James R. Russell
James R. Russell

Let’s Talk Some More About Hebrew

Nathan Fishman’s excellent op-ed today in the Times of Israel, “Let’s Talk about Hebrew,” deserves highlighting, affirmation, and discussion. He makes some very important points about the way leftist ideology in the United States is manipulating language to control consciousness and destroy human and civil liberty, and how that ideology is being exported to undermine culture and society abroad, particularly with respect to gender roles. Secular elements in Israeli society always ape the worst in American popular culture, generally ineptly and with a certain ingenuous vulgarity, usually with a lag time of a few years. Usually the vector of the infection is media and entertainment.

Some of thе trash imported by the latter is nearly innocuous: rap “music”, for instance. At some point a healthy ear expels the poison and reverts to Hasidic niggunim, Shostakovich, the Blues, etc. An announcer on Radio Moscow once made the delicious, immortal slip, Вы слушали песни Советских композиторов; теперь послушайте музыку. “You have been listening to songs by Soviet composers. Now listen to some music.”

The most dangerous assaults on human decency and sanity emanate now from academia: “woke” consciousness, “intersectionality”, “critical race theory”, and all the rest. It’s all Nazism, in that it redefines humanity in terms solely of “racial” identity, but it does so with a twist. Thus a number of my former colleagues and pupils recently signed a viciously and overtly anti-Semitic open letter vilifying both Israel and anybody who might dare to brand them anti-Semites for doing so. One can just imagine Hitler— may his name and memory be blotted out— down there in the flames of hell slapping his forehead and exclaiming, “Now why didn’t I think of that?”

Mr. Fishman reports that the student union of the Hebrew University has just decided to alter the grammatical rules of the Hebrew language, in an effort to make the miraculously revived language of Scripture gender neutral. Now, modern Hebrew is decidedly not the Holy Tongue anymore. I confess to spending as little time in Tel Aviv as possible when I’m in the homeland— a few hours over the past thirty years, all told. But even a short sentence in that shoddy imitation of LA and Miami can bring home to one the difference between the lingo of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the parleyvoo of the city by the sea. It’s a warm, pleasant Erev Shabbos and I’m walking with Cousin Nina, z”l, along the seashore in Tel Aviv. Next to regularly-spaced chairs on stilts are signs: En matsil. Now, Hashem, a.k.a. God— who is, by the way Avinu Malkenu, “Our Father, our King” and thus decidedly male— is addressed as podeh u-matsil, “Redeemer and Rescuer”. I read the sign: “There is no Rescuer!” and say to Nina, “I know TA is secular and many here are atheists, but that’s a bit much.” “What do you think it says?” she asks, and when I elaborate she explains, “It just means there’s no lifeguard on duty.”

But you don’t have to venture out of the hills of Judah down onto the coastal plain of the pagan Philistines and Phoenicians. Walking home one day, a few years later and in better control of my linguistic cognitive dissonance, I saw a sign at the national cemetery, Har ha-Menuchot: En kenisa le-ba’alei hayyim. It means, of course, “No pets allowed,” but one could also read, with an overdose of literality, “No entry to living things.” Well, no, it’s a cemetery after all. Graveyard humor, literally.

And then there’s the word bitachon, which to every Torah Jew means “trusting reliance upon the Lord”. Obviously that’s not quite the same as Israeli Hebrew (to be pronounced, please, Eebghu) bitachon, which means a nice young lady asking you whether you packed your bags, did anybody give you anything to take on your trip, why are you traveling to Israel and with whom will you be staying there. Security.

There are hundreds more examples, many of them doubtless even better philological knee-slappers than the modest assortment above. This is what happens with all living languages over time. The changes only seem particularly ironic when the earlier form of a language has acquired a sacral status. Aithousa, the Homeric word for the pillared hall of a royal palace such as that of the Atreids at Mycenae, has been demoted to “railway platform” in modern Greek. (It’s not for nothing, Agamemnon might reflect, that the latter tongue is called dhimotiki— Demotic!)

The organic development of the trees and branches of human language is normal: but (if one may pursue the botanical metaphor) forcing and grafting language in a sort of ideological greenhouse, with the gardener a Lysenkoist epigenetic madman (sorry, madperson), is unnatural. Victor Klemperer wrote his classic LTI (= Lingua Tertii Imperii) about what the Nazis did to German; George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” is a prophetic warning. Orwell introduces a dark parody of Esperanto, Newspeak, into the totalitarian system of his dystopian novel, 1984: it is, unfortunately, the harbinger of the English (mis)used today.

