Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry

American Jews have forgotten their letters and words.

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Hebrew's History

Jews have always spoken and written and read many language. Rashi keeps giving the loazit, the French equivalents of scriptural words, because the Jews in his community spoke French. There were spoken languages and there were (as Yehezkel Kauffmannexplained) cultural languages: cultures were sometimes formed in languages that were not spoken, but in which the community was nonetheless competent.

Aramaic
owes its near-canonical status in Judaism to an ancient Jewish indifference to Hebrew. The synagogues of ancient Judaism included among their officials a figure called the meturgeman, or translator, who rendered the prayers or the Torah reading into Aramaic (and also into Greek), so that the assembly would understand the meaning of the Hebrew words. In sum, there was almost always a problem of illiteracy in Jewish life.

The rage of the rabbis against the popular ignorance of Hebrew is recorded in many texts. Here is a typical example, from the midrash Sifrei on Deuteronomy, on the verse that was incorporated into the text of the Shema: "'And ye shall teach them to your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house and when thou walkest by the way....' 'Speaking of them:' When a child begins to speak, the father must begin to speak to the child in the Holy Tongue [that is, in Hebrew]...and if he does not speak to his child in the Holy Tongue, then he deserves to be regarded as if he had buried his own child.'"

Those are exceedingly harsh words; and they may have served Maimonides as the basis for an interesting remark in his commentary on the Mishnah. In the opening statement of the second chapter of Pirkei Avot, Rabbi instructs: "Be as scrupulous in the fulfillment of a light commandment as of a weighty commandment."

Which commandments are light and which are weighty? Maimonides gives examples: "It is right that one be careful about a commandment that people believe is light, such as the pilgrimage to Jerusalem on the festivals and the teaching of the holy tongue, as with those commandments whose gravity has been made explicit [in the biblical text] such as circumcision and tzitzit and the Paschal sacrifice."

Maimonides' amplification is notable for two reasons: first, because it promotes the study of Hebrew to a very high level of ritual seriousness by analogizing it with ritual obligations whose seriousness is beyond question; and second, because it provides a record from his own time about the low esteem in which the study of Hebrew was held.

In the 12th century in Egypt, the duty to journey to Jerusalem on the festivals must have been deemed a mitzvah qalah, a light obligation: this was the exile, there was no Temple, and so on. Such a commandment would have been an occasion for historical inquiry and eschatological hope, but its practical import would have been none.

Maimonides is reporting that the obligation of Jewish literacy was deemed to be equally irrelevant, and he is seizing upon Rabbi Judah's statement in the Mishnah to admonish his contemporaries for what he believes is a terrible error. Exile, Maimonides seems to be implying, is not an excuse for ignorance. Knowledge is a form of sovereignty, and from this type of self-rule we can be banished by nobody but ourselves.

Complaints and castigations about the neglect of Hebrew, or about the low level of the knowledge of Hebrew, run throughout medieval and early modern rabbinical literature. In 1616, Leon da Modena composed a treatise called Historia de Riti Hebraici, an ethnographic exposition of the practices and the beliefs of the Jews of his time.

It was one of the first books about Jews written by a Jew in a non-Jewish language for a non-Jewish audience. The work was written at the request of Sir Henry Wotton, the English ambassador in Venice, who wished to present it to James I. It was published in 1637, and its first translation into English in 1650 may have played a role in the readmission of the Jews to England.

The second part of the Riti includes a description of the levels of Jewish education, and it begins with a discussion of  "what language they use in their ordinary speech, writings, and preachings." Here Modena records that:

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Leon Wieseltier

Leon Wieseltier is literary editor of The New Republic.