Two thousand years ago Alexandria was home to a prestigious and well-established Jewish community that numbered 250,000. The Egyptian port city—home to a legendary ancient library—produced Philo, the first major Jewish philosopher. The autonomous community was thoroughly Hellenized, although this did not rob them of their Jewish identity.
Acculturation that included writing on Jewish themes in genres of Greek poetry, history, drama and philosophy never meant complete assimilation. In fact, the Jews of the city rose up against their Roman overlords in a failed revolt in the second century CE. Alexandrian Jewry knew little Hebrew and required a translation of the Torah into Greek.
The Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that legend states was created by seventy scholars from Judea at the request of Egypt’s Ptolemy kings—became the cornerstone of Judaism in Alexandria’s Jewish community.
While it later became a text that played an important role in the propagation of the Old Testament in the early centuries of Christianity, its place in insuring continuity of the Jewish community in Egypt and the Hellenized Diaspora was central.
The lack of knowledge of Hebrew seemed not to be an impediment to the city’s acculturated Jewry. The argument could be made that there is still no need for knowledge of Hebrew in the Jewish Diaspora.
So many of the Hebrew texts that are the warp and woof of Jewish faith, practice, and culture have been translated into English and are available to an audience that does not know Hebrew. Yet, I believe that argument is flawed. In the 21st century, fluency in Hebrew will be a key to Jewish continuity, survival and unity. It is true that most Jews throughout the history of the Diaspora spoke Aramaic, Greek, Arabic, Yiddish or Ladino and were not fluent in Hebrew. In fact, Jewish civilization thrived despite the reality that Hebrew was a language of the literate and the learned.
But an important dynamic has transformed the role of Hebrew and brought it to the center stage. The Diaspora no longer dominates Jewish life. The State of Israel has brought together Jews who were once separated by geography, language and culture. The centers of Yiddish and Arabic no longer exist for Jews.
With rising Jew hatred in Europe and an alarming erosion of Jewish identity in America, Israel has surpassed the Exile as a center of Jewish life, culture and learning. From Poland to Yemen, from Ethiopia to Germany—there must be a unifying factor that brings Jews together and enables them to communicate and thrive.
Hebrew is the perfect vehicle for this unity so necessary to the survival of the Jewish State. Although Eliezer Ben-Yehudah revived Hebrew as a spoken language a century ago, the reality is that throughout history Hebrew has served as the language of literature, both religious and secular.
The great Hebrew poets of medieval Spain understood this and made Hebrew the vehicle in which to express Jewish pride in a world in which they were thoroughly acculturated and dominated by the Muslim and Christian majorities.
Since Israel has now achieved dominance in the Jewish world, it is imperative that all Jews be able to participate in the unity of language. Not to be fluent in Hebrew is to cut oneself off from the center of the Jewish universe.
While translations remain an important educational tool, Jewish unity is lost in translation. “Reading a poem in translation,” said the poet, “is like kissing a woman through a veil.” It is time to make the knowledge of Hebrew central to Jewish life and identity.
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