“To every people after their language” (Esther 1:22)
I have to confess a mild addiction to the Yishai Fleisher Show on the Land of Israel Network, which I first discovered about six months ago. I especially try not to miss the live parasha-based discussions between Rabbi Yishai (in Hebron) and Rav Mike Freuer (in Jerusalem). These English-language discussions, always with some Biblical and Talmudic Hebrew uttered and explained, are a highlight of my week. This might seem a strange thing for me to say, as an English gentile and a scientist whose faith community is the Church of England. But I have a thirst for a better knowledge and understanding of the Torah, and its backstory (Talmud and Midrash), and the Holy Language, and the deeper meaning of Israel.
Rabbi Yishai and Rav Mike have the talent to teach and entertain at the same time, and the confidence and humility to test out new thoughts with each other on air, often trying to relate the Torah portion to the unfolding events of our times. If I miss a live Land of Israel parasha discussion due to my day-job commitments, it is easy to catch up later, because all the parashot transmissions are embedded in the dust of the earth – or computer memory.
Rav Mike often reminds us how and why memory – rather than the genre we now call ‘history’ – is fundamental to the Jewish story. Miraculously, the Jews, unique amongst ancient peoples, have continuously carried, intact, memory, language and religion through all the appalling (and extant) adversities, since the Exodus, into our time in which human memory can be embedded, forever, into our technological fabrications. Even Rav Mike’s injunctions to remember cannot be forgotten, because they are embedded, and made available to the world for all time, in computer memory!
We, mankind, have learned to fabricate metals, and minerals, and semiconductors such as silicon. We cannot create any of this ‘dust’ of the earth, of course. As our scientific knowledge informs, matter (like energy) can be neither created nor destroyed, not by man or by anything else made of matter (due to Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence). Similarly, the very second word of the Bible, bara’ (or ‘created’) applies only to God, never to man.
In order for us modern human beings to encapsulate, or record, our words (written and spoken) and images in the materials of the earth, mankind had to collectively arrive upon on a common language to code and decode all this data: the English language.
Websites in Hebrew/Ivrit for instance, like websites in all the world’s languages, are wrapped in English, the universal language of the sciences including the computer sciences. By way of example I have taken a screenshot of the Hebrew version of Bar-Ilan University. It has the Hebrew that the visitor sees, but behind the scences everything is wrapped in English-language mark-up and scripting in order that it can be rendered on any Internet-ready device anywhere in the world (providing the government of the region has not blocked Internet access to everything it considers incompatible with its state propaganda):
Of course, none of this has surprised God Almighty. It has not surprised God that we have discovered how to encode semiconductors, and it has not surprised God that we have arrived at a global language (English) that enables us to ‘create’, amongst other things, a world wide web (‘www’). God has allowed us, at last, to complete the allegorical Tower of Babel, in the sense that from the world’s great babble of tongues has evolved the world’s first truly universal language. Modern English is indeed the language through which we cooperate internationally to enter the sky, or the first heaven (and even outer space in fact): all international pilots and air traffic controllers are obliged work in English.
As I see it, then, there are two holy languages. Through the Providence of God Omnipotent in history there is English, through which we moderns now have the potential to make things whole (holy), in the world. And there is the Holy Language, or Lashon Hakodesh, at the centre of which is the holiest of holy names of God: the Name, Housed (Deuteronomy 12:11) in Jerusalem, herself , “set in the centre of the nations” (Ezekiel 5:5). In other words, Hebrew is the Holy Language that God set in stone (the Ten Words), and in which He chose to set His Name in the House (dwelling, shekhinah) in Jerusalem. Being less than 3,000 years ago, this was very, very recent considering the tremendous age of earth, and even relatively recent compared to sophisticated ancient civilisations and cultures that have come and gone for over 10,000 years.
Hebrew in the time of the Prophets was, the classicists tell us, a kind of calculus of the world’s languages, at the geographical crossroads of the continents of Europe, Arabia, Africa and Asia. Hebrew, the language of revelation, carrying the Name, established the holy centre of all language.
The English language, once a little-spoken and unremarkable language limited to certain tribes of what we now call England, reached the ends of the earth and set the circumference. English is the world’s first truly universal language, although more usually a second or third language for the majority of its users today. English is also by far the biggest language in the world, its vocabulary being bigger than those of French and Spanish combined.
