Israel versus Judaism



"Ivrith" and "L'shon Hakodesh"

In the course of transformation and "normalization" of the Jewish people, the language naturally had to be transformed likewise. The "Holy Tongue" which, as we have earlier explained, plays such a fundamental role in the Torah, must also have its place assigned to it under the new "normalized" set up. Just as Yisroel became "the Jewish Nation", just as the Holy Land became first the "Vaterland" and later "the State", just as Torah became a "religion", in the same manner, "the Holy Tongue" had to become “the national language”.

To be sure, a separate language is not an indispensable ingredient of a "nation" in non-Jewish thought. All South American nations, for instance (except Brazil), speak Spanish. England and America, not always on very friendly terms and certainly now two different nations, both speak English. Arabic is spoken everywhere between Morocco and Iraq, between Syria and Saudi Arabia, by a dozen nations that often quarrel with one another. On the other hand, the Indian nation has five entirely different "national languages" so that until this day English is frequently spoken in the Parliament of New Delhi as it is the only language generally understood by all deputies. The Swiss nation, too, has three national languages, and so forth.

Yet, in nationalism the promotion of a "national language" is an important propaganda factor. During the recent half-century or so, some nations have tried to revive ancient languages that had survived in common usage only in rural and mountainous areas, etc. We can witness the process in all parts of the world, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Viet Nam, the various African countries that are striving for or have obtained political independence, all are working hard to readapt their languages to modern civilized usage. This process began around the time when Zionism came into being. Relatively few people know, for instance, that the Roumanian language only 50 years ago had no established spelling and had only shortly before adopted the Latin alphabet (instead of the Cyrillic which is, incidentally, now being reintroduced by the USSR in the “Moldavian SSR”, better known to Jews as Bessarabia).

Moreover, the Hebrew language did not have to be “dug up” as was the case with Gaelic, Lithuanian, etc., from the speech of remote mountaineers and villagers. In writing and reading, it had never ceased to be used. Although Yiddish was spoken in Eastern Europe, it was considered a sign of ignorance to use it even for business or private correspondence; and every Jew who hoped to avoid being considered an ignoramus, would try, however hard it may have been, to write or to have his letters written in Hebrew, no matter how poor was the level of his stylistic attainments.

Thus, the "revival of Hebrew" or, more precisely, its transformation from the status of the Holy Tongue into the "national language" became almost a sport with early Zionists. During the early stages of Zionism, it constituted the easiest part of its task for, in those days, every Jew had some idea of Hebrew through his prayer-book and Chumash. It is only after estrangement from Torah Judaism, largely due to that very same Zionism, that learning Hebrew seems to have become a task of exceptional difficulty for Zionists residing in the diaspora...

Though perhaps less noticed and less discussed, this transformation of the Holy Tongue constitutes a violation of Torah teaching no less serious than all the other transformations, namely, those of the Jewish People, Torah and Eretz Israel. The reason why this fact is less discussed is very simple. A language is not a tangible matter; and in this case the transformation needs a minimum of linguistic insight for it to be noticed. It is not our purpose here to go into every detail of it; but it will not be superfluous to devote at least a few brief paragraphs to this interesting subject.

Every language has what we may call a body and a spirit. This is not merely a metaphysical concept, but a principle generally recognized by linguistic science. The body of the language is its vocabulary, its grammatical structure, etc. The spirit of the language, similar to the spirit of man, is that intangible something that animates the language, that lends it its specific, distinct character, appearing here and there, sometimes in the syntax, sometimes in other grammatical features, and particularly in its irregularities. It is the spirit of the language that reflects the spirit of the nation speaking it. In most cases, the spirit and body of the language are compatible for they emanate from the same people. In some cases, however, a language whose body belongs to one family may have the spirit of another, mostly for historical reasons. One typical example is provided by Amharic, the language predominant in present-day Ethiopia. It belongs to the Semitic group, and originates from Ge'ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia (still used by the Church). Ge'ez is a typical Semitic language, closer in some respects, within the Semitic family, to Hebrew than, say, to Arabic. The grammar of modern Amharic and its vocabulary are also typical Semitic in their structure. The language has three-letter "roots", several "aspects" (binyanim) of verbs, and, basically, a vowel-less script (though different from Hebrew, Arabic and Syriac in its manner of insertin vowel-marks) like other Semitic languages, with which it shares many other characteristic Semitic features. Yet, in truth the language is not a Semitic one, since the nation using it is a Negro nation, which had adopted the language for historical reasons. The original spirit of the African nation breaks through the Semitic skeleton of the language and reveals its characteristic traits. This is an undisputed fact. I have purposely chosen such a distant example in order to be able to speak of it more dispassionately. But, basically the same thing has happened to Modern Hebrew.

