Alexander A. Winogradsky Frenkel

Tongues between war and peace in prayers

How do liturgical innovations adapt to realities imposed by life: the example of Hebrew in the Church? I shall speak, in this Liturgical Week 68th (2022) organized by the Paris Saint Sergius Orthodox Institute of Theology, of the impact of three factors that have gradually overlapped over the past two to three years: the global pandemic of COVID-19, climatic upheavals, concomitant massive migrations of wars out of irrational hatred. How does this impact the “liturgical” sacramental, and Eucharistic context, which we must consider to live our faith accordingly? The French Orthodox theologian Jean-Claude Larchet wrote a  book “Theology for Times of Pandemics” in which he stated: “Religions have not escaped the shock endured by all societies”.Beyond the shock and confrontation of climatic and pandemic suffering, the societies that follow different creeds are duly affected till nowadays by linguistic impacts.
Their modus operandi was upset by the “barrier measures” (absence of physical contact, distances to be respected, proscription of common objects) (…) Christianity paid a heavy price for all these rules: it was obliged to considerably reduce the number of participants in the Liturgies, traditionally called “synaxes”, i.e., “assemblies” which constitute the Church. (pp. 14-15)”. This unprecedented situation allows me as in a paradox, to approach the case of Hebrew/Hebraism in the Orthodox Church. From a theological point of belief and transmission of Faith, the Hebrew language is indeed the only paternal language, given by the Heavenly Father in his dialogue with humankind, granted by the transmission of the Written (Bible) and Oral (Talmud) Laws received during the Sinai theophany according to the tradition of a centuries-old Judaism. The barrier of linguistic and theological interpretation maintains a virtual separation that challenges the word of the apostle: “By his death, He destroyed the wall of hatred (full alienness) and of both (Israel and the Nations) He made one (people) with them” (Ephesians 2:14). Still, is it possible to consider Hebrew as a liturgical language of the Church? The best-known example of this is shown by the following anecdote.
In the 1950s, four Latin Rite Catholic priests living in Israel wanted to pray in Hebrew officially. A new State of Israel whose official, modernized language is Hebrew had been created. The request was submitted to Pope Pius XII and defended by Cardinal Eugène Tisserant, then in charge of the Eastern Churches. The Pope asked the Cardinal if Hebrew is a liturgical language. Appropriately, the cardinal responded to the Pope with a question: in what language was written the plate on the Cross indicating the title of Jesus of Nazareth, “King of the Jews”? Pius XII replied: “In Hebrew, in Latin (in Roman, says the original Greek text) and in Greek” (John 19,19). The Pope concluded that Hebrew is indeed a liturgical language! The anecdote seems outdated, but the Pope asked the question of whether the Christians validly can make use of Hebrew in their liturgical prayers (personal but also sacramental, Eucharistic).
Liturgy implies a reference to the existence of an ecclesiology, therefore to a “Christian people” who speak the Hebrew language thus expressing and sharing with the whole Church the Paschal Mystery of Redemption, without being excluded from the “πληρομα\pleroma of the Church”. How many times do I hear: “But why a “parish in Hebrew”? We feel comfortable speaking in Russian, in German, in Romanian, in Serbian!” From the outset, as supposing a direct confrontation with the question of the phyletism, they would burst and say: “They want us to Judaize!”, which the Orthodox from Eastern countries are persuaded but too shy to declare in a State “of the Jews”.
