Sunday, January 9, 2011

Jews Should Learn Hebrew

You would think that the title of this blog is a no-brainer, that all Jews should already know Hebrew, or at the very least, have picked it up in Hebrew School.  Sadly enough, there are more than enough Jews out there that are lucky if they even know the letter א.  Just a few reasons to explain the phenomenon:
  • Learning a foreign language is difficult.  Although some people might sincerely not have the time to do it, most people are just too lazy to see the commitment through to the end.  This lethargy has gotten so bad that, as Yehuda Mirsky points out, that it has had even Orthodox Jews depend on translations from Ultra-Orthodox publisher ArtScroll.
  • A lot of Jews grow up in secular households.  Unless that secular household is in Israel, the secular parents are surely not going to be teaching their children about the "holy language" of Hebrew.
  • Even in a place such as 21st-century America, there are many Jews that do not want to broadcast the fact that they are Jews.  If anybody found out that they knew Hebrew, it would send up a red flag.  This is all the more true in other countries in the Diaspora where Jewish rights receive little to no protection.
  • Globalism is at work.  Most American Jews are secular and on the Left.  Because they are on the Left, they would rather view themselves just as members of the greater global community than self-associate as Jews.  For these Jews, Judaism is too nationalistic, too bound in tradition, and thus needs to dissapear from their lives.  And along with the particularlism of Judaism goes the Hebrew language.
I have found the Jewish people to be a particular case study when it comes to anthropology.  Up until 1948, Jews have not had a homeland for nearly two millennia, and 60% of Jews currently live outside of Israel.  Many Jews don't affiliate with Judaism.  There are different cultural strains in Judaism, such as the Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Yemenites, etc.  And to "put the cherry on top," we don't even have a common language!  With nothing to bind the Jewish people together, it's not only difficult to see how they can been perceived as a people, but also I can see that their continued survival can come off as a miracle.

With this in mind, we should look at, more than ever, why Jews should learn Hebrew.  First and foremost, it is the language of our forefathers and has been the predominant language of the Jewish people, languages such as Yiddish and Ladino notwithstanding.  I am not worried about the Jewish people becoming extinct, per se.  After all, we've made it this long, and I don't see the Jewish people perishing.  But I am worried about the continuity and relevance of Judaism [and the Jewish people] in the 21st-century, which is why a common language would be a good place for all Jews to start.  

Even if secular Jews are not going to become observant Jews overnight, we need a commonality to bind us together.  That means meeting someone and saying "I'm Jewish.  You're Jewish??  Awesome!" is not going to suffice.

Second, this is about being able to tap into a rich heritage.  A majority of the main religious texts, as well as secular Israeli texts, have been written in Hebrew.  Just speaking from experience, but much gets lost in translation.  No matter the sources available to the translator, there are certain words in one language that just won't translate over to the other.  To read a translation without the original text in plain view is to put your faith in the translator.  In order to be able to enjoy the full extent of the profundity and richness of the Jewish experience, there's no way around this one, but you will need to learn Hebrew. 

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