Words matter. Words of truth convey values, culture, tradition. False words tear at the fabric of society, creating a chaotic biblical Tower of Babel.
For believers, the world was created by Divine words (“let there be light!”). Hebrew words matter, because, as author Jeremy Benstein observes in the preface to his book, “what we stand to gain from seeing Hebrew is not as a musty historical curiosity... but as an essential component of Jewish identity... the key to unlocking the riches of Jewish wisdom.”
I spoke about Hebrew words and their roots with Benstein. His book focuses on mining the meaning of Hebrew through its three-letter roots. He is also managing director of the English 929 website. Full disclosure: He is a friend and member of our Zichron Yaakov Masorti congregation, led by Rabbi Elisha Wolfin.
In conversing with Benstein and in reading his book, I came to understand the crucial role the Hebrew language plays.
What brought you to make aliya.
I was born in Detroit, grew up in Toledo, Ohio, was active in Young Judea, which brought me to Israel after high school, through the machon lamadrichim. I studied linguistics at Harvard, and after graduation made aliyah to Kibbutz Ketura [located north of Eilat, in the Arava] where I spent 11 years.
“Later, I did a master’s degree in Judaic Studies at the Shechter Institute in Jerusalem. I married, we had twin boys, and I co-founded the Heschel Center for Sustainability, where I continue to work to this day. I published Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes three years ago, in 2019.
I have always felt that the haredi and Orthodox claim property rights over Jewish learning and the Bible, partly because the non-observant often do not study Bible in depth. You are managing director of the English 929 website, so called because its many followers read one chapter a day, five a week, in order, of the total of 929 verses in the Bible. A complete cycle of the 929 verses takes almost four years and ends with a joyous celebration.
According to David Sedley, writing on the Times of Israel website in 2018, the first cycle of 929 verses, beginning in 2014, was tremendously successful. “Rabbi Lau said that over a quarter of a million people were active participants in the learning program — 75% of them nonreligious,” he wrote. “He and hundreds of others give classes on each week’s chapters all around the country; there are written materials, audio and video lessons, all found on the program’s website or via its app, as well as a weekly radio show with 40,000 listeners.”
A survey reveals that a million Israelis are familiar with 929. So, how and why did 929 begin?
I agree with the premise of your question. The Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox only claim the Torah is theirs because they are not challenged. But increasingly they are being challenged on this. There is rapid growth in secular Jewish learning. And 929 [www.929.org.il] is at the heart of it.
It was started by Rabbi Benny Lau, with several colleagues active in education. He talks about 929 being the “movement for the liberation of the Bible” from the Orthodox and haredim. Liberation, for the sake of the entire Jewish people. The Bible is our collective property, and therefore, it is not only our right and privilege, but also our duty, to read and interpret the Holy Scripture.
From the beginning, it was not only a male Orthodox rabbi who headed 929; the co-head was a well-known social journalist, Gal Gabai. She is Mizrahi, Masorti, non-Orthodox – as opposed to the co-founder, a male Orthodox rabbi.
929 always reflects the idea of representing different points of view. And the way we ensure the widest possible perspective is to make clear to everyone that they have a platform, and a voice. We wanted not only the Israeli voice, so we started the English version of 929, to reflect the broadest range of voices, including LGBTQ voices, and in the US, Jews of color. In this, we are proactive.”
Your book shows how the three-letter Hebrew root, the ‘shoresh,’ can be so revealing about meaning and culture. For example, your insights on the word tzedakah, charity in English, which comes from the three-letter root tzedek, or justice. This is a clear statement that giving to the needy is not mere kindness or love, but justice. What brought you to write this book, and can you expand on the importance of Hebrew roots?
I wrote the book for two reasons: first, as my love letter to the Hebrew language. I wanted to live in a Hebrew-speaking society and felt that one of the greatest gifts to my children was for them to be native Hebrew speakers – the most secure assurance of Jewish identity, no matter what the level of religiosity.
Second, Hebrew is inseparable from Jewish values. This idea is somewhat ignored. In Israel, [the crucial importance of Hebrew in our Jewish identity] is taken for granted. And in the US, Hebrew fluency is unfortunately seen by many as unattainable. The language is not conceived as part of instilling Jewish values. Often, even Jewish day schools, which usually do spend time teaching Hebrew, see it as a technical skill in language proficiency rather than connected to deeper questions. But I believe, on one level, these two – Hebrew language and Jewish values – are inseparable. We cannot transmit the values without the language. Hebrew is the key to maintaining our collective Jewish identity!”
As you observe, the word tzedakah has as its root tzedek, justice. English speaks of ‘charity,’ from caritas, love, and ‘philanthropy,’ from philo, also love. Giving to the needy is an act of love, indeed. But for Jews, it is simply just – morally right. Redistributing wealth, then, should not just be voluntary, it should be an integral part of our social system. And that is all there, in the root of the word tzedakah itself. It would be lost in translation, if we simply said, ‘charity.’
Or, take the Hebrew word for prayer, ‘tefila.’ It comes from the three-letter root pilel, meaning to indict, or in the reflexive form, l’hitpalel, meaning, to judge yourself and to judge your deeds.
This is very different from what we might assume from the word ‘prayer,’ which involves perhaps only asking for things, for Divine intervention. In prayer, we Jews stand in the presence of the Divine and use tefila as a mirror, to appraise our actions. This is why the word tefila is very different from the English translation, prayer.
Your grandfather Rabbi Morris Adler was tragically shot to death by a mentally-ill student whom he was counseling, right on the bima of his shul, in 1966, in Detroit. This terrible event, 56 years ago, has been amplified by recent mass shootings in the US. Rabbi Adler was a brilliant speaker; you once quoted his pithy saying, ‘our prayers are not answered when we are given what we ask – but when we are challenged to be what we can be.’
If your grandfather were alive today, what do you think he might have said, in his weekly sermon, about gun violence?
It is hard to say. On the one hand, he might have raised the question of mental illness. This is a systemic problem, and underlies the rise in gun violence, in drug addiction and a whole host of social ills in Western society. Mental illness is clearly a response to the way the culture is headed.
On the other hand, gun control. When I look at the political opposition to gun control, it strikes me as purely evil. I have no softer word. I can’t begin to understand those who oppose background checks and forbidding sale of assault weapons. There will always be mentally ill people – and when you put into the hands of an 18-year-old plus three days, an assault rifle capable of killing 100 people at one go – it is simply evil. [See Box: Words and Guns].
The solution is not simply treating mental illness. There is widespread prevalence of mental illness, through isolation, loneliness – and the pandemic made it much worse. The problem is systemic and has to be treated as such, along with gun control. It is not enough to focus on those who exhibit symptoms of mental illness. We must take a long hard look at our society and try to find the root of the problem.
Hebrew words matter, indeed. Rabbi Elisha observes how Moses (Exodus 4, 10) tells God that “I have never been a man of words... I am slow of speech and slow of tongue,” and demurs to lead the Children of Israel.
“I have never been a man of words... I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”Exodus 4:10
God insists, asking Moses rhetorically, “Who gives humans speech? Who makes them dumb? Is it not I?” And Moses’ divinely inspired words led us to freedom, in our own land.
As an educator for 50 years, I have spoken and written millions of words, perhaps too many. At times, I despair over the futility of mere words, when world-changing entrepreneurs whom I research enhance lives through their actions.
Benstein’s book and his words have persuaded me that well-chosen words – words of truth, depth and meaning – do matter. For that, I am grateful. ■
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion, and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com
Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes: A Tribal Language in a Global WorldJeremy BensteinBehrman House, Millburn, NJ398 pages, $24.95.