On the other hand, one thing can be seen in daily life: in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, or Haifa – thus large cities – it is usual to see women, men, and children on their journey in buses reading the Psalms in Hebrew and not far from the Russian or Greek, even Arab women who, like Anne, move their lips and pronounce the same psalms in their own languages, with some additional rituals. Another question arises: a hegumen of Jerusalem, now a bishop, often tells me: “We speak Hebrew very well, yet deep down in our minds we don’t understand what the Israelis really intend to say. You should teach us Talmud so that we can learn to understand each other”. He knows – like most of the local clergy – the perfect Hebrew tongue spoken by Christians, but he does not match with the “intelligible soul”, the in-born experience expressed by a living and spoken liturgical tradition specific to the Hebrew heritage and experience. As early as 1958, Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote in his little work not translated into French “Einsame Zwiesprache mit Martin Buber”, (in English: “Martin Buber & Christianity):
“Since the foundation of the Church, a dialogue between Jew and Christian has always been rare and invariably brief. Judaism shut itself off from Christianity, and the Church turned its back on the people who rejected it. The history of their relations and contacts is, it must be confessed, dispiriting.” (p. 12)
This view seems outdated at the present, at least according to the so-called Churches of Western traditions (Latin, Protestant, Anglican). It would be a total illusion to think so. The split remains deep beyond nice and polite contacts and reality compels us to face a conflicting situation nowadays, confrontation with the powerful spiritual renewal of Judaism in the Land of Israel, in a so-called Hebrew State.
In 1841 – 182 soon 183 years ago! – the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, long before the restoration of the Moscow Patriarchate, published an official translation of the Divine Liturgy in Hebrew made by the priest Daniel Levinson, who had been a trained rabbi. The translation was officially in use at the Ecclesiastical Mission of Moscow in Jerusalem. It remains a unique case: it was used even before the birth of the main promoters of the Zionist movement and the supporters of the revival of the Hebrew language. The Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, before the restoration of the patriarchate just before the Bolshevik Revolution, considered that it was possible to pray in Hebrew in the local Church of Jerusalem.
This means that the Russian Orthodox Church (and subsequently the Patriarchate of Jerusalem since the Ecclesiastical Mission is serving under the authority of the local patriarch of Jerusalem) recognized that the language of the Prophets was indeed a liturgical language. The tongue allows us to perfectly express the Christian Mystery of redemption. It was basically a “colonial” decision: the texts had to match with the word-for-word original Greek/Slavonic texts, which did not correspond to the Semitic ways of thinking, both in Arabic and in Hebrew.
This corresponds to a constant reproach on the part of the Greeks as well as the Slavs: the Arabic speakers naturally tend to use specific words, and an Islamic tone whilst the essays in Hebrew consist of coping with the original formulas of the Talmud to avoid to depart from their grammar and lexicon in favor of a Hellenistic structure. Moreover, it is very rare for Jews of the Church to participate in the verbal and written incarnation of the liturgical texts. Beyond the recurring problem of phyletism, they are submitted to strong processes of substitution/superseding of identity by those who believe that they can seize, capture, and rapture the mental input and prophetic language brought by each tongue and speaker. I had underlined, during a previous Liturgical Week, that it is much more evident to speak of the resurrection of Christ by saying “Hû chay veqayam – הוא חי וקים/He (the Christ) is living and source of life, qam ûmeqayam- קם ומקים/He rose from the dead (resurrected) and brings forth life”. This corresponds to a Jewish prayer that modeled the Greek Chrism KHI+RHO [ΧΡ] in original Hebrew characters that I found, with Father Bargil Pixtel at Convent of the Dormition of Sion. Similarly, during the proscomedia, Saint John’s text: “(There came out) water and blood” (John 19, 34) shows the semantic proximity/fusion between the Greek “και-et” and the Hebrew /k- – כ = like”.
Talmud Tractate Gittin 64b says that the blood of the sacrifice gushed “blood like sprinkling water”. Still, what is the link with an unprecedented health situation? Hebrew constitutes in itself an hapax that can be considered as “resurrectional”. He is the linguistic vehicle of a society that is driven by an intangible thirst to communicate and be connected. The first “social networks” like ICQ, the techniques of digital development were designed and created on the beaches of Tel Aviv.
The country is a “small, restricted, compact world/ עולם קטן – olam qatan”. Everyone lives in permanent and secure lockdowns and niches, developed through a confrontation with evil, distancing, and barrier regulations, that are highly virtualized at present. For more than fifteen years, this has allowed me to highlight place courses, prayer times, and Eucharist online celebrations to overcome societal breaches or distanced isolation.
