, my daughter spent a month in an Ulpan at the Hebrew University to strengthen her spoken Hebrew. Among the participants was a young American woman, interested in becoming Jewish, who feels that it is essential to have basic Hebrew tools to understand and meaningfully embrace Jewish teaching. Like Solomon Schechter, the rabbis of the CCAR, and traditional Jews throughout the world, this Catholic woman understands that Hebrew “is the great depository of all that is best in the soul-life of the Congregation of Israel.” Acquisition of language skills is not a simple matter, but, to paraphrase the Hebrew Bible, the people Israel are children of the patriarch (Jacob/Israel) who struggled and overcame.

One Point of View … let us hear yours.

Dr. Gil Graff is Executive Director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.