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  • Writer's pictureJewish Examiner

The Jewish Deep Nation VIII -- Hebrew, the Woke National Language

For new readers: The idea behind these submissions is to show that Jewishness has been during the exile, and is all the more today in Israel, a nationhood—of which religion is but one of many components. Nationhood isn’t nationalism; however you may loathe nationalism, you have nationhood. Jewry sustained the essentials of nationhood for centuries until its Western branch abandoned them in favor of those of their countries of citizenship. By seeing it this way, we can understand so many contemporary Jewish phenomena that don’t make sense otherwise.

Last week, I argued circumstantially that large numbers of premodern Jews—specifically laypeople—not only mouthed Hebrew words in prayer but understood the language well. The evidence: two pathbreaking scholars (Rabbis Moses Maimonides and Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) chose Hebrew as the language of books that they meant explicitly for the use and betterment of laypersons. I did admit that both books attracted most attention in scholarly, not lay, circles. So it may still be claimed that the masses regularly spent three blocs of time daily reciting or chanting texts in a language that they did not understand. That would make Hebrew in the premodern era as dead, say, as Latin used in mass. Or deader.

But it’s not so. I promised last week to show that even premodern Jews who didn’t understand a syllable of Hebrew helped to keep the language alive.

To keep my word, I must first make three methodological points about the Jewish Deep Nation project.

  • The first concerns my source, a Hebrew Wikipedia article on the reawakening of Hebrew. You groan: Wikipedia? The guy promised scholarship, eh? Yes, upon retirement. Until then, if I’m satisfied that the author used legitimate academic sources, I will occasionally resort to Wikipedia. I’m supported in this by a study of teachers’ attitudes toward the use of Wikipedia. The author, Hagit Meishar-Tal of Oranim College of Education (2014), asked two questions: How reliable are Wikipedia entries? and do teachers who ban its use by students make an exception for themselves? The answers: Wikipedia entries are no less reliable/unreliable than entries in conventional encyclopedias, and teachers who forbid their use to students run to it eagerly when they themselves need information.

  • The second pertains to the use of Hebrew sources in general. In a project written in English that challenges conventional wisdom, readers might prefer to see English-language sources only, for the sake of impromptu “peer review.” I must overrule such readers. Being able to understand and translate Hebrew sources, I see no valid reason to forgo their contents. Also, in matters relating to Israel, English-language sources are at arm’s length from the national reality for the very reason of being written in English.

  • The third point relates to what qualifies as a national characteristic in this project. In a nutshell that will surely be cracked and re-glued later, it must be something that encompasses, bridges, or transcends lower orders of organization, such as ethnic, cultural, or religious. So when Bundists proposed Yiddish as the Jewish national tongue (as did Dubnow in an after-the-fact, fallback way), I won’t buy it because they left out the Mizrahi (aka “Eastern,” “Oriental,” “Sephardi,” etc.) populations.

After that lengthy preface, I present and endorse the argument given by the author of Tehiyat ha-lashon ha-‘ivrit in Wikipedia.

The writer describes several forms of Hebrew pronunciation—Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Yemenite—and compares the use of each in preserving ancient consonants and vowels. En passant, he or she notes that the repeated enunciation of Hebrew words even when they were not understood (emphasis added) was crucial in preserving those linguistic building blocks for the day when the vernacular would be restored.

I add two points that the author made or hinted at.

  • First, the pronunciation least affected by surrounding non-Hebrew languages was the Yemenite one (or “is,” since it is proudly used in prayer by some Israelis of Yemenite-Jewish descent). Those who awakened the Hebrew vernacular in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did not base themselves on it because it includes elements that the Western tongue would find difficult to master, among other reasons. The Sephardi and Ashkenazi pronunciations differ mainly in their vowels; their consonants survived with less outside influence.

  • The author states that the vernacular-developers made slow progress in the first two decades or so of their efforts. Indeed, the numbers of Hebrew teachers and quasi-native speakers did not grow dramatically in, say, 1882–1900. From a historical perspective, however, the re-energization of Hebrew took place with blistering speed. Speed being relative, in future submissions I will demonstrate it in two ways: by comparing it with efforts to revive/rebuild Celtic languages and (the closest comparison of all) Icelandic, and by describing three “language wars” that the pro-Hebrew forces in pre-independence Israel won. To make that long story short, they weren’t real wars at all. In the first clash, only plausible enemy of modern Hebrew lost right away because it had to fight the battle in modern Hebrew. In the second, the enemy wasn’t really an enemy; it was a German-national diasporic force, thoroughly Jewish and as pledged to the modernization of the Jewish people as the new Hebraists were, that ran up against a national-Hebrew one. In the third battle, there was no plausible enemy at all.

In my fixation on laypeople, I’ve been overlooking the rabbinical, secular, and commercial (!) elites that used Hebrew in all active ways other than speaking to each other. I hope to correct that in the week or weeks to come. First, perhaps, will be a national tour of the traditional prayer service.

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