This questions the liturgical capacity for true recognition of the physical presence of the faithful who prefer to stay anonymous in virtual life rather than to encounter other people who can be perceived as dangerous or impossible for different reasons: how to get around Shabbat or come to a Synaxis on Sunday which is a working day? Quite a problem.
The pandemic has clearly interrogated the validity of these liturgical or sacramental “online” acts, in particular when local niches can be deployed by cooptation on numerous international networks on the Web. Nonetheless, the liturgical hapax of the Hebrew language in its diachronic and synchronic deployment questions and even confronts violently the convictions defined by the Church, in particular the Orthodox jurisdictions. Thus, whilst explaining Fr. Georges Florovsky’s position, Jean-Claude Larchet wrote: “All the Jewish claims to a correct interpretation of the Old Testament “must be formally rejected” because “the Old Testament no longer belongs to the Jews, it belongs to the Church alone” which “is the only Israel of God” and only the Church of Christ now possesses the good key to Scripture” (G. Florovsky, The Fathers of the Church and the Elder Testament”, in J.C. Larchet, Following the Fathers, p. 99).
Such a claim is shocking to any Jew, Israeli, and even to many Christians. In the Eastern Orthodox world, some would agree to read the “Old Testament or at times First Testament” in Hebrew, can do it. Mentally, the true character and primacy of the Hebrew text is not evident and they naturally turn to some classic translation from the Greek Septuagint, Slavonic. The Russians do not have – contrary to the Ukrainians – the current practice of using the Russian Synodal version in Liturgies.
The tsunami of the re-emergence of a national entity, a societal community of Jews who have lived among all nations of the world, then the miraculous/exceptional resurrection of the living words that belong to the language that God spoke first – is brand new.
This definitely confronts the oral and written records in the Hebrew language. It really shocks those who had never anticipated such a hapax. It will take time for them to become aware of what it means and to accept the new situation. All the Churches behave in fact according to what is meant in Fr. Georges Florovsky’s quotation.
I continue the work of Fr. Kurt Hruby at the Liturgical Weeks. He was an expert at the Second Vatican Council who used to say peacefully and with much humor: “I work for eternity. It takes centuries to repair for centuries of estrangement”. This is definitely correct and will last for ages indeed! It is not only a matter of words, understanding the roots and the words, the phrases, and their meanings. It deals with the capacity to cope with the mental and human, theological and spiritual, daily capacities topics and identity features of the Jews, Jewishness, and Hebrew existence.
It remains that Jean-Claude Larchet is one of the rare Orthodox theologians to have a question on that purpose. He says: “Do we have to go beyond the limits of the Scriptures? And can we say that the Scripture is rather Hebrew or Jewish under a Greek cross-dressing? Very few actually go so far as to propose a radical rejection of “sacred Hebraism” out of the fabric of Christian belief. Hebrew could even be unanimously recognized as an essential and integral part of the Christian spirit.” (id. p. 147).
A living question for post-pandemic times in the journey towards the fullness of Eucharistic consciousness.
I would add that this is an intense question as the wars rage in the Middle East. Liturgies express the constant dialogue between God and mankind. Breaches appeared between specific denominations and jurisdictions throughout the centuries. The first breach was and remains between the Jews and the non-Jews. When I gave this lecture, though I had been lecturing since the death of Fr. Kurt Hruby in 1992 at the request of the late Fr. Boris Bobrinskoy, it became slowly evident that there is an interest in Judaism at the Saint Sergius Institution of Theology. The vivid essence of a reviving Hebrew, now Israeli language, life, society, and new styles of Jewish faith meeting with so many different local liturgical developments over the ages does not interrogate Christendom.
The Jewish-Christian dialogue cannot be limited to relationship courses or lectures. Just as Orthodoxy rises up and shakes its connection with Catholicism, Judaism calls for renewed prospects and consideration of Jewish vitality.
About the Author
Alexander is a psycho-linguist specializing in bi-multi-linguistics and Yiddish. He is a Talmudist, comparative theologian, and logotherapist. He is a professor of Compared Judaism and Christian heritages, Archpriest of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, and International Counselor.
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