Just a Thought: On Hebrew

Language can create bonds of love that can last for eternity and yet destroy those bonds with one word.

Gershom Scholem (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Gershom Scholem
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
One of the miracles of modern Israel isn’t just the reconstitution of the Jewish state by the Jewish people in its ancestral homeland, but the resurrection of the Hebrew language. It is the completion of a trinity of holiness of the people of Israel in the Land of Israel speaking the language of Israel. The idea that we are speaking the very same language as the men and women of the Bible is something that astounds me.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the synagogue with my 11-year-old son, Itamar, during Kabbalat Shabbat. He is a bright boy and very precocious in his devotion. As he sat there next to me reciting the psalms, I wondered how much of his religious fervor translated into any understanding of the beauty and poetry of the text he was reading.
I turned to him and whispered, “Do you understand what you are reading?” and he looked at me perplexed as if he didn’t comprehend the question, and replied “Yeah!” in a very “of course” manner. I, on the other hand, doubted this kid’s ability to properly decipher a 3,000-year-old text and picked a what I thought to be a very apt word from Psalm 92:7 which he was reading.
It was the word khsil, fool; as in “The uncouth man cannot know, the khsil [fool] cannot understand this.” He looked at me and replied that “It means ‘fool,’ as in, I would be a khsil to sit here and read this and not know what it means.”
It shocked me then and continues to shock me now. This little 11-year-old kid really, truly understands the same Hebrew as that which was used by the prophets who wandered this land more than 2,700 years ago. Putting the romance of it aside, I think that there is some very real significance to it all.
Language has power. It is has the ability to give meaning to concrete objects and describe them. Even more amazing is language’s ability to describe the abstract and give meaning even to things that are ‘not there.’
Language can evoke joy, anger and hate. It can build towers and heroes. Language can create bonds of love that can last for eternity and yet destroy those bonds with one word. But to add the element of Hebrew to it all changes everything.
Gershom Scholem once famously said that “God will not remain silent in His own language.” I think that what he means is that it is impossible to use the same words today as our ancestors did and think they have been unshackled or neutered from their ancient meaning. Words like aliya, geula, tzava, nasi, Knesset and medina are thrown around in modern Hebrew yet have had deep connotations to Jews through out the centuries summoning the Messiah himself.
To think that we can use those words and other idioms today and not invoke three millennia of meaning is just plain foolish. To see the words from the Siddur and Haggada used as street signs and advertising is both wonderful and scary. It both secularizes the language and sanctifies it at once. This is what the haredim feared a century ago when Hebrew was being revived by “less-than-pious Jews.”
Historically, the relationship we have had with Hebrew is a strange one – more like lovers than husband and wife. Until the modern age, almost every Jew was familiar with Hebrew and loved it, but rarely mastered it. Other languages like Aramaic, Yiddish, French, Ladino, German and English were preferred for day-to-day life.
Even today, much to the chagrin of language scholar Avshalom Kor, the average Israeli still makes too many simple mistakes in Hebrew and peppers it with far too many foreign words. Perhaps this distance between us and Hebrew is part of its enchantment? (The irony of this being written in English is not lost on me.)
I believe Scholem is right. I think that God has not remained silent. I think He is hovering over us whispering through the everyday Hebrew we use. We cannot even curse out the driver who cuts us off without referring to the biblical implications of his mother’s sexual history. It pervades our politics and our souls at once.
But while in Israel Hebrew is thriving, the estrangement felt between American Jews today and Hebrew is sad. Not just because of the mystical element, which is the least of the issues, but because Hebrew is the key to the kingdom of the Jewish bookshelf.
It is almost impossible to engage in the conversation about the future of the Jewish people or Judaism without referring to the vast treasure trove of Jewish wisdom. While translations into English are helpful, they are no replacement for the original.
Even before we engage with Jews on a religious level, I think Hebrew can serve as a unifying force in the lives of our people. Let’s start learning the “language of the Hebrew man!”
The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.