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  • Writer's pictureJewish Examiner

The Jewish Deep Nation IX—
The First Language War that Wasn’t

For new readers: These submissions aim to show that Jewishness has been during the exile, and is all the more today in Israel, a nationhood. They deconstruct elements of Jewishness into national characteristics that Jewry sustained en bloc 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.

In the past few submissions, I’ve proposed from various angles that Hebrew spent its centuries in diaspora as a hibernating national language that, like hibernators at large, occasionally woke up and filled its belly. I quoted two esteemed authors who produced innovative works in Hebrew specifically for the masses, arguing circumstantially that Hebrew proficiency was common among these masses. I broadened the concept of “speaking” a language to include regular enunciation by large numbers of people who preserved the language even without understanding much of it. I opined that the awakening of Hebrew in late-19th-century Eretz Israel (then Turkish Palestine) moved with such celerity as itself to suggest that it rose from solid foundations. I gave some evidence for all of these and admitted that each point deserves much more.

Now I break my word. After promising a national-minded tour of the daily Jewish liturgy that was ubiquitous in the premodern era and used mainly by the Orthodox today, I swerve to a theme briefly mentioned earlier: the Hebrew “language wars.” Conventional wisdom has it that Hebrew in the Yishuv years (the modern pre-Israel period) faced serious opposition that its devotees defeated violently.

Well, they weren’t real wars at all. The forces intended them to be so but lacked the conviction, the numbers, and/or the resilience to pull them off. Those three properties belonged to the pro-Hebrew side.

The first enemy of modern Hebrew was the Old Yishuv, the pre-modern, non-modern, or anti-modern Jewish population that one today would call haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) of the pre-Israel era. Zionist polemics bashes this population on various grounds, foremost its reliance on transfer payments from Diaspora communities, unlike the rock-solid self-reliant Zionist pioneers who built a nation ex nihilo …. Umm, if you’ve read my previous submissions, you know I accept the idea that nations grow out of nothing. And until you get to the Second Aliya (turn of the 20th century) and possibly beyond, Zionist settlement too would have starved without Diaspora backing.

And one last sprawling digression about the Old Yishuv: Post-Zionist or Postmodern commentators—historians, polemicists, enemies of Israel, whatever—argue that Jewry in exile effectively abandoned the real Eretz Israel as an object of yearning and replaced it with a time-removed, disembodied, ecclesiastic Eretz Israel. I don’t buy it. If it were true, the Jewish mainstream would have regarded the few of its number who made their way to Eretz Israel over the centuries as heretics, freaks, or outcasts. It did the opposite. By and large, it selected these individuals and small groups on grounds of their piety and their scholarly credentials. It saw them as their representatives and often subsidized them on a long-term basis despite its own poverty. It honored widows who chose to relocate to Eretz Israel to spend their last years. These were national practices in a sense. And since they manifested in both the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi communities (although in different ways), they pass this test of Jewish nationhood, too.

In the manner of national practices, language was paramount in the Old Yishuv. The Old Yishuv’s national language was Hebrew—the Hebrew of rabbinical scholarship. The Hebrew proficiency of that community is beyond debate, at least where the men were concerned. Indeed, the scholar Haim Be’er, now Professor Emeritus in Hebrew Literature, stresses the importance of girls and women in this community’s struggle against modern Hebrew, adding laconically that “The men all knew Hebrew” (Haim Be’er, “From God’s Language to the Other Side’s Language,” Keshet Hahadasha 4, Summer 2003, pp. 128–144, in Hebrew. For a comprehensive account of the many roles of women in the Old Yishuv, see an English source:

The Old Yishuv publicists indeed meant it to be a struggle, a war to the finish, its goal being the outright vanquishing of modern Hebrew, at least on the holy soil of Eretz Israel.

Their arguments, laid out by Be’er, were fivefold:

Hebrew is the holy tongue, that in which God spoke to/with the patriarchs, the entire nation at Mt. Sinai, and the prophets who followed. To modify it is to desecrate and debase it.

Hebrew is to be used in a specific state of diglossia only. That is, Jews should reserve it for the sacred and use another language for the profane. This was widely done in both the Western and the Eastern diasporas, sometimes consciously. According to some rabbinical commentaries, this diglossia is as old as the patriarchs! My concern in mentioning that outlook is not to pronounce it historically accurate but to note the respect that these views commanded and in some quarters still do. Then arrived Ben-Yehuda and his disciples, who proposed and developed a Hebrew vernacular for all purposes.

The modernizers’ goals in awakening Hebrew are un-kosher. Indeed, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and company saw Hebrew as an anchor for a specifically and aggressively secular brand of Jewish nationhood. This was no mere ideology on their part. Ben-Yehuda preached and practiced it intensively, doing so in an almost Postmodern internet-era way: by owning his own publishing platform—the country’s first daily newspaper. No one of any persuasion could swerve him from his secularist, not secular, beliefs and agenda. Even the towering Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, who accommodated secular Zionism into his religious worldview, despaired of Ben-Yehuda on this account (while helping him to adapt Hebrew sources to modern use in an etymologically reliable way).

