April 27, 2017

The Hebrew Language

Where did the Hebrew language come from? When did it begin? What language does God speak? And for that matter what language did the snake use to converse with Eve in the Garden of Eden? Is Modern Hebrew a development out of Biblical Hebrew, or is it really a new and different language? Questions such as these have challenged us for years. Once upon a time, William Chomsky’s Hebrew: The Eternal Language was the source one would turn to (a world away from his son Noam, who has renounced Israel and Judaism).

Now William Chomsky’s mantle has passed to Lewis Glinert, professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures at Dartmouth College. Also a former Brit and, briefly, a teaching colleague of mine. His new book, The Story of Hebrew, is a brilliant, informative, readable, and enjoyable romp through the history of Hebrew from its earliest beginnings to the present day. It is a must-have for any thinking person's Jewish library.

There is no way we can trace the exact beginnings of the Hebrew language. Of course, the Bible tells as that God said, “Let there be light,” but who was God speaking to? And how does God speak? Are we to assume God has vocal cords and a mouth? And according to the story, Adam gave the animals names and then called his wife ISHA, which is a Hebrew word. He then decided to call her more personally “the mother of all life, Chavah” (or, as we call her in English, Eve). But again, we only have the Bible's word for it, which will work for some but not everyone.

There is the story of the Tower of Babel, where one universal tongue split into a babble of different languages. But we aren’t told what the original one was or indeed what language Abraham spoke, except that he was able to communicate with the men of Ur and Haran, Pharaoh, Avimelech, Efron, and nine different kings all having, one assumes, different languages. What a polyglot! Or did he use translators or sign language?

When it comes to Hebrew writing, we can at least see the Gezer calendar, which is some 3,000 years old. Its script of course is not the square Assyrian script we have today, which goes back to the Babylonian exile. But it is still used by the Samaritans. Insofar as the Ten Commandments were carved they would certainly have been in this early Hebrew script. Even if the Talmud acknowledged that the Assyrian script as coming from Babylon, it still envisioned the carving being done in the more recent script (Megillah 2b).

But the written and the spoken, though obviously connected, are not the same. No average modern Israeli child would be able to read the early Hebrew script today. But he or she would certainly be able to understand much of the language of the Torah. Now how many Italians today can understand Latin, or English children Shakespeare, let alone Chaucer or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? The Hebrew language is unique in this respect. Even if no one can say for certain it is God’s language, no other one has a longer or better claim!

According to Glinert it is wrong to say that Hebrew has been reborn. Of course, such a claim is often heard from those who claim there were no Judeans, no Hebrew-speaking kings, no Temple in Jerusalem, and it’s all a Zionist myth. Hebrew never died. Not only did the Jews never give up using it in one function or another, but Hebrew as language of communication, as well as scholarship, has always played an important part in Jewish life, even when it was separated from the crucible of its homeland. And even when Jews spoke other languages.

It was the great contribution of the Babylonian scribes 2,500 years ago, who began the process of turning the Israelites from a localized, sanctuary-based religion into one that emphasized study, literacy, and language. Even as Aramaic, a language very similar to Hebrew, became the lingua franca of the Persian Empire, Rabbi Judah the Prince compiled the Mishna in a beautiful pure Hebrew language which drew on biblical, colloquial and Greek influences. This in fact enabled Hebrew, as opposed to Aramaic, to remain the religious, literary, and spiritual language of Jewish communities in the West (where Aramaic played no part), as well as the East.

The compilers of the prayers 2,000 years ago also made Hebrew the core language of spiritual communication, even if Aramaic dominated the Talmud and indeed documents both commercial and religious in the East. The Kaddish is Aramaic and rivals the Hebrew Shema for the title of best known Jewish text.

Islam brought challenges. It claimed that Arabic was the divine language and superior to all others. The Jews of Medieval Spain responded with poetry just as beautiful and emotional and with grammar every bit as structured and systematic. Maimonides chose Arabic for philosophy, but used a powerfully simple and beautiful Hebrew for his books on Jewish law and much of his correspondence.

