Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Hebrew has been making a comeback in the Reform Movement, which, for a few centuries, prided itself on the use of the vernacular languages in worship. In many ways this is unsurprising. Perhaps part of the shift is that with the establishment of the state of Israel, Hebrew is no longer a “dead language,” although I would contend that it never was a dead language. I study Biblical Hebrew because as languages ranging from Ancient Egyptian to Aramaic to Latin and Middle High German and English have passed into and out of the mouths of Am Yisrael, Hebrew has remained the language of Torah and liturgy, of commentary and philosophy. Had Rashi written in Old French rather than Hebrew his work would be far less accessible to the contemporary Jew than it is. I cannot help but note with some irony that in the Metsuda Chumash with Rashi, it is Rashi’s rendering of Hebrew terms into Old French, the vernacular of his audience, that now needs glossing. Hebrew has also made collaboration possible across both space and time. Would the Yiddish-speaking Moses Isserles have been able to gloss the Shulchan Aruch as he did had Karo written it in the Ladino of his own vernacular rather than in Hebrew? And do we not, today, have more difficulty understanding the Aramaic Gemara than the Hebrew Mishnah upon which it comments? More than anything, it is the fact that Hebrew has served Judaism as a reliable lingua franca for millenia, while vernaculars have proven but transient lodgers in our mouths that gives it the distinction of being lashon kodesh, the holy tongue. I celebrate the Reform Movement’s renewed interest in the language, because like Shabbat, Hebrew too has kept the Jews.


David said...

Are there any reform congregations that reularly have all Hebrew services? There's a reform congregation not far from us that has 50% Hebrew services, but the conservative shul we attend has a 95% Hebrew service.

richardf8 said...

Our "Nefesh Shabbat" hits 60-70 percent, depending on the leader. Our Torah Study service hit 90% this weekend, but that's unusual, 70% is more typical for that one.

Apart from those, lay led services tend to have more Hebrew than clergy led services.

I think, given Reform's emphasis on Outreach, that this is enough Hebrew to pique curiosity in the language, but enough English that it remains accessible.

Reform is placing more emphasis on it than in the past,