The language reformers disregard the organic contents of Hebrew and turn out gross distortions of the language. Ouzi Elyada (World in Yellow, in press, Chapter 3) gives an example from Ben-Yehuda’s son, Itamar Ben-Avi:

“On the first anniversary of the 1908 promulgation of the Young Turks constitution, Ben-Avi [proclaimed] it ‘the first Hushma Day.’ The word hushma, an invention of Ben-Yehuda’s as a substitute for konstitutsia, is an acronym formed by the initials of huqa shel memshelet ha-‘am, the supreme law of a democracy.”

The language reformers pollute their enterprise with the lowliest of instincts, making it non- if not anti-Jewish. As a case in point, Ben-Avi invested his awkward neologism hushma with almost erotic content:

“For today is the anniversary, the first anniversary of the hushma. A little girl but a healthy and strong one, a naughty girl but a cute and beloved one, a girl borne to all of us, our men and our women and even our children. […] You’re still small, my congenial little girl, your hair is small, minute, your eyes small and innocent, your hands also small, so your feet, the entirety of you no more than a doll, a children’s game. […] But when you grow up, when you flower—our hushma—from day to day, from year to year, I envision you and your years at twenty, tall, towering, with curly hair down to your waist, a high forehead over the lightning of your eyes, the blood of youth on your lips, two strong breasts atop your virgin chest. And your burning love, our human love, will then ascend to you. With your profound gaze shall we derive strength for our future. From your two full breasts shall we draw faith in our destiny. And you, the twenty-year-old hushma, the symbol of all of our work—you will unfurl the flag ahead of us […] Hushma! Oh, hushma! We love you! (Itamar Ben-Avi, “The First Hushma Day,” HaTsvi 202, June 23, 1909, quoted from Elyada, ibid.).

The national enterprise itself is non- if not anti-Jewish, proposing man’s usurpation of a prerogative reserved solely to the Messiah. This alone invalidates the Hebrew-language awakening.

I note here that the national enterprise at the time should not be mistaken for the explicit drive for statehood that emerged in the 1930s. The country’s Jewish population at the time ranged from 75,000 in 1882 or so to 86,000 on the eve of World War I (1914). Also, as demonstrated above, even unabashed Jewish nationalists like the Ben-Yehuda family pledged political allegiance to the Ottoman Empire.

So war it was. A key weapon in it was the pashkevil, the poster-manifesto that appeared on building walls, signed by (or expressed in support of) Old Yishuv rabbinical personalities of the highest order—men (only men) whose unquestioned piety and probity earned the community’s backing in other matters as well, such as language.

Here is an example, harvested from Be’er’s overview of the language war:

“They [the modernizers] have made Hebrew [..] part of the “idol of nationalism,” replacing our Holy Torah in land and language so that the House of Israel should do as all the gentiles do, Heaven forbid […].

“Hebrew—the weapon of the secular.

“Hebrew—a passageway to secularism.

“Hebrew—will make your daughter a sage in her eyes and rob her of the innocence and pure faith of our matriarchs.

“Hebrew—training your daughter to read external newspapers and books replete with the toxin of heresy, apostasy, and prurience, and [preparing her] to join up with bad company.

“Hebrew—once she learns it, she will not be among the pure women who pledge their souls to Torah by protecting their menfolk.

“Hebrew—by teaching it to your daughter, you will cause her to be attracted to and drawn into debauchery, theaters and cinemas, parties and the like, by the raucous notices that appeal to fools from every high place, [places that] only a fool would visit.

“Hebrew—the goal with it is to mingle with reformed people whose path is the opposite of that of our forefathers, which was to amplify their daughters’ modesty make every effort to protect them so they should not circulate in public, should not chatter, and should uphold the inward essence of their sanctity.

“Hebrew—snares your daughter to that she will be swept away in the current of the time” (Be’er, ibid., p. 130).

Behind this manifesto, evidently, was a group of young men who considered the leadership insufficiently aggressive. Again note the emphasis on the girls. Now, embattled groups all over the world paint their enemies as “coming for our daughters.” So when Be’er routinely speaks of the religious opponents of Hebrew modernization, including the more moderate among them, as qana’im, zealots or fanatics, I take it with a pinch of salt—especially since nowhere in his article does he find zealotry or fanaticism on the other side.

Above I insinuated that this language war was no war at all. Here is why. Apart from the most insular part of their own camp, the anti-reformists made no headway against the celerity and momentum of the Hebrew awakening. Camp solidarity broke down as various rabbinical authorities found grounds to ignore or excuse parts of their rivals’ conduct. As an example, some said that for the very reason of its distortions relative to rabbinical Hebrew, the revised language was a new one and, as such, no longer had to the authenticity test. Above all, in order to polemicize against the modernizers, the resistance had to adopt elements of the modernizers’ language. Modern Hebrew won because its opponents could not contest it without using it.

Today, with the exception of small (but not shrinking) groups, haredi society speaks a Hebrew that differs from standard Israeli only in a tendency to Ashkenazi inflection and more generous use of expressions from the Jewish canon.

Next week: Round 2, pitting Diaspora-Zionists against Eretz Israel-Zionists and, space and time permitting, Round 3, in which it became violent.

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