As Ashkenazi Jewry flourished and rivaled Eastern Jewry, Aramaic continued as the language of arcane mysticism. The Zohar is overwhelmingly an unusual kind of Aramaic. Even so, Hebrew was the method of internal and external Jewish communication and legal responsa. At no time throughout the medieval period was Hebrew lost as a living language, even as Yiddish or Ladino became the popular mediums.

All that modernity did was to add a range of new words and forms. But the grammatical structure and core vocabulary remained the same. And modern Hebrew literature dates back to a period long before Zionism. The link was continual.

Glinert deals with the valiant attempt by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) to make Hebrew the language of the Zionist enterprise against competition from German and English. But many of the words he introduced have simply failed to gain favor. He would have trouble understanding Ivrit today. Current Israeli Hebrew includes a ton of slang words that I certainly knew nothing of, living in Israel 50 years ago—as well as strange borrowings (like “pendel" for “penalty” in soccer), Arab words, and hi-tech! Glinert also recognizes the amazing success, in the early years of the State of Israel, in spreading the use of Hebrew amongst the very wide range of different languages spoken by the new immigrants. Conscription into the citizens' army played a major part. Although in the process they tried very hard to suppress alternatives, including Yiddish. Ironically, Yiddish has grown exponentially with the birth rate of Charedi communities in Israel. Even so, Ivrit is the norm for social interaction.

No language stands still. The Oxford Dictionary adds new words each year. The successful survival of Hebrew, very much like the Jewish people, has defied the odds. As we celebrate Israel’s independence this week, we are celebrating Jewish national liberation from those who tried so hard to eradicate us from history. We are also reiterating our links to our ancient land, its language, its history, and the Bible itself.

April 20, 2017


This is a sad story. For obvious reasons, I am changing names and certain details to protect the memory of a brilliant, flawed person.

Eliyahu was one of the most amazing and talented people I have ever met. It was in 1968. I was a young rabbi appointed to the largest synagogue in Scotland and something of a celebrity in northern Europe for my youthful and controversial approach to rabbinic leadership. As a result I had been invited to go on a speaking tour of the Scandinavian Jewish student societies.

I started in Copenhagen. Took the ferry across to Sweden and Lund University, then drove to Stockholm and from there flew across to Finland. Eliyahu was the Chief Rabbi of Finland. Stocky, dark complexioned, with a thick, black, bushy beard. He had twinkling, alert eyes. He was charismatic and compelling. He looked Charedi outwardly, but as soon as I entered his home I realized he defied category. His wife wore a very kosher wig, and his lively children were playing all kinds of musical instruments. His apartment was filled with books of all sorts and a serious Jewish library. There was art and pottery, a harpsichord he had built himself, and a highly eclectic collection of books and artifacts. Conversation ranged from the rabbinic, across a broad spectrum of cultural and philosophical subjects.

He had been born in Russia, into a completely committed communist family. He had been a child prodigy and got caught up in the resurgent sense of Jewish identity in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. Anything he was interested in, he threw himself into with passion and dedication. He moved to Western Europe, graduated from university, and was working as a journalist when he decided to try for the rabbinate. He studied hard, and with his formidable brain and intense curiosity he mastered a very wide spectrum of practical rabbinics, ritual slaughter, and circumcision, as well as the arcane details of Jewish law and responsa. All was now lodged in his photographic memory. He was a true polymath. He had married into a very religious family. He had changed his name to that of a well-known Lithuanian rabbi from a previous generation. One would never have guessed that he had not been brought up in the Charedi world from childhood.

He told me about his life in Finland—how hard it was because very few of the Jews there were religiously committed. They wanted him, as the rabbi, to make life easy for them, not to make demands, to be prepared to accept whatever marriages they contracted, and to facilitate conversions without expecting too much. He showed me special programs he had created to teach Hebrew to adults and children and explain the intricacies of Hebrew grammar. Altogether, he was a remarkable polymath in two worlds. I was taken with him. We exchanged numbers and agreed to keep in touch. I returned to Glasgow.

A year later he got in touch with me. He said he had reached crisis point with his community. He was not prepared to compromise, and he had to leave. Did I have a job? I spoke to the president of my community and got him to agree to invite Eliyahu to become our Director of Education for adults and children in the community. He moved with his family to Glasgow, where he impressed everyone and was a great success. But within a year I left Glasgow to become headmaster of Carmel College, the residential high school near Oxford that my late father had founded.