You are familiar, gentle reader, with the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, David’s Tower, the laments of Tisha b-Av, and so on. You know, Jerusalem. The place where the Jewish kings David and Solomon reigned, where a Jew named Jesus Christ walked. The name of the place, in BBC Newspeak, and let’s run it all together as one word since the lie gains traction only as an automatic cliché, is Occupiedarabeastjerusalem. That’s bad enough, but it’s just the opener for the bigger, more egregious untruths that have become today’s American English: Israel is a colonial, apartheid entity. “Palestine” should be “free” (yeah, like journalists in the PA are) “from the river to the sea” (meaning, kill all the Jews). Israel started the war against peace-loving, democratic, diversity-rich Gaza and targeted innocent children for mass killing. (That is, Jews are Christ-killers, kidnap children, murder them, and drain their blood to make Passover matzah. It’s Blood Libel 2.0)

What’s the Middle East got to do with Black Lives Matter? Let the “Social Justice Warriors” explain: “people of color” (meaning anybody BLM and academe approve of) and “Palestinians” are both oppressed. Why, the Israeli police— this is the latest— train American cops to torture and kill people like George Floyd. So what if it’s a sheer lie, a fantasy? Just repeat it often enough. Who killed George Floyd? The Jews did! That’s why it’s okay to attack Jews in broad daylight in LA and New York. And in Lod.

It’s hard to generate ironic humor these days, because the absurdity of reality outpaces one’s imagination. Do you remember the Israeli satirist Ephraim Kishon’s piece in which the Soviet ambassador rises to his feet in the UN General Assembly and, sputtering with righteous indignation, condemns Israel… for the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968?

Small potatoes, my friends, in a world where now Avinu Malkenu, Himself, is decreed to be neither father nor king. In the Hebrew language. Reform and (so-called) Conservative American Jews started this, saying “God” instead of “He”. By the same token, do I have permission to tinker with Shoftim, the Book of Judges, and make Deborah and Yael into boys? And since lots of Israeli boys, according to Mr. Fishman, are being swept into this maelstrom and want to be operated on and become girls, let’s make it easier and with a simple flick of the knife change circumcision to castration. No more Pidyon ha-ben (Redemption of the son) since toxic masculinity will have been severed at the root, literally. And there’s no Podeh, no Redeemer, on duty anyhow, is there? I once had the misfortune to attend what was laughably called a Yom Kippur service at the Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley, California. The mimeographed text included an invocation, you should excuse me, to the pagan Canaanite goddess Ashtoret, Astarte. Well, the hell with that lot, they’ve already damned themselves. But, my dear brothers and sisters living in our fragile, beloved Third Commonwealth, do you really want these Babylonish abominations for yourselves and children? We know where it leads.

And just in case we pretend we don’t know, let me conclude with an oft-repeated phrase for our homemade ideological totalitarian tinkerers with the Holy Tongue. It’s not a bastardized perverted cliché of the BBC, NPR, BLM, & Co., but a formula that introduces serial disasters, always with the same dire consequences, in the Torah. In decidedly not gender-neutral but hundred-percent-authentic Hebrew. Which happens to be the Word of God, Master of the Universe. All of which is the truth. Given on Sinai. Which said Torah, per Rashi, is our deed to the Land of Israel. To all of the Land of Israel. Which is the name of the place, there being no such place as “Palestine”. To all of the Land of Israel, from the river to the sea. So, verbum sapienti (a word to the wise): Va-ya‘asu Benei-Yisrael ha-ra‘ be-‘einei Hashem “And the Children of Israel did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord.” Uh oh.

About the Author
James R. Russell is Emeritus Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University, and has served as Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian at Columbia, and part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He is at present Adjunct Professor of Iranian Religions at the Daneshgah-e Adyan va Mazaheb, Qom. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University, and a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. His PhD is in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London. His recent books include "Poets, Heroes, and Their Dragons", 2 vols., UC Irvine Iranian Series, 2020, and "The Complete Poems of Misak Medzarents", CSU Fresno Armenian Series, 2021.