Of Language and Peoplehood

by David Steiner

As a kid at Habonim Camp Tavor, we used to sit in the dining hall after meals and play a game with our cups. As we would pass them from camper to camper, we would sing in Hebrew, “These objects pass quickly from hand to hand, and whoever gets it wrong is out of the game.” I only recently realized, despite my Hebrew fluency, the profundity of these words. The objects pass, in Hebrew – ovrim – from the same root (ayin, bet, reish) as the Hebrew word for our language – Ivrit. “And whoever gets it wrong is out of the game.” This has completely changed the way I think about Hebrew for Jewish education. We teach Hebrew to be in the game.

In a previous era, supplementary schools divided their educational face time with students into religious school and Hebrew school. This division may have been stronger in the Reform movement, and it may still exist in some schools, but it is misleading and destructive to Jewish education. One consequence was the false separation of the Hebrew text from the meaning it conveyed. In many congregations, Hebrew prayer was at least partially abandoned because people felt that the sacred messages of the texts were getting lost in the opacity of this foreign language. This movement argued that to speak to God, you must understand what you are saying. This “kavana” school of thought focused on the intent of prayer over the sacred media of its communication.

Professor Yishayahu Leibowitz, the distinguished Israeli, orthodox Jewish, scientist and Talmud scholar would resolutely disagree. He believed that praying three times a day was a matter of “keva,” obligatory routine that we do because we are commanded by God. For him, how we felt about our prayers had no bearing on our obligation to say them. I don’t think I am going too far out on a limb when I say that in today’s supplementary Jewish education, the teaching of Hebrew is mostly about the Bar/Bat Mitzvah and the parents who will expect to see flawless chanting during their child’s fifteen minutes of Jewish fame.

Prayer is definitely one goal of learning Hebrew. The future usefulness of this effort may be in question for most twice-a-year congregational visitors, but they will want to see the fruits of their twice-a-week shlep to the synagogue when little Joey reads his Haftarah.

Another goal of learning Hebrew is definitely linked to understanding the texts. Ironically, in Israel a few years ago, there was a movement to adopt Torat Rom, a Modern Hebrew version of the Torah, into the public school system. This would be akin to dumbing down Shakespeare for the modern reader. Would Shakespeare, with any other words, be as sweet? I don’t think so, and neither is Jewish text.

The Hebrew (and sometimes Aramaic) texts that are the foundation of Jewish thought are part and parcel of their original incantation and inscription. Could Eicha convey its fullest meaning without the unique trope of its lamentation? Maybe, but it would not be the gift of our ancestors. It would be something else.

Amichai Lau-Levie was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying about his Judaism, “I’m not flying Delta because I’m interested in Delta. I’m flying Delta because it’s convenient or I got the miles on it. The idea is to get somewhere. I’m practicing Judaism because that’s my airline, because I was born into it and I think it’s got a deeply profound, ancient and relevant toolbox for a good life.”

There are two very deep ideas embedded in these words. Judaism is ours because we were born into it. We have an affinity program in Judaism because it is convenient: we were born into the tribe. The other idea is that it satisfies a purpose. It is a vehicle for a good life. Not everything we are born into will we adopt, but those things that come easily to us because we were born into them will stay with us if we see their essential value.

Hebrew is our language. It was a gift from our ancestors, but its essential value is not that it is ours. Its value is in the essence embedded in the language itself. Our language is rich with meaning that only works in the original tongue.

Earlier, I mentioned the Hebrew root, Ayin-Bet-Reish, for the word “to pass.” These three letters, in their sequence, are also the root of the word for “the past.” How can that rich correlation be found in translation?

In Hebrew, the word for bread, the foundation of all sustenance, is lechem. This same root can be found in the middle of the Hebrew word for war, milchama. This is no coincidence. At the core of the Hebrew language is a philosophy represented in binaries or spectrums that embrace a range of possibilities. Bread and war are situated at opposing poles when we consider that the absence of food will lead to conflict – just think of Marie Antoinette’s famously ascribed last words – but the Hebrew embodies this lesson. When Jews study a text, we first approach it for the literal meaning, pshat. What we don’t understand in translation is that we are instructed to undress the text, l’fashet, from the same Hebrew root, and look for the abstract, moofshat, also from this root.

More important than understanding prayer and being able to learn the wealth of lessons our ancestors left for us, learning Hebrew is part of being in the game. Today, half of the world’s Jewish population speaks Hebrew. It is the language of the largest Jewish drama in the world, as author Amos Oz refers to Israel.

Today, you cannot sit among movers and shakers in the Jewish world without hearing about Jewish peoplehood, but what is the vehicle of this bond and what is its value? Once, when we were forbidden to teach Hebrew under the oppression of the Syrian-Greeks, children gathered around spinning tops to pretend they were at play when they were really intent on passing military messages of resistance. Under Roman occupation, our sages developed a system of weekly readings from the Prophets, our haftarot, as a substitute for the sacred messages of the Torah portion, which was prohibited from public reading. Today, as a free people with a land of our own, our language is the vehicle for connection to our ancestors, as well as concern for our progeny.

My progeny often like to sing to me a song from High School Musical. The chorus instructs the lead character, “Get your head in the game.” As Jewish educators, it is our task to get it right and teach Modern Hebrew, so we can stay in the game and participate as free people in the Jewish worldwide drama, our peoplehood.

David J. Steiner, Ed.D. is working to complete his rabbinic ordination. He has been a congregational director of education for both the Reform and Conservative synagogues, and he recently returned to America from a fellowship at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.