June 20, 2024
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This piece was first published in the YU Commentator and is reprinted here with permission.

My parents and mother-in-law can all carry out basic Hebrew conversations even though none of them studied in Israel for a year. Yeshiva education of the 1940s and 1950s included enough Ivrit b’ivrit in elementary school (Etz Chaim in Brooklyn, The Yeshiva of Crown Heights) and in high school (Central) for them to acquire this skill. With the exceptions of Yeshivah of Flatbush and Ben Porat Yosef, I do not know if any other Orthodox American schools could make that claim today.

At a later stage, American students learned modern Hebrew during their year in Israel. In the 1970s, almost all the options for boys (BMT was an exception) were hesder yeshivot with Israeli peers and instructors with intensive exposure to Hebrew. Two things have changed since then. One, many exclusively American programs opened (including one at which I am a rosh yeshiva). Secondly, even in the hesder yeshivot, programs for foreign students have grown increasingly separate from their Israeli counterparts with many shiurim designated exclusively for students from abroad. Thus, we have the odd phenomenon of students who spent two years at a hesder yeshiva and still cannot speak Hebrew.

I emphasize that, in other ways, Jewish education has improved and that language achievement is not the only barometer of success. At the same time, we should admit and confront the implications of not teaching Hebrew skills.

These communal changes have been in place for a while, but recent trends in the broader Western world, including the devaluing of language acquisition, exacerbate the problem. Many practically motivated students today eschew humanities in favor of business, computers and engineering. The New York Board of Regents dropped the Regents exams for all foreign languages. The idea that an educated person knows something about Greek, Latin and Hebrew appears to us a quaint idea from a distant past.

I propose that the Jewish community needs to fight this trend when it comes to Hebrew skills. Our Jewish world translates almost all Torah into English. However, not studying texts in the Hebrew original impoverishes our Torah study. Someone who reads Tanach in translation and juxtaposes the nakedness of Adam and Chava with the cleverness of the snake misses the Hebrew word play (Bereishit 2:25-3:1). A reader who hears Joseph complain about being put in prison will not realize how the Hebrew word “bor,” both pit and prison, allows Yosef to simultaneously protest his brothers and Potiphar’s mistreatment of him (Bereishit 40:15). A translator who renders “kach na et birchati” as “please take my gift” loses the resonance of Yaakov returning the blessing to Eisav (Bereishit 33:11). Finally, simply knowing how nifal, hifil and heh ha’yediah work will make one a more competent reader of every biblical chapter.

Knowledge of Hebrew impacts on Torah learning in another way as well. Many of the greatest Torah teachers of our time teach predominantly or exclusively in lashon hakodesh. One who cannot understand such shiurim loses out on the deep shiurim klali’im of Rav Re’em Hacohen, the insightful Tanach readings of Prof. Yoni Grossman and the profound thought of Rav Yuval Sherlow. Furthermore, certain sefarim such as Rav Hutner’s “Pachad Yitzchak” become much more comprehensible if one knows modern Hebrew. Surely, we would like to provide our students with access to this world of Torah.

Finally, study of Hebrew reflects our strong identification with the Zionist project. Language is identity; note how individuals who want to be more yeshivish increase their employment of Yiddish phrases. To be sure, a smattering of phrases does not equal fluency, but they both reflect the powerful connection between mode of discourse and identity. Those who identify with Medinat Yisrael should want to speak its language, and the ability to do so will also make moving there a more successful endeavor. We are the beneficiaries of the unprecedented and amazing story of a people returning to its homeland after two millennia of exile. Moreover, the successful forming of the state happened in the hour of greatest need, just after arguably the worst tragedy in Jewish history. The state has led to the renewal of Orthodoxy, the rebuilding of Torah learning, and the rescue of Russian and Ethiopian Jewry. This should be good enough cause for learning to speak Hebrew.

Our three arguments for Hebrew do not all lead to the same conclusion; the first motivates study of biblical Hebrew whereas the latter two emphasize contemporary Hebrew. Nonetheless, the two goals work together. Despite language’s development over time, the two Hebrew discourses exhibit considerable overlap. It is no accident that Israeli students read scripture and rabbinic sources much more easily than their counterparts from abroad.

President Ari Berman deserves credit for stressing Israel as a value more than any of his predecessors. Unfortunately, the university’s recent decision to do away with Hebrew in-person courses flies in the face of this emphasis. In almost all fields of education, dialogue between the teacher and students plays an important part of the pedagogic program, all the more so when learning how to speak a different language. As a result of this decision, YU has already lost two excellent Hebrew professors. It is hard not to see this as reflecting indifference as to the quality of the Hebrew language program. It is equally hard to accept at face value the claim that this has nothing to do with financial savings. YU students: You can still overcome this decision. You can begin with protesting and calling for a return to regular or even enhanced Hebrew instruction. If that proves unsuccessful, you can work on Hebrew skills without the university’s help. Learn “Peninei Halakha,” listen to Hebrew shiurim online and spend a summer in Israel in a Hebrew-speaking environment. Hachi chashuv: Al tityaeshu vi’tilmidu et leshonenu hakadosh!

The YU Commentator can be accessed at t.ly/wXrn or www.yucommentator.org.

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