At the end of my first year, Eliyahu called me up and said he wanted to move from Glasgow; he asked if I could find a job for him at Carmel. Something was not working, but he was reluctant to tell me what. I trusted him and did not press him. He and his family, now with six children, came down south.

He immediately threw himself into boarding school life with enthusiasm. He revised the teaching programs for Hebrew studies in language, history, and Torah. He developed his own teaching aids and textbooks. He learnt how to canoe on the Thames and qualified as an instructor. He became an expert in identifying edible mushrooms, as opposed to poisonous ones. He took expeditions of pupils on treks along Grim’s Dyke with his rucksack full of chemicals and testing kits to use on the fungi and other plants they encountered, to see if they were toxic. And he and his wife had an open home for pupils eager for a warm, Jewish, family atmosphere out in the wilds of Oxfordshire. After school hours he held philosophy workshops with the older students, on Kierkegaard and other Scandinavian thinkers. He was a phenomenon.

Yet it became clear that he was far from perfect. He had difficulties with boundaries, constraints, and the disciplines of a very English “public school”. We parted company. He moved with his family to the very Charedi community of Stamford Hill in London. We kept in touch off and on, despite the unpleasantness of our parting.

A few years later, he was working as a shochet, a ritual slaughterer—first in London, and then he took up work in the USA. One day I received a letter from him. He told me he was living in Chicago, working for a large kosher meat processing plant. His letter went onto say that the whole of the kosher meat trade there was in controlled by the Mafia. Even the most ultra-Orthodox of rabbis was up to monkey-business, and he was going to use his experience and contacts from his days as a journalist to publicize it all. I was surprised, of course, but thought nothing more of it.

A month later I heard that he had been shot dead in his hotel in Chicago. I made contact with a rabbi in Chicago. I sent him a copy of Eliyahu’s letter. He promised to look into it. But eventually he told me there was nothing to be done, no clues, no suspects, the enquiries had reached a complete dead end. The riddle of Eliyahu’s death (to my knowledge) was never solved. I lost contact with his family. I had no idea what happened to them. I often remembered that extremely talented, charismatic, but deeply flawed individual. What a senseless, sad loss. And I was left wondering what had happened to his children.

A few months ago I got a call out of the blue from Eliyahu’s son who I had last seen thirty-five years ago. He had seen a blog of mine in Israel and was in New York. He wanted to meet. We had coffee together. He told me that all Eliyahu’s children had done well, grown into fine, committed examples of good ethical Jews, with families of their own. He told me that after leaving Carmel, Eliyahu had actually disappeared out of their lives altogether. They never saw him again. It was their remarkable mother who had brought them up and even encouraged them to revere the memory of their father. If ever one doubts the importance of a mother in the bringing up of children to be loyal to father and faith, I can think of no better example.

Eliyahu’s son gave me closure, that his genius and commitment to Torah passed on to another generation. So that, for all his faults and failings, the memory of the father is still very much alive.

April 13, 2017

Fake News

Is the fuss over “fake news” in itself a fake issue?

Who really believed in the objectivity of journalists? As students we used to debate which was preferable—the Western system of arbitrary rich men owning newspapers, motivated by self-interest and the flow of advertising in determining what sells and what is news, or the communist system of a group of party ideologues deciding what should be published for the public good in Pravda or Izvestia? We knew perfectly well that each side was doctoring the news one way or another.

In the Britain of my youth, we knew where the Manchester Guardian, the News Chronicle, and The Times stood on the political issues of the day. In Israel we know where Haaretz stands and where The Jerusalem Post sits. In New York we know the difference between The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and their journalists. We are under no illusions of objectivity. Fake news has always been around. Just think of Jews drinking blood on the Seder night. Many Christians and Muslims have believed it for hundreds of years. And there is a fine line between completely fake stories, doctored documents and photos, biased editorial opinion and lies. But if we are thinking people, we will try to check the facts, read multiple opinions, and decide for ourselves.

It is true that in my youth we thought the BBC was objective. But enough evidence has emerged since of vested interests, government interference, jobs for the boys, and just plain corruption to know that there is no such thing as unbiased, objective news. In the same way, as a child I was taught that the police were honest, incorruptible public servants and the tax authorities carried out their investigations honestly and objectively. It is now abundantly clear that both assumptions were wrong, and those who maintained such views often lived to regret it. You needed to lawyer up or face the consequences. Unlike my father, I would now tell my children not to trust any of them.