“English has been this vacuum cleaner of a language, because of its history meeting up with the Romans and then the Danes, the Vikings and then the French and then the Renaissance with all the Latin and Greek and Hebrew in the background.”
English as a Global Language, Dr. David Crystal (British linguist)
However, in order to make the world whole, and good, it is vital that, those of us who care ensure that the English language, in thought, word and deed, remains attached to the House: the Holy, nay, the Holy of Holies.
Native English speakers such as me, an Englishman, must be especially diligent in the way we use language. I am always conscious of the need to keep language holy by relating it back to the Holy Language. We do this at the end of every English-language prayer in fact, with the Hebrew ‘Amen’.
The Hebrew Bible, not least the Decalogue, is implicit in the English language, whether its users realise it or not: our law, psychology, literature, morality, music/song, economics, and democratic values are all structured and discussed in the language of the Bible. Indeed the fact that God is everywhere implied in European languages so troubled modernist and postmodernist atheistic philosophers that, encouraged by the ultra-secularist French intelligentsia, they have attempted, and are still attempting, to deconstruct the English language from its implied centre: the Name of God, or what the Hellenised Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, and then the Christians, called Logos.
The atheistic French Jew Jacques Derrida declared European languages ‘Logocentric’, and set about the ‘Deconstruction’ from implied Logos in all fields of study (or ‘ologies). For Derrida (and the equally destructive Michel Foucault) the objective centre of language, and the belief that there is a unity to all things, was to be removed. In order to be authentic atheists, objective truth and categories in language had to be dropped. Western language, to the postmodernists, is an oppresive religious ‘power structure’ that is standing in the way of man’s authentic existentialism and self-expression.
In postmodern philosophy then – and its spin offs such as neo-Marxism and neo-anarchism – now overwhelmingly prevalent in the humanities departments of Western universities, you can make up your own words, and your own truths, because every word, in every language, is merely contingent on the other word of that language.
All this nonsense has been around now for about 3 or 4 generations, and so I am hoping the curse will soon be done, although the movement, in its death throes, seems to be putting a fierce and determined fight against Western civilisation.
One of the first victims of this academic movement – determined to remove all allusions of the Holy from language – is, for obvious reasons, Israel. The Holy Land, ‘Israel’, in her very name, is the banner, the ensign, of God. Israel, in her very name, is a reminder to the nations that God has planned the destiny of all nations. And that plan is not Communism/Socialism or other forms of Internationalism, or scientism, secularism, economism, existentialism (‘authenitic’ individualism) , Islamism, Christian supersessionism… The peaceful destiny of the nations is to happen when the world comes fully into the knowledge of God of Israel. Pray, that might be soon.
God’s plan for uniting all nations in the unity of God depends on our keeping things holy. Israel has an especial responsibility to protect the divine inheritance, and conserve God’s chosen “holy nation”, “light unto nations”, “kingdom of priests”, “His own treasure”… for the sake of all nations.
In many ways, Israel has to be set apart from all other nations: “And ye shall be holy unto Me; for I the LORD am holy, and have set you apart from the peoples, that ye should be Mine” (Leviticus 20:26). As Rabbi Yishai and Rav Mike sometimes reflect, this is a great dichotomy, a divine tension, with Israel being at once the unifying centre and yet obliged to be holy and apart in order to fulfil that divine purpose and be the ensign of God’s rule. The Holy City of Jerusalem is to be open to all, whilst maintaining its Jewish holiness. The key, as Yishai Fleisher emphasises, is Jewish sovereignty, not exclusivity, in a tiny patch of land that is the Land of Israel. The Land is tiny in comparison to the surrounding landmass of the Arab peoples. In the words of Yishai (from my memory) it is “the size of a matchbox on a football field”. Yishai reminds us that Jews have no right to give away Judea and Samaria, even if secularists of the West think, naively, that it would be politically expedient to do so.
Speaking from personal experience, I have been to several nations of the Middle East and North Africa, all under Arab and Islamic sovereignty, and none is as diverse and inclusive as the small region under Jewish sovereign rule. I’ve sojourned in the (Biblical) port city of Jaffa several times. Under Jewish governance Jaffa is surely the most diverse, tolerant and multicultural city in the Middle East and North Africa. Jaffa is perhaps the most overtly-religiously plural place on earth, with a cacophony of church bells from Western and Eastern denominations, the Muezzins’ frequent call to prayer, and men with flowing tzitzit muttering psalms in Hebrew, or binding tefillin.
