Lashon, lush’n: tongues of fire

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Monday Jan 07, 2008

Av_a: Lashon/lush’n: tongues of fire

On this January 7th, 2008, the Eastern Orthodox Church and all Oriental Churches mainly located on an axis that starts in Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia) to slide down through Ancient Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran Israel, Palestinian Territories, Jordan, till Egypt and Ethiopia celebrate the Nativity or birth of Jesus of Nazareth. I refer to the region because I live in Jerusalem and in the State of Israel. Other Christians follow this old style or Julian calendar that shows a difference of 13 days. On January 7th, the date corresponded to December 25th, for instance, in the pre-Revolutionary Russian Empire. Until now, the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, Russian Church and some other Churches only admit this calendar. The Western Churches celebrate the Theophany, i.e. the revelation of Jesus at the Jordan River.

In a recent post, I wrote in advance about the 150th anniversary of the birth of Eliezer ben Yehuda, Eliezer Perlman in Luzhky on the 21st of Tevet 5618 according to the Jewish calendar. The man was a huge prophet, with an innate sense of the meaning of the Jewish family and school teaching. It makes him a dominant personality with regards to all the problems encountered at the present by Israeli society. He was born, as most of the Jewish Israel-envisioning State, in the Russian Empire and, though it was quite difficult, he could get to the Russian gymnasium-high school. From the very beginning, the Jewish State revival in Eretz Israel is rooted in the Russian and Slavic weltanschauung (miropriyatie).

Who could have anticipated this unbelievable rush of Russian Christian Orthodox tourist/pilgrims these days, freely crowding over the Holy land without visas since a few days (Russians only), to Bethlehem curiously touring alongside with Israelis of Eastern origin, driven to all the holy places of Judaism and Christianity. This is a new and open move. So, on this Monday 7th of January 2008 / December 25, 2007 (New Year is on 01/13-14), we will celebrate the civilian birthday of E. Ben Yehuda. In 1858, in Jerusalem, people spoke Hebrew. They were writing a lot in this tongue by that time, in a way that would seem either “awkward or too sophisticated”. Intriguingly, in Jerusalem, the Russian ecclesiastical mission of the then-Moscow Synod (the Patriarchate of Moscow was re-established by the time of the Bolshevik Revolution) was headed by Fr. Levinson whose translation of the Divine Liturgy into Hebrew is wonderful example of a really respectful rabbinic word choice and spiritual coherence. The language is nice. It does not really cope with a “colloquial speech”. This is hardly the case for religious texts.

By the time Eliezer Ben Yehuda was born, Hebrew was a semi-reviving/living tongue in Jerusalem. Some authors have underlined that Hebrew should not even be considered as a Semitic language, but rather a reviewed “Judeo-Sorbian” dialect, i.e. a Slavic language in search of a Semitic past (P. Wexler, The Schizoid Nature of Modern Hebrew). It is correct that most of the first Hebrew speakers were of Yiddish and Russian mother tongues with some Ukrainian, Polish, Belorussian words and phrases. It gave a certain taste and greatly influenced the development of Modern Hebrew. A recent Hebrew “Slang” dictionary shows the significant impact of Russian or Slavic expressions that came into Hebrew through Yiddish. This mental imprinting is more important because of exodus of the Jews from the Slavic cultural area to Israel since 1880. In December 1890, Eliezer Ben Yehuda created the Hebrew