The Language has been transformed from a Divine Language to a European not even a Semitic language. In this connection, it might not be out of place to mention that this fact has been recognized even by quite impartial linguists. The famous German Semitologist, Bergstrasser, in his book on Semitic Languages (Einführung in die Semitischen Sprachen, Munich, 1928) divides his discussion of Hebrew into three parts: Ancient Hebrew (Biblical Language); Middle-Hebrew (Mishnaic language) and Modern Hebrew. To him Hebrew is but one language amidst Assyrian, Syriac, Arabic, Maltese, etc. When discussing Modern Hebrew, he says (page 47): ". . . . ein Hebraisch, das in Wirklichkeit eine europäische Sprache mit durchsichtiger hebräischer Verkleidung ist . . . mit nur ganz äusserlich hebräischem Charakter. (“.. . . a Hebrew which is in reality a European language with a transparent Hebrew disguise . . . . with only a purely superficial Hebrew character”).

Let us quote several examples from the Modern Hebrew vocabulary which, innocent though they might seem, reflect some of the real trends automatically emanating from the "nationalization" of the Hebrew Language.

"Chashmal", for instance, is the usual Hebrew word for electricity. This word originally appears in the Book of Ezekiel (1, 4) in the chapter describing the Divine vision of the prophet. This chapter, which is usually referred to as "maase merkovo", is one of the most hallowed and most mysterious of Biblical passages. Only the very great and devout are allowed to delve into theses secrets outlined in the prophetic vision of the Almighty. In that vision, the prophet saw a great fire, "and out of the midst thereof as the colour of 'chashmal' ". What “chashmal” really means is, to say the least, a subject for scholarly research. The Septuagint translates it as "elektron" which is the Greek for amber (a mineral by the friction of which a flash is derived, hence the association). It is, of course, not our purpose here to go into exegetic deliberations or etymological research. Practically, however, the fact remains that, throughout Jewish history, the very mention of "chashmal" aroused a feeling of awe in the mind of every Torah-true Jew, child or adult, seeing that "chashmal" is automatically associated with the most Divine, the most sublime, whereas in our time the Modern-Hebrew-speaking child or adult knows only that "chashmal" means electricity, something which he uses and encounters a hundred times a day, something devoid of any sanctity and associated only with his living-room, television, radio or bathroom.

Another example can be taken from the post-Biblical Hebrew vocabulary, the word "Aggadah". In the mind of the Torah, true Jew, learned or even illiterate, Aggadah meant the assembly of Talmudical moral teaching, which is described by Hassidism as "the interior of Torah" .The word used to arouse in every Jew a feeling of warmth, of moral strength, of faith, of love and affection for his ancient Sages and for his people. In modern Hebrew, the word "Aggadah" designates merely a legend or folk-tale. Little Red Riding Hood or the Story of the Three Little Bears are "Aggadah" in Modern Hebrew. Subconsciously, therefore, the hallowed teachings of the Talmud also become nothing more than fairy-tales, part of the "national mythology" if you wish, and again, this is exactly what Zionism wants. May I conclude this section by quoting a true story, amusing but all the more typical, once related to me by an esteemed friend in Jerusalem. His grandchildren live in a small town near Tel Aviv. Their mother-tongue, of course, is Hebrew but they also speak Yiddish quite fluently, particularly with grandpa and grandma. My friend once asked his little granddaughter: What do you answer when you are asked “how are you”? “Well, grandpa” was the prompt answer, "when you are asked in Hebrew "ma shlomech", you answer "tov me'od" (very good), and when you are asked in Yiddish "vos machste", you answer "boruch Hashem" (praised be G-d) . . . .

Out of the mouth of babes . . . .