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I suggest that we must work hard to properly connect the English language back to its implicit holiness. Although at times we seem to be becoming overwhelmed by antisemitism/anti-Israelism, even from some very influential and popular secular Jews, those of us who care really must help Israel to help the world to see the light.
I have suggested that where Hebrew is the Holy Language at the centre, English is the language that has evolved – that the history of mankind has brought forth – to make the world whole (or holy). English is the circumference, having reached “the ends of the earth” in the language of Christian scripture. It is through the English language that I can type into my Internet browser TheLandofIsrael.com, and ‘touch’ with Rabbi Yishai and Rav Mike for my weekly portion. I am reminded of the prophecy of Zechariah: ‘In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, “Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you”.’ English, the circumference, we might say, is the hem, the skirt, the edge, that brings us into the centre, and the Holy Name.
I am deeply disappointed then in my own faith community, the Church of England, which, as I have written often elsewhere, including this Op-Ed in the Algemeiner, is generally anti-Israelist. Arab Anglican clergy in the Holy Land even lead the Christian demonization of Israel and the theology of contempt, as I wrote in my op-ed.
The problem is not new. I don’t think the Church (the Western Church in particular) has ever understood the Jews, the Torah, let alone the Talmud (which through history the Church has periodically attempted to obliterate). And with this lack of understanding comes a lack of understanding of The Land.
The English (Roman Catholic) writer and Journalist Paul Johnson, in his excellent book A History of the Jews, tells us that it wasn’t until he started research for the book that, “I became aware for the first time in my life of the magnitude of debt Christianity owes to Judaism. It was not, as I had been taught to suppose, that the New Testament replaced the Old…”.
Alas, we cannot change the past, but thanks to the universalising power of the English language, we can in the virtual sense be ‘zoomed’ to Jerusalem or Hebron and ‘take firm hold of a Jew by the hem’ by clicking on interactive broadcasts such as TheLandofIsrael.com and discover what Christianity has been missing (and Church leaders tried to hide or destroy) for the best part of 2000 years.
Of course, civilisation is overwhelmingly indebted to Christianity, as it is, I suggest, to England and the Church of England. There is much to admire, with gratitude, about England and the Church of England. But I suggest that the time has come for the Church to break out of its ‘lectionary’, and look more seriously at the Torah.
Although three-quarters of the Christian Bible, such as the English King James Bible (1611), is the Jewish Bible, very little of the Torah or wider Tanakh is ever read out in Church. When I look at the lectionary statistics for the Roman Catholic Church (which the Church of England follows) even in the full weekday lectionary (a two-year cycle), for those who attend church every day, they would hear only 28% of Genesis, 17% of Exodus, 5% of Leviticus, 6% of Numbers, and 5% of Deuteronomy. Until the 1960s, and the Second Vatican Council, these statistics were even more contemptuous of the ‘Old’ Testament. We do better with the Psalms, it should be said, which are all sung in the liturgical year. Those of us whose church attendance is limited to Sundays and major feasts will hear, or read out, a mere 9% of Genesis. As we go further into the Tanakh, the stats get even worse. Of 2 Chronicles for instance, the last book of the Tanakh: only 2% of it is heard in England’s established Church. And ‘the whole Megillah’ for the Church is a mere 2.6% (of Esther)!
I have long found the Church’s historical contempt for the Torah and the Tanakh rather strange. After all, in the New Testament (King James Version), Jesus says after his Sermon on the Mount that the Law must be kept intact: not “one jot or one tittle” (Matthew 5:18) is to be changed. But surely, using only highly selective parts of the Torah and rejecting all the rest is to radically change it. Thankfully, however, I am far from the only Christian to challenge this traditional ‘theology of contempt’ which is largely responsible for the Church’s history of antisemitism.
Time to be the Mother of all Israel Lobbies
“England is the mother of parliaments”, famously said the politician John Bright in the 1860s. England’s part in the restitution of the State of Israel cannot be overstated. It is worth noting also that the centre of the Houses of Parliament, between the Lords and the Commons, is the ‘Central Lobby’. The word ‘lobbyist’ and the verb ‘to lobby’ derive from this place, because people from outside Parliament would be allowed into the Lobby to attempt to persuade politicians to understand and support their cause. Inscribed into the floor of the Central Lobby is a large star-shaped mosaic, with Latin words from Psalm 127:
‘Unless the Lord builds the House its builders labour in vain’.