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Native Tongues
Mon, 12/30/2013 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi David Kalb: The rote practice of reading the Haggadah, sans discussion, “never really worked.”

Moses, we all know, had a speech impediment. Or did he?

Moses complains that he is k’vad lashon, heavy of tongue. Naturally we assume that means a problem with his articulation. But as Rabbi Aaron Alexander pointed out to me, biblical scholar Richard Elliot Friedman draws a different, and plausible, conclusion. The same expression is used in Ezekiel 3:5: “For you are not sent to a people of unintelligible speech and difficult language, but to the House of Israel.” The phrase for “difficult language” is k’vad peh.

So perhaps Moses simply did not speak Hebrew. Having grown up in Pharaoh’s palace, he did not know the language of his own people. When Zipporah told her father in Midian that she had met an Egyptian, it could be a result of Moses knowing only the Egyptian language. (Rashbam, the medieval commentator, says on the contrary that Moses did not speak Egyptian.)

True or not, the interpretation carries an important message. For most of our history, to be Jewish entailed knowing and speaking a Jewish language. In our own day, Hebrew literacy is low among the same American Jews who have no trouble learning other foreign languages. Perhaps as adults we can take the example of the greatest among us, and learn to speak with and to our people in their own tongue.

Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiWolpe.

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This man has a few of Hollywood's best screen writers come up with this stuff for him, right? No one man has this kind of talent.

Thank you for this article, We are definitely the questioners in life. Sometimes its hard to find the right words to "say what you need to say" (John Mayer) you want to "Feel Deeply But Act Kindly", your words. I also enjoy learning from you.

But what IS our own tongue? I understood that modern Hebrew is a modern construct. Also, I understood that, historically, our people spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew. Right now, the "universal" language of Judaism appears to be English.

Shalom (Hello) Anonymous,

I'd like to answer your question and elaborate a bit. I understand where you might have gotten what you said!

Yes; You are right! Modern Hebrew is a construct. It is also a linguistic anomaly, in that is the only language to have been successfully restored in recorded history.

While jews have often spoken another language of the larger host population like Judeo-Aramaic in Babylonia, Judeo-Latin in Italy, Judeo-German while in Ashkenaz (Germany) which evolved into Yiddish, with slavic influences, from the host populations. Even in America, as documented by Linguist Sarah Ben-Or, there is a Judeo-English in its early stages amongst highly involved Jews, mostly within Orthodoxy, which distinct grammar and usage. What do all of these share in common? What is the "Judaic" element of these languages? The Hebrew loan words. Hebrew has and will continue to remain the language uniting the Jewish people and the language of our tradition. The majority of the books in the Bible are written in Hebrew, much of Rabbinic literature, responsa and commentary are written in a Hebrew which varies with its Aramaic influences, but even the Babylonian Aramaic of the Talmud Bavli, is so sprinkled with Hebrew words as jargon and quotes as code switching, that a non-Jew living in Babylonia at the time would certainly have found much of the corpus intelligible.

The remarkable restoration of Hebrew as the National language of the State of Israel, and as an international Jewish vernacular is truly a return on a political and religious level, which is constant with Jewish identity throughout all ages of our history. Even in the Hasmonean period, the short reigning Hasmoneans (Maccabees) took their victory over their oppressors to restore Hebrew as the language of the the government; this is reflected in the minting of coins. Is Modern Hebrew the same as biblical or Mishnaic Hebrew? Absolutely not! But is Modern Standard English the same as Middle or early English? If thou sayest "yes", though knowest not!". Is Modern Hebrew constructed? yes, but its construction is in the past. The minute people are born to think in a language, it is as authentic as any other. Modern Hebrew's "construction", is not too different than the proscriptive "constructions" we have in our own language! Are "me and you gunna have a discussion later?" or are "you and I going to have a discussion?"- the latter is a proscriptive construct, the former is the reality of speech- but that's a "whole nother discussion".

Any way, the semitic character of Modern Hebrew is quite in tact, despite its few detractors.

Also, well after over half of the world's Jewish population knows Hebrew as either its native tongue or as a second language. So feel free to disregard all my linguistic and socio-historical evidence and and take that fact as to elude to the statement that Hebrew is the the most "universalist" and welcoming as it transcends nationality. This is not apparent, as the language barrier is often alienating for will Jewish participants in Jewish congregations across the country. You are so right! Its really important in thinking how to make Judaism relevant to a 21st century American audience. We should be focusing our efforts on education and inspiration, rather than catering to an unsustainable status quo. The fact that their is a deficiency in Hebrew literacy within our community, does not mean that we question the legitimacy of Hebrew as the primary and primordial Jewish language. Or try to not educate. If most Americans do not know how to read, do we say "you know what, why are we trying to push reading onto our illiterate brethren? They are happy as they are. Let's meet them where they are and start printing all legal documents as picture-books. We can even celebrate the many levels of interpretation of these books that can come of this experiment!" No, we say "let's teach them how to read, so they can function as full and contributing members of our society, who are in touch with both where we are now culturally and where we came from." We should also teach them to read with love and compassion.

I hope this helps answer your question! :)


M/A Candidate Jewish Theological Seminary- Bible and Semitic Languages
B/A Columbia University - Yiddish Langauge and Linguistics
B/A Jewish Theological Seminary - Rabbinic Literature

Or perhaps it is saying the opposite. That to be a great Jewish Leader one does not have to speak Hebrew. The deep question for me Is should a religion be language specific? I believe in a more Universalist approach. By using English in America we would be more welcoming and accessible to the American Jewish Community.