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Why Making Hebrew Nonbinary Is So Crucial

The Israeli poet Yona Wallach memorably wrote that “Hebrew is a sex maniac.” Wallach, who died in 1985, was no stranger to attention-grabbing subjects: One of her poems discusses sex with tefillin.

Today, pronouns are a hot topic, and Wallach’s poem “Hebrew,” which explains why gender-neutral language is easier to accomplish in English, is the perfect place to begin thinking about why that is.

Here are the opening lines, translated by Lisa Katz and published in Poetry International:

About pronouns and sex/

English leaves its options open/

in practice each I/

has all the options/

you is he or she/

I is sexless/

there’s no difference/

and all things are it —/

not man not woman/

no need to think before relating to sex/

Hebrew is a sex maniac/

But does it have to be that way?/

Recently, a student and an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder unveiled the Nonbinary Hebrew Project. Lior Gross identifies as gender nonbinary — neither male nor female — and uses they/them/their pronouns in English; Gross is a student at Boulder and plans to become a rabbi. Jewish studies instructor Eyal Rivlin, who uses he/him pronouns, holds a Master of Arts in transpersonal counseling psychology from Naropa University and is also a touring musician; Gross and Rivlin worked together to come up with a solution, and they made the project public in late October 2018.

The project describes itself as “gender-expansive” — in Hebrew, the term would be migdar rachav — and offers this message of welcome on its website: “We are building a bigger tent for nonbinary Jews through a third-gender grammar systematics for Hebrew, guided by our Torah and Talmud that teach us to rejoice in that which cannot be neatly categorized.”

I liked the word rachav, meaning “wide or expansive,” in this context, and especially its closeness to rechov, or “road.” We need a path forward here, a road ahead.

I wanted to know how the project handled what might be “you” in English, which Wallach focused on in her poem. In the Nonbinary Hebrew Project, the second person is ateh instead of the current options of atah as male singular or at as female singular; one advantage to this is that without vowels, which is the way most contemporary Hebrew texts are written, ateh looks familiar, just like atah.

The system came out of Rivlin’s experience as a teacher.

“Lior Gross signed up for one of my Hebrew classes at CU Boulder, and I noticed that their email signature stated ‘they/them/theirs,’” Rivlin told me. “I invited them to my office to see how they would like to express that in Hebrew.

“We both did some research and realized that there was nothing comprehensive out there in terms of nonbinary Hebrew grammar. We researched other languages and studied some attempts that were done in Spanish, for example.

“As a native Israeli Hebrew speaker, I wanted our system to sound organic and easily applicable to any speaker of Hebrew.

“We landed on the “eh” ending for the singular, because the “e” sound is often associated with masculine nouns, such as moreh (male teacher), and the “hey” letter ending is often associated with female endings (as in talmidah). We combined them and created a third option, “talmideh,” which honors both the masculine and the feminine and can be consistent with verbs and other declensions, lomed-lomedet-lomedeh, or possessives, shelo-shelah-sheleh).

“It’s an organic Hebrew sound and easily applicable to verbs, adjectives gadol-gdolah-gdoleh [meaning “big”] and nouns, ish-ishah-isheh,” Rivlin said. Ish-ishah-isheh means “man-woman-nonbinary individual.”

I wondered if the plural is also new, but it turns out that there is some precedent there.

“The plural –imot, has been experimented with before this project,” Rivlin explained. “Organizations like Habonim Dror and even Knesset member Merav Michaeli have used endings like that in specific situations, and usually with isolated words, like in camp using the word chanichimot.

“What we did is take this concept and apply it to various Hebrew grammar structures. For example, the sentence ‘Smart students learn Hebrew’ is tricky in Hebrew, as you have to choose either masculine or feminine. From a nonbinary inclusive perspective you can say, ‘Talmidimot chachamimot lomdimot Ivrit,’ and it agrees with Hebrew grammar rules.”

That’s a very important point — the system works with existing rules.

“To be clear, we’re not trying to de-gender Hebrew,” Rivlin said. “I love Hebrew. I was born and raised in Hebrew. My great-uncle Haim Gouri is considered one of Israel’s national Hebrew poets. I love the beautiful and mystical ways Hebrew works.”

The Nonbinary Hebrew Project was discussed in a recent article in The Times of Israel, “In an Increasingly Nonbinary World, Is Gendered Hebrew Willing to Adapt?” The article quoted Gabriel Birnbaum, senior researcher at The Academy of the Hebrew Language and the ultimate arbiter of the language, who had this to say about the nonbinary system: “It’s not worth considering.”

But that was just the beginning of the discussion. The Times of Israel article brought a response in Mosaic, titled “The Movement to De-Gender Hebrew Is Linguistically Mad” and written by Philologos.

That headline — “linguistically mad” — and the idea of madness connected to Hebrew and its pronouns seemed not that far from, well, the mania described by Wallach.

I have tremendous respect for Hillel Halkin, the writer and translator behind the Philologos column, which ran for twenty years in the Forward. From his biography of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi to his “Letters to an American Jewish Friend” to his translations of Hebrew and Yiddish, Halkin is an essential Jewish thinker.

I read on with interest.

Halkin opens by making clear where he stands on this question, while claiming to keep his personal views out of it; he believes women should be women and men should be men. Halkin muses that perhaps the fact that every word in Hebrew is gendered makes gender less crucial; I have considered this, too. But in Halkin’s last paragraph, he and I part ways.

That’s where Halkin suggests that the response to a person asking for a way for Hebrew to include nonbinary perspectives — in his piece, Halkin repeatedly used the term “genderqueer” — is to tell that person not to speak Hebrew — relocate to a language like Turkish, which includes a genderless pronoun.

“People should be respected,” Halkin writes. “So should languages, which represent the accumulated experience of vast numbers of people over vast numbers of years. When it comes to specific words that are overtly offensive to minorities, it is reasonable to expect a language to accommodate itself accordingly. When, however, it comes to what is linguistically structural, the shoe needs to be on the other foot. Here, minorities should accommodate themselves to the language. And we, as speakers of languages that make a minority feel uncomfortable just because the languages come with structural gender markers, should respond: ‘If you don’t like it, there’s always Turkish or Vietnamese.’”

I would never tell anyone to leave Hebrew. Even in jest.

I bristle at the idea that a language is for some people and not others; for us, not them. Language is a major part of identity, and for centuries Jews fought to hold on to Hebrew, often at the expense of their lives.

It is strange to claim that Hebrew is only for non-minorities when Jews have long been the world’s ultimate minority.

Right now, Hebrew has no words to indicate nonbinary people. On American campuses, “they/them” is gaining traction; but Hebrew can’t turn to that, because the current plurals are clearly feminine or clearly masculine.

I was struck by how Rivlin and Halkin took the effort to respond to this problem in different ways. Rivlin emphasizes that he and Gross are not trying to overturn Hebrew.

“We have no intention to change existing Hebrew,” Rivlin said. “A ‘big table’ is still a shulchan gadol; no need to apply the nonbinary approach to that. However, when a nonbinary person is being called up to the Torah, it would be wonderful to use grammar that honors their identity. When we are praying for their healing, instead of the traditional ‘son of,’ ben, or ‘daughter of, bat, so and so, we can use the word ‘bet,’ which honors their binary expression.”

Some of the constructions are more awkward than others, and it must take some getting used to; I wondered if Rivlin had any thoughts on how long it takes students to adjust.

“Sure, this is new and may sound foreign at first, but I have personally witnessed dozens of people understand the system in less than two minutes and be able to apply it to any vocabulary if they have basic Hebrew knowledge,” Rivlin said. “Again, to reiterate, this doesn’t take away from any existing Hebrew grammar and rules, it simply adds a third option of gender conjugations when needed.”

The truth is that all languages must evolve — or die.

Hebrew has always borrowed from the neighbors, and this is very possibly what helped it stay alive; all that borrowing has certainly made both biblical Hebrew and contemporary Hebrew more vibrant.

Consider the word erev, or evening, which appears all over the Tanach, and especially in the refrain of creation: vayehi erev vayehi voker, or “and there was evening and there was morning.” Erev is a derivative of the Akkadian word errebum. So when any Hebrew speaker says, “Erev tov,” “Good evening,” that speaker is doing some linguistic lifting.

One of my favorite examples of modern Hebrew doing inventive borrowing is atar, the Aramaic word for “place.” The word appears in the Kaddish prayer, so as Aramaic words go, it’s a pretty familiar one. And it’s been repurposed as the contemporary Hebrew word for “website.” And then there is all the Arabic; in contemporary spoken Hebrew, Arabic words like yalla and ahlan, meaning “Let’s get going” and “Hello,” are ubiquitous. So there certainly is a precedent for borrowing, and perhaps Hebrew can open its arms to allow inside the genderless words of some neighboring languages.

One possibility, suggested to me by the Basque translator Amaia Gabantxo, is to consider history while borrowing, and take a genderless pronoun from Basque; it so happens that Hebrew and Basque are the only two languages that have been “revived”; in conversation, Gabantxo calls these languages “endangered no more.”

Of course, Halkin is entirely right that it is easier to add a word to a language — like pelephone, the Israeli word for cell phone, which combines pele, meaning “wonder or miracle,” and “phone” — than to restructure the language itself. (Pele, by the way, is a delightful choice, and appears in the Book of Isaiah. I love thinking of Isaiah — and prophecy in general — as the source for words for mobile technology.)

But Rivlin is also right that restructuring is not what he and Gross have proposed; it’s about adding a third option that can be taught and understood quickly. Then I wondered about Wallach’s view, which I had accepted for so long. Is it really true that Hebrew itself offers no flexibility on gender?

After all, there is the fascinating example of God.

The word Adonai is plural — it means “my masters.” Adoni, meaning “my master,” or in contemporary Hebrew, “sir,” is singular. The phrase baruch atah Adonai, which opens many blessings, combines the singular baruch and singular atah, which is the masculine you, with the plural Adonai.

Hebrew offers singular and plural constructs and a willingness to mix them — at least in the prayers; multiple tenses, and, best of all, a record of borrowing well. Surely all these aspects of Hebrew offer possibilities for future evolution. And let’s be honest: Judaism has a long tradition of change.

Rather than sending away some Hebrew speakers to other languages, banishing them to Turkish or Vietnamese, I hope we find ways to open the doors wide, to talk with each other rather than dismiss each other. This is, as Rivlin emphasizes, only the beginning.

Hebrew went through it all in its journey from an ancient language to a contemporary one, and it still held on to plenty of beauty. If the patriarch Abraham could expand Hebrew, so can we.

Aviya Kushner is the Forward’s language columnist and the author of “The Grammar of God” (Spiegel & Grau, 2015). Follow her on Twitter, @AviyaKushner

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