So reading the NYT this week, I was not surprised to read that its editorial declares that the wall (fence) that Israel erected “does not work”. It was using this claim to make fun of Donald Thump’s Mexican border wall. Well, if you need a better example of dishonest reporting, you can’t beat this. I had to check that it wasn’t April Fool’s Day. Why doesn't the wall work? Because, says the NYT, one can send missiles over walls. Yes, of course that's true, and fighter planes, and IBMs, and indeed nuclear bombs. But that doesn’t mean the wall is not working.

Whether one agrees with it or not, whether it is unaesthetic or the route it took was incompetent or venal, whatever one’s position on the conflict, the number of suicide bombers coming into Israel from the West Bank has been dramatically reduced. Of course, there are ways of getting over and around, and there has been a spike in vehicles mowing down ordinary people, knifings, and lone wolf attacks on civilians. But nothing to compare to the rash of suicide bombs that characterized the previous intifada. Just because you can ram down a front door, that doesn’t mean the front door is useless and should not be locked. And just because some criminals get away with it, that doesn’t mean it is pointless to have security.

Why is it so silly for nations to define their borders? Particularly if there is problem with illegal immigration? Don’t countries have the right to restrict entry? Even if one welcomes refugees as one should, there still needs to be some sort of order and regulation. Whether peace comes, which we all pray for, the wall will not be a factor one way or another. But clearly the NYT is consistent with its agenda, which is to only see the worst in Israel (and there’s enough without manufacturing more). Fair enough, so long as it doesn’t claim it is trying to be objective. And I agree, objectivity is not everything. Why shouldn’t one pursue one’s moral objectives? It is being honest about it that I am insisting on.

Let me go further and say that the Bible is not objective. It has an agenda. I may approve of the agenda, but that does not mean there might not be another point of view. Perhaps the Canaanites were lovable, hippy tree-huggers. History is often written by the victors. The Egyptians and the Hittites never recorded their defeats! Only the Bible did. But that was because it required its people to uphold certain standards, and its agenda was that if they failed there would be consequences. Objective or not, we can agree that it is an amazing document of law, lore, poetry, and tradition.

Or take the Exodus. Did the Israelites borrow, beg, or steal Egyptian gold and silver when they left? Or did they simply ask for back pay? Better not ask Palestinian ideologues, because they claim there weren’t any Israelites in the Middle East until Zionism. We consider the Exodus from Egypt to be a glorious release and the start of something great. Two thousand years ago, the Egyptian priest Manetho thought we were a bunch of diseased, disaffected slaves who rebelled, killed off all the good guys, and took off for Canaan.

I don't mind hearing other points of view. I am happy to read Freud’s fanciful Moses and Monotheism, in which Moses was a pal of Akhenaten, who briefly overthrew the old order. When he himself was kicked out, Moses lost his job. He looked around for a leaderless people and foisted himself on them. When he tried to impose too many restrictions, they killed him. And it was the guilt that drove them into this crazy religion they've had ever since. Well, you could knock me down with a feather. But so what? A good education requires one to face different and often difficult ideas. That was why my father introduced me to Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus! I do not fear contrary opinions, and it seems to me that if some people and some religions do, then it is a sure sign of their insecurity.

Liberal America has become an effete, pathetic, gutless collection of whining college students complaining about being subjected to different points of view and adults who should know better pissing in their pants and throwing hissy fits because someone they cannot bear won an election. Quit whining, for goodness’ sake. Life is all about facing challenges, not overprotecting disappointed people to the point of an incapacity to cope. So long as we are protected by a judicial system and laws we should “always look on the bright side of life” and enjoy our Holy Days.

April 06, 2017

Just Do It

“Just do it” is, of course, the slogan of Nike, Inc. But I think we Jews should adopt it. Let me explain.

Why is Pesah, Passover, so popular amongst so many Jews who have little interest in its religious life throughout the year? It is, after all, a festival that requires extensive preparation in clearing one’s house of all leavened products. It involves serious expenditure in stocking up with a complete range of kosher lePesah foodstuffs, most of which are quite unnecessary if one were to follow the letter of Jewish law rather than keeping up with the religious Smiths.

With the more comfortable Orthodox, Pesah is an occasion for an expensive pilgrimage to Jerusalem or to other luxurious destinations. That certainly takes care of much of the grind—but at the expense of intimacy, autonomy, and spiritual authenticity. And exotic as the Seder night might be, most people dash through the text or give up reading the Haggadah and cannot wait for the food. Communal Seders perfectly illustrate the lack of interest in the core of the Passover ritual that requires discussion and debate of historical, spiritual, and political issues. In many families, coming together is often an obstacle course of tensions and personal animosities, and younger generations disconnect from the religious baggage and personal histories of the older. These are the complaints of those who do participate. Sadly, most Jews are not even at the table.

“Just do it” can mean one of two things. It can mean that one should just forget one’s inhibitions, excuses, or apathy and get involved. Go to the gym, not just think about how beneficial it might be. Push oneself to work harder at keeping fit and healthy, even if it is often painful. Our modern-day slavery, our twenty-first century Egypt, is pleasure, self-indulgence, material comfort, and fighting to preserve our own against the rest—all for me and to hell with the rest.

The popular antidote seems to be an ideology of political correctness that is just as self-defeating, in that it too focuses on oneself and one’s received attitudes, with little concern for objectivity. It is secular dogma every bit as dangerous as religious dogma. The result is that very few people nowadays actually talk to people with different ideas or values or log on to opposing sites. Trump is right—one-sided, false news, biased reporting is the new norm. Not that his tweets are objective, either.

The Seder is designed to encourage discussion and debate, not simply to repeat clichés year in year out. Even those rabbis 2000 years ago who knew it all, differed on matters of law and politics, stayed up all night debating, exchanging ideas. If we don't invite alternative views, there can be no genuine discussion. The Haggadah describes having different sons, different opinions, different generations. It is predicated on asking questions. As the Talmud says, if one asks why, if one challenges the established mindset, one has fulfilled one’s obligation and does not need to recite the traditional “Four Questions”. They are there only in case no one asks anything else. One has to say, “I was there.” To try to understand what slavery, persecution is like. It is better to skip the whole narrative and have one good existential debate!

There is another aspect to doing it. Passing it on. Letting others know what matters to you. The ceremony includes a range of items and rituals designed specifically to encourage children to ask why. Questions require answers, knowledge, study, to pass it on to the next generation. (As the other cliché says, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”) The serve to educate, to stimulate. All things we might pay lip service to, but too often we hand over to others.

Being Jewish in any meaningful way requires action every day, not just special days. We might scorn petty ritual, an over-dependence on doing things by rote. But the alternative is abstract theology, accepting slogans and vague intentions instead of doing things. Judaism is a way of living, as opposed to a religion. It is a call to action, spiritual fitness. If anything, “just do it” should be the slogan of Judaism.

Thinking of others is difficult and often disruptive and painful. Once we are warm and safe, we no longer think of the poor, the hungry, the slaves, the refugees. I can’t think of another religious ritual that says: “Reduce your pleasure because your enemies suffered; drink less wine because your freedom came at a cost.” Humans drowned in the sea. They are still drowning. Never forget that. Never forget what slavery does to a person, how it dehumanizes. Never forget that so many others still are enslaved one way or another. You cannot fully rejoice in your good fortune unless you realize that others are without it.

“Just do it” can also mean that it is the act of doing that gets one further involved and ultimately enables one to enjoy and benefit from the immersion in what one does. It is immersion that is required to feel at home in any strange or different culture. The less one does, the more one feels alienated and strange. Actions lead to actions. Thoughts and intentions are too often dissipated and lead nowhere.

Why do so many Jews still keep the Seder ritual on Pesah? Precisely because it demands so much. It is because Pesah has so many things to do, because it is not easy. But the more one does, the easier it becomes. The more you have to pass on. The more you enjoy it. The more there is something worth preserving.

Do you sometimes wonder if it is really all worth it? Why bother? Who cares? The answer lies in the doing! On Pesah we are commanded to “just do it.” That is the secret of Jewish survival. We and our children need to learn the lesson and remember why.