David Kuney
David Kuney
Advocate for bankruptcy justice and Jewish values

My Unrequited Love for the Hebrew Language

In my recently published book, On Rockingham Street: Reclaiming My Family’s Jewish Identity—Our Journey from Vilna to the Suburban South, I trace the narrative of the journey of my grandparents, Sol and Anna Kuney, from Vilna to the suburban south in 1913. As immigrants fresh out of the Jewish Enlightenment, known as the haskalah, they seemed determined to be secular, rational, and not observant. Jewish literacy and text study gave way to making a living.

I have been doing book talks at various venues in which I discuss the lack of Jewish literacy and the lack of immersive textual study as one of the main contributing factors to the falloff in Jewish observance, synagogue affiliation and Jewish commitment. The falloff is well documented in the 2020 PEW Research Center Report on American Jewry.

I suggest we need to revive our study of and interest in the Hebrew language and literacy concerning our sacred texts. The lack of Jewish literacy may be at the heart of the falloff in Jewish attendance, commitment, and sense of value. Barry Shrage wrote the following: “Serious Jewish learning, Jewish literacy …  became marginal goals for American Jewry. . . . As a result, being Jewish lost its meaning for many American Jews.”[1]

Shrage writes that we must give literacy the highest priority: “Establishing universal Jewish literacy as a communal norm … must be our highest priority. . . . We must. . . create a Jewish world that places the same value on understanding the basic works of Maimonides as on understanding the basic works of Shakespeare.”[2]

Few things are likely to be more difficult than convincing non-Orthodox Jews to become engaged in Hebrew study. Here is what Rabbi Michael Hattin of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies wrote in his new book, Judges: The Perils of Possession:

The touchstone of our biblical tradition is careful reading, which is unlike other reading. Other reading tends to be information-driven, with the text simply a medium for conveying the information. Having attained the data, we can discard the text. In Jewish study, however, the words themselves and even their very letters have intrinsic value. Every word is precious and every turn of phrase. Some of us refer to this phenomenon as the “divinity of the text”—the idea that the text of the Tanakh was inspired by God.

A beautiful example of how the Hebrew letters themselves have intrinsic value and provide insight into textual meaning was provided by one of our learned Jewish members at Adat Shalom in Bethesda, Maryland. She remined me of the interpretive insights that arise only from the study of Hebrew, and what we may miss if we merely read English translations of the Bible. Here are her comments in full:

“Some of our sages probe not only the words of the Torah, but each individual letter as well.  The foremost exponent of this method was Rabbi Akiva.  It was he who taught: “If husband and wife are deserving, G-d’s Presence dwells in their midst.  If they are not deserving, fire devours them.” “For,” said Rabbi Akiba, “the Hebrew word for man is ish, spelled aleph, yod, shin.  Remove the yod and you have aleph, shin or esh, meaning fire.  The Hebrew word for woman is ishah, spelled aleph, shin heh.  Remove the heh and, once again, you have esh, meaning fire.

From this we learn that there is a consuming fire in the heart of every man and woman.  When they marry, two fires are brought together that are capable of destroying whole worlds, if not properly tended.  To quench that fire is impossible – for it generates the life of the world.  But to leave the fire as is, is also impossible for it generates evil as well.

What did G-d do?  He placed one of the letters of His name, the first letter of the Divine Name, yod, between the aleph and the shin to make the Hebrew name for “man”.  And He took the second letter of the Divine Name, the heh, and placed it after the aleph and the shin to make the Hebrew word for “woman.”  In that way, both man and woman retain in their names the word “fire,” but when they marry, the Divine Presence dwells in their midst, in the combination of their names.

Wherever G-d’s presence dwells, that fire gives warmth and heat, but it does not devour and consume.  If husband and wife do not make the Divine Presence unwelcome, its blessing rests on the work of their hands and they become as partners in the act of Divine creation.  But if they make the Presence unwelcome so that it does not dwell in their midst, they are left only with two consuming fires.

Every Jewish home is intended as a sanctuary.  Those who dwell in it are to be as priests, the functions that take place in it are as sacred as an altar service.

The offerings of that sacred service are: control of the profane fire in the hearts of husband and wife; avoidance of quarrels; mutual loving-kindness and support. Employment of nature’s flame only as permitted, in fulfillment of Divine commandment and to maintain the world; the rearing of generations sanctified from birth; and a loving willingness to bear the burdens of home – be they of child-rearing, of neighborliness, of charity.

No offerings are as dear to G-d as these.  Homes where such offerings are consistently made are in truth sanctuaries, from which he who will lead Israel to salvation may emerge.”

Another example of Hebrew’s importance comes from the opening lines of Robert Alter’s “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible.” He writes, “Why after so many English versions, a new translation of the Hebrew Bible? There is, as I shall explain, something seriously wrong with all the familiar English translations, traditional and recent.” Alter dislikes the notion that the Hebrew bible is set to merely prefigure the coming of Christ.

Despite its importance, the study of Hebrew by Jewish adults does not appear to be widespread. The vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew is not hard to learn, but the grammar is complex, and the sentences normally are arranged in verb-noun sequence, unlike English which is typically written in a noun-verb sequence. The lack of comfort with Hebrew then leads to a decline in attendance at services, and in turn, to a general sense of “why join a synagogue.” I believe that the study of Hebrew and the dominance of Hebrew in our services is a barrier for many Jews. We ask Jews to attend a service that runs almost three hours and in a language they don’t understand. It is a high barrier.

I love the study of Hebrew. It is our universal language that we all speak in every synagogue over the globe. It is our timeless language that we have always spoken; we were Hebrews in Egypt before we were the Jewish people at Sinai.These are the sacred connections that somehow tie us together in time and space and maybe eternity. I believe there is a certain intimacy in the Hebrew text. That somehow, we get closer to the actual meaning and nuance.

I have an unrequited love of the Hebrew language. But I continue to study and to grow. To me, the Hebrew language is part of the sacred quality of the Torah. There are mysteries and wisdom hidden in the grammar and syntax. I say this as one who struggles each week with Hebrew.  I am not a good Hebrew student. But I love the challenge and feel a special closeness to the text that I can’t replicate in English.

The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies is one of several institutions which is committed to increasing Jewish literacy and to focusing on immersive textual studies. Knowing Hebrew is not required, however, for its courses or its podcasts. Pardes provides both on-line learning and study in Jerusalem for one-week programs (formerly known as the Executive Learning Session and now the “Pardes Learning Session). I have attended these in person in Israel and found the exposure to great scholars, including the deeper understanding of Hebrew to be transformative.  Information can be found at https://www.pardes.org.il.

 

 

 

On Rockingham Street is available on Amazon in hardcover, kindle and softcover or at https://www.davidkuney.com.

 

[1] Barry Shrage, “Building a Community of Torah and Tzedek: A New Paradigm for the Jewish Community of the 21st Century.”

 

[2] Barry Shrage, Building a Community of Torah and Tzedek: A New Paradigm for the Jewish Community of the 21st century. Boston: Combined Jewish Philanthropies, 1996.

 

About the Author
For the past twelve years, David has been actively involved in Jewish adult education and literacy. David has served on the Board of Directors for the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and the Adat Shalom Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland where he chaired the Adult Education Committee. He studied in Jerusalem at the Pardes Institute’s Executive Learning Session in 2010, 2011 and 2013. He served as the chairperson and organizer of a full day program at the Georgetown University Law Center entitled “The Moral Economy” which involved both academic and rabbinic professionals in discussions on the intersection of Jewish law and American civil law.
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