Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry

American Jews have forgotten their letters and words.

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Jews Without a Language

The American Jewish community is the first great community in the history of our people that believes that it can receive, develop, and perpetuate the Jewish tradition not in a Jewish language. By an overwhelming majority, American Jews cannot read or speak or write Hebrew, or Yiddish. This is genuinely shocking. American Jewry is quite literally unlettered.

The assumption of American Jewry that it can do without a Jewish language is an arrogance without precedent in Jewish history. And this illiteracy, I suggest, will leave American Judaism and American Jewishness forever crippled and scandalously thin.

There are two ways in which we can educate our children, two instruments of identity with which we may equip them. One is conviction, the other is competence. I have no doubt that the future of Jewish culture in America will be determined more by Jewish competence than by Jewish conviction.

We cannot teach our children what to believe; or rather, we can try to teach them what to believe, but we can never be certain of the success of our effort. They will believe what they wish to believe. We cannot control their belief. Indeed, we must be grateful for their freedom of mind. But it is not an illusion of control to think that we can permanently arrange matters so that our children will never be shut out of their own tradition, out of their own books.

If we cannot make sure that we will be followed by believing Jews, we certainly can be sure that we will be followed by competent Jews. Indeed, competence leaves a Jew favorably disposed to conviction. A competent Jew is not destroyed by his questions, because he can look for the answers himself. He, or she, has the tools. Ignorance, I think, is much more damaging than heresy.

It seems to me indisputable, moreover, when we reflect upon the development of Jewish culture, that the primary tools of Jewish competence are linguistic. Without Hebrew, the Jewish tradition will not disappear entirely in America; but most of it will certainly disappear.

This gloomy premonition is owed not least to a proper understanding of the relationship of language to life. Our language is our incommensurable inflection of our humanity; our unique way of presenting, not least to ourselves, what our unique way is through the world. Our language is our element; our beginning; our air; the air peculiar to us. Even our universalism comes to us (like everybody else's universalism) in a particular language. 

Now, I understand that the linguistic history of the Jews is a complicated story. A great and complicating work remains to be written about the history of the literacy of the People of the Book.

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Leon Wieseltier

Leon Wieseltier is literary editor of The New Republic.