When they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world,” they likely had delusions of grandeur, and were possibly drunk on their own power with fantasies of wealth, limitless ability, or omnipotence. But rather than using more conventional crowd dispersal tactics, according to the story God chose a longer-lasting approach of confusing their languages effectively rendering them incommunicado. But jumbling dialects and tying tongues had a far more lasting effect and came with a considerable consequence. Not only did this lead to philological differences but in effect, created deeper particularistic and tribal cultural differences and divisions.
“Language is a key to identity and culture,” writes Dr. Jeremy Benstein, author of the recently released Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes: A Tribal Language in a Global World.
The dream of a common Jewish language has yet to be realized. Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the mythic character of Hebrew revival at the beginning of the Zionist enterprise, who prophetically knew that both out of practical necessity and of ideological desire to create an ethnonational revival that the Hebrew language would be the key to success.
And if language is key as Benstein writes, then the Hebrew language must be the key for Jewish continuity, survival, unity, and competency as Hebrew is “both ancient and renewing, holy and daily, tribal and global.” It was a key to survival as a Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah tell us. “Three things kept us going in Egypt and led to our redemption: that we didn’t change our names, didn’t alter our dress, and maintained our language.”
But the Midrash doesn’t tell the whole story of our success as a people. Yes, keeping our own language, may not capture the experience of the modern Jew in today’s world. In fact, in order to navigate in the 21st century, a modern-day sage, Rabbi Bennett Miller, teaches that Jews today should be comfortable, if not fluent, in four languages.
A Jew must be fluent in:
- The Language of our people – the Hebrew language. (one could make the argument that we have many Jewish languages, like Yiddish or Ladino, but I would argue that those are all Judaized versions of other languages often written in Hebrew characters.)
- The lingua franca – for North Americans that is English (for Israelis it also the Jewish language).
- The language of technology/commerce.
- The language of music.
Most Diaspora Jews in today’s reality, have it in the reverse order. We speak the local language as our ‘mother tongue,’ music and commerce are seen as necessary and practical means to success. Only our language is not emphasized as its removal from our toolbox of religious identity led to a cut-off from our ethnonational and cultural identity.
What more, is that fluency in these four languages is actually the minimum. It does not assume any level of knowledge, spiritual practice, observance, or behavior, just access, and connectivity.
While fluency is a lofty goal, basic Hebrew infusion is critical (see the research of Dr. Sarah Bunim Benor). It was early Reformers who extracted Hebrew terms from our religious lexicon opting for the adoption of borrowed terms from the Protestant experience. For example, we often use the following: Consecration, Confirmation, Congregation, Ordination, Clergy, Worship, Pulpit, and more, instead of their Hebrew/Jewish terms. These terms, of course, do not affect the ability for achieving spiritual bliss, and deeply religious community and expression, however, the loss of language is the virtual removal of the bridge between the Jewish communities of the world.
So why is this important you ask?
Because language offers a general base of cultural literacy and as Rabbi Joe Schwartz commented it is “axiomatic that Israel and all that led to it and flows from it is a massive, inescapable fact of contemporary Jewish life; that Hebrew, both because it is the majority spoken language of Jews today, and the primary language in which the Jewish bookshelf(ארון הספרים) is written and preserved, is inescapably central to Jewish life.”Yes, there are exceptions, and there are doubtless throngs of knowledgeable and literate Jews who operate through the filter of translation. As Noah Efron beautifully articulated on the Promised Podcast (in conversation with Jeremy Benstein), pontificating on the historical assumption that the holy tongue was a fundamental part of basic Jewish competency he offered that, “there was near-universal agreement that the ability to read [the holy tongue] with comprehension as part of what it means to be a competent Jew.”
Now, asks Efron, “What does it mean for Jews and Judaism that we no longer have that common language? What does it mean when most American Jews cannot even sound out the words on the page in our classical texts? Does it mean that the American Jewish spirit has shifted tectonically away from the Israeli spirit?”
Of course, there are many more explanations for the different directions each community has gone in and real historical developments that have changed each’s course.But is the idea or the dream of a common language as unrealizable as it is lofty?Some may say so, but as more and more volumes are penned lamenting the growing rifts between the two largest Jewish communities it is more abundantly clear that the Hebrew language must be the cure for this increasing alienation between Israel and World Jewry.Too often, among North American Jews, I get the feeling that Hebrew causes great tension, becomes the source of discomfort, and for some seen as even a barrier to access. Once we’re able to move beyond initial discomfort with basic illiteracy, we can acknowledge that Hebrew maybe be the missing piece. The good news is that it’s not too late.
Here’s my challenge, my cri de Coeur for an altneu-approach to Jewish connectivity, continuity, and creativity. We will need immersive experiences both in Israel and around the world to ground us in our roots as a people, let us raise our common denominator.
By the time we read about God jumbling our language and the dismantling of the Tower of Babel this time next year, I want to challenge every North American Jew to learn to read the Hebrew alphabet. This is called decoding. It’s not fluency, nor is it even conversational. It won’t enable one to read the Israeli news or understand the Torah in the original but will firmly plant us in the line of our people and our tradition. It is the foundation. It is the crawl before the walk before the run. It is both practical and symbolic. It is apolitical, non-theological, and non-controversial.
It is our language and let this year be the year when we all take one step closer.