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American Jews have to learn Hebrew.
Now, I can feel the umbrage. There go those Israelis again, making demands instead of just being grateful
But is the suggestion that the study of Hebrew become a central priority in the American Jewish educational agenda really so outlandish? People used to learn languages all the time, even without having a compelling reason to do so. Growing up in American public schools, I studied French for six years. By 12th grade I’d read Molière, Camus, Voltaire and Ionesco in the original. (It was a good public school.) Later in life I was able to revive my French in a couple of months of a weekly conversation class, and after a number of brief visits to Paris I was getting by, or at least making a noble effort. The point is not to brag about my French but to point out that such an education gave me something much deeper than just lingual training. It gave me an incredible amount of insight, appreciation, respect and fondness for French culture, French thinking, French joie de vivre — a modicum of cross-civilizational understanding that was probably the point all along.
Would anyone in a million years think it reasonable to “love” France without learning French? Can you imagine how silly it would be to have French “federations” in American public life, a vast organizational apparatus aimed at helping France in its struggles, sending money to French institutions, sitting around the table talking about French politics — all of it without bothering to learn the language?
There are no good reasons that today, all self-respecting American Jews shouldn’t gain a working knowledge of Hebrew. But there are at least two overwhelming reasons that they should. Leon Wieseltier covered one of them last year, in a jaw-dropping essay called “Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry.” American Jews, Wieseltier says, have inhumanely and un-Jewishly cut themselves off from the vast oceans of their own biblical and rabbinic past because they don’t bother to relate to Hebrew the way that Western countries until recently related to Greek and Latin — as a basic building block of cultural literacy. “The assumption of American Jewry that it can do without a Jewish language,” he writes, “is an arrogance without precedent in Jewish history. And this illiteracy, I suggest, will leave American Judaism and American Jewishness forever crippled and scandalously thin…. Without Hebrew, the Jewish tradition will not disappear entirely in America, but most of it will certainly disappear.”
This is reason enough. But there is a second, no less overwhelming reason, one that focuses on the Jewish future rather than on our past. Because the time is coming very soon — if it has not already arrived — when one will not be able to fully participate in Jewish cultural life without knowing Hebrew.
This is true in part because of the sheer quantity of cultural creativity, but also because of the trends: Israel is quickly growing in wealth, population and global influence, while American Jews are, in the optimistic view, marching in place. American Jews have a great deal to contribute to the Hebrew discourse and therefore to our collective Jewish future — their tradition of tolerance and religious liberalism, their democratic experience and their philanthropic habits, to name just a few things. But they will do so only if they dispense with the ignorance-as-wisdom arrogance that locks them out of Hebrew-based culture.
I also have a hunch — I can’t really prove it — that by learning Hebrew en masse, American Jews just might find a great deal of what they’ve been looking for to help cure their own inner cultural malaise. We can’t be united by religion or geography or politics, but our common ancient language opens unlimited doors to deepening, enriching and ultimately creating new, exciting expressions of Jewish life. It will let you engage with your Bible, your Talmud, your medieval Jewish texts, without the hazy filter of translators and professional interpreters. It will let you read song lyrics and op-eds and plays at will, choose your own Israeli adventure. It will help you become, for a moment at least, an eternal Jew.
David Hazony is a contributing editor to the Forward and author of “The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life” (Scribner, 2010).