Furthermore, the "transformation" of Loshon Hakodesh into Modern Hebrew has incurred the particular danger that, as language is an intangible, abstract thing, it might be, as it so often was and still is, presented as a "substitute" for the longing for some "spiritual content" to fill the spiritual gap left in human souls by the abandonment of Torah.

Indeed, the study of "Ivrit" soon became a favourite pastime with the "enlightened" Zionist youth of the little towns and townlets of Eastern Europe. To make it more attractive on the one side, and to emphasize the distinctness from the "L'shon Hakodesh" of the Beth Hamidrash, somebody invented a special device: the so-called “Sephardic” pronunciation (which, as we shall soon see,is not Sephardic at all). This made the study of Hebrew more attractive by giving it an exotic flavour. The reason given for the selection of the "Sephardic" pronunciation was that it is the more ancient and the more original and correct way of pronouncing Hebrew.

Scientifically speaking, this entire reasoning is, to say the least, somewhat amateurish. Firstly, one must not confuse all Oriental Jews with those originating from Spain (Sephard). "Sephardi" pronunciation, in the loose popular use of the term, is as varied as Ashkenazi. Secondly, its “antiquity” as compared with the varieties of Ashkenazi pronunciation is, again, to say the least, a fact which has yet to be proved. Even if this were so, it would still be questionable, even from a purely nationalist view-point, without any consideration for the traditional Jewish principle of "Do not forsake thy mother's teaching" whether the antiquity of a pronunciation necessarily means that it must continue to be followed in the present and future. Only in the remote hills and highlands of Scotland may English be pronounced in exactly the same way as it was in the days of Chaucer, for example, and the same, of course, applies to all languages.

Moreover, there is no scientific proof that the allegedly “Sephardi” pronunciation really is the older one. The accepted scientific opinion, and I am referring here to linguists and not necessarily to orthodox Jews, is rather that both trends of pronunciation derive from ancient dialects, the one having been used in the Southern part and the other in the Northern part of Palestine. In any event, it remains a fact, for instance, that the pronunciation of Hebrew of the Yemenites approximates to the "Ashkenazic" pronunciation, as far as the vowels are concerned, of Lithuanian Jews (inasmuch as the "cholom" is pronounced "ay"). Nor has anyone ever claimed that Yemenite Jews had once been under any influence of German Jews. According to their own tradition, the Jewish community of Yemen dates back to the era of the First Temple. Incidentally, most languages have dialects involving important differences of pronunciation. In Syriac one of the very few living remnants of ancient Aramaic, which is still used by C ristian sects in Northern Iraq and Lebanon, there are two methods of vocalization, known as Nestorian and Jacobite, as well as differences of pronunciations similar “lehavdil”, to the case of Hebrew ("kometz" being pronounced as "a" or "o" respectively).

The Zionist adoption of the "Sephardi" pronunciation meant a double loss, again, from the purely linguistic viewpoint, without any other consideration. Ashkenazi pronunciations make a clearer distinction between the vowels patach and kometz and distinguish between the aspirated and the unaspirated "tav". The "Sephardi" pronunciation, on the other hand, has the advantage of distinguishing between the various gutturals (alef and ayin, khof and het) but this distinction is made only by Jews who live in the sphere of the Arabic language where these consonants are also distinctly pronounced. There is, of course, no organic connection between the "Sephardi" (kamatz-a) pronunciation and the distinct pronunciation of gutturals. (Yemenites, who, as has been said, cling in some respects to the "Ashkenazi" way of pronouncing vowels, pronounce consonants even more distinctly than Sephardim inasmuch as they distinguish also between the aspirate and inaspirate of d, g, and t). Modern "Ivrit" pronunciation, even from the purely linguistic viewpoint, combines the disadvantages and shortcomings of all groups. Like "Sephardim", it disregards the distinctions between pathach and kamatz and between aspirate and inaspirate tav, while retaining the Ashkenazi disregard for the pronunciation of gutturals and the distinction between the kaf and qof, etc.

All this, of course, has caused little concern to anybody; but, seen in a profounder light, “the rebirth of the language” is merely another of the ways leading to the one and central purpose i.e. the transformation of the “Holy Tongue”, into a “national language” as part of the transformation of Yisroel into "a nation as other nations".

Note that question marks or other strange characters in the text represent Hebrew characters which do not display on the web page.

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