Get Thee to a Seminary!


By Philologos

Published June 20, 2003, issue of June 20, 2003.
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Catching my eye on the front page of the June 10 International Herald Tribune was the following paragraph in an article on the Sharon government’s dismantling of “unauthorized outposts” in the territories:

“The Bible says God gave us this country as the homeland for Jews — it is all Israel,” said Amichai Hadad, 22, a seminary student who lives near a bulldozed outpost. “What man, even George W. Bush, has the power to defy God’s will?”

It took me a moment to puzzle that out. A seminary student? Living near a bulldozed outpost? What kind of student was that?

But only a moment. Of course! The article was referring to a yeshiva boy. “Seminary” was the journalist’s or editor’s idea of how to say “yeshiva” in English.

Is this a reasonable Anglicization of “yeshiva”? And why does “yeshiva” — a word whose root meaning is “sitting,” “session” or “conference,” and which is still used in that sense in modern Hebrew — have to be Anglicized at all?

“Seminary” didn’t originally mean, as it does now, an institution of higher learning other than a college or university, generally a theological school. The word derives from the Latin seminarium, a seed-plot or nursery, and is related to “seminal” and the Latin semen,“seed.” From there, by metaphorical extension, it came to denote, in various European languages, a preparatory educational institution, and especially, a school or college for training Catholic priests. In English this was a meaning well-established by the late 16th century, that was soon widened to include Protestant training schools as well.

Today, a seminary can of course also be for rabbis; one of America’s leading rabbinical schools is in fact called the Jewish Theological Seminary. This usage goes back to mid-19th-century Germany, when leading Jewish educators, seeking to break with the yeshiva model of rabbinic training that was universal in the Jewish world until then, established theological schools based on Christian models and named like them. The first of these, the original Jewish Theological Seminary, was founded in Breslau in 1854 by Zechariah Frankel, while 1873 saw the opening in Berlin of Azriel Hildesheimer’s The Rabbinical Seminary of Orthodox Judaism.

Rabbinical seminaries were very different from yeshivas. The latter, whether in Eastern Europe, Central Europe or elsewhere, operated in the traditional Jewish manner and were based on individual study. Small groups or pairs of students, known in Yiddish as khavruses (from Aramaic h.avruta, “friendship”), spent their days working their way through sections of the Talmud and its commentaries, each group proceeding at its own pace and level. There were no subjects apart from Jewish religious law, no organized courses (although at regular intervals the head of the yeshiva gave a shiur, or text-related lecture, to the assembled student body), no formal examinations, no grades and no class graduations. When a student felt that his knowledge was sufficiently comprehensive, he went to the head of the yeshiva to be tested and, if he passed, was granted his smikhe, or rabbinic ordination. Until then he could stay in the yeshiva for as long as he liked.

A German-style rabbinical seminary, on the other hand, was run like a Western university. There were formal courses with examinations at the end of them in different subjects, such as Jewish history and philosophy, and each class graduated and was ordained together. The degrees given were recognized as the equivalent of university Ph.Ds, and their recipients were addressed as Doktor Rabbiner — a title that was the butt of many jokes in the yeshiva world.

Today, neither yeshivas nor rabbinical seminaries are exactly the same as they were in the 19th century, and in some respects they have slightly converged: Formal instruction is not as uncommon in many yeshivas as it once was, and some khavruse study exists in seminaries. Yet for the most part, the contrast between the two institutions remains. Walk into the Jewish Theological Seminary and you will be in a building of professors, students, classrooms, and courses similar to what you would find in Columbia University next-door. Enter a typical yeshiva and you will be in a large hall in which dozens of young men are studying on their own or in small clusters, each cluster reading, discussing and debating as if the others didn’t exist.

A yeshiva, therefore, is not a seminary, and calling someone like Amichai Hadad a “seminary student” is misleading. And what should newspapers like the International Herald Tribune call a yeshiva? They should call it a yeshiva. The word is widely used and understood in English today, especially, though not exclusively, by Jews, and those unfamiliar with it can look it up in the dictionary. They’ll find something like this:

Yeshiva or yeshiva (ye-she’va) n. Judaism. 1. An institute of learning where students study the Talmud.”

That may not tell you a great deal, but it does tell you enough to know that a seminary it’s not.

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