Thursday, February 09, 2006

Kiwi's Questions #4

This is the last of the questions:

Are there still Orthodox Jews who oppose the use of Hebrew in secular life? Why, when it's prophesied in the Torah?

I'm just going to break into my own little tangent here. I've started to wonder whether the Hebrew Language is a benefit or a detriment to Jewish spirituality. I look at people who struggle just to understand the words of the prayers or the Torah and are either unsuccessful, or put so much effort into the mechanics of translation that there's little energy left over for the actual understanding of what's written. Or I see people who pray with much enthusiasm, but obviously don't understand the words and might as well be saying mumbo-jumbo. And on the other side of the coin, I see secular Israelis, who should have no trouble understanding a Siddur or reading the various Jewish texts from over the millennia, who are completely uninterested in it or even turned off by it.

Does the language barrier also provide a shield, so we don't actually have to think about what we're saying? Is it easier to sing the "praises of the Lord" in a foreign language, than to say it in English where it starts to sound very hokey? I myself find that I much prefer to sing songs that are only in Hebrew, and that when they are translated into English I get uncomfortable with them.

OK, now go discuss.


Anonymous said...

As a non-Hebrew speaker who daven in an Orthodox shul, my opinion to the lashon kodesh is that it's a very important part of the glue and protection that has maintained the Jews for over 3 millenia. The Torah. If I spoke Hebrew, it would probably be easier for me to learn the Tanakh and rich Jewish literature, but it doesn't deter my devotion to learning. Likewise, English is my native tongue but I don't feel as compelled to study Shakespeare or Lord Tenneson's works. Hebrew is a holy language because it is the language of the Torah. But take the Torah away, and it's just another dialect of human speech.

Anonymous said...

Yes there are Jews, primarily Ultra-Orthodox, who use Hebrew only for prayer and generally speak in Yiddish as their "secular" language. They feel that using the "holy tongue" for things like bathroom stuff etc is innappropriate.

As far as Hebrew being of benefit or not....I've been living in Israel for over 3 years and I still am just barely fluent in Modern Hebrew (don't as me to write it for sure). I don't have such strong Biblical Hebrew either, and I do think it can be hard to learn another language--especially for us one language Americans.

That being said...if I didn't have Hebrew, I would have had a much harder time in France and Switzerland when I was trying to communicate with Jewish shopkeepers. My bad Hebrew was much more positively responded to that good English :)

Anonymous said...

One cannot also understate the importance of writing documents in a language that can effectively function as a second-language for all Jews, regardless of geographical location. The primary reason we moderns can still read a good deal of our early commentators' work is that they wrote in (Rabbinic) Hebrew (which is still mostly understandable to a reader of Modern Israeli Hebrew). Had Rashi written his work in medieval French, it would not be intelligible to us. Now, it's the first traditional commentary that we look at to understand Bible and Talmud. The same goes for what might have happened had Maimonides written his halachic works in Arabic. His major philosophical work, The Guide for the Perplexed, was written in Arabic, and Ibn Tibbon wrote a Hebrew translation authorized by Mainmonides. I'm willing to bet that more contemporary Jews read the work in Hebrew than in Arabic, and that its universality is largely due to its translation.

Anonymous said...

There is a lot of value in having a universal language, but you make a good point. I have often wondered if people would daven as fervently if they understood everything that they were saying.

I suspect that it would change things for many.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of the Jewish people having a "universal language," which is why I'm currently in Ulpan/Hebrew class. (Don't get exciting--I'm only in the advanced beginners' class. I figure it'll be about another 3 years before I'm fluent enough to tackle some serious Jewish text study in the original.)

"Is it easier to sing the "praises of the Lord" in a foreign language, than to say it in English where it starts to sound very hokey? I myself find that I much prefer to sing songs that are only in Hebrew, and that when they are translated into English I get uncomfortable with them."

Depending on what I'm saying, I look at prayers in one (or both) of two ways: Either it's poetry and/or it's a quote that's come down from our ancestors/avoteinu. The poetry may sound hokey, but hey, it's poetry, and poetry has been known to sound hokey. As for the quotations, sometimes it works to my advantage that I'm not reading them in my native language, since, not being the most traditional Jew, I don't always believe literally the words that I'm saying.

Anonymous said...

My teacher and I were talking about a similar issue with regards to Sanskrit, another language considered holy, and why mantras, etcetera, simply don't have the oomph when you translate them.

Besides losing their poetry, they lose their sense of history; their sense that when you sing or chant or , you are sharing in something which has remained entirely itself throughout generations of devotional practice. And there's something to that, that it has more force, more presence, in its original form.

Just my two cents, only tangentially related to the subject at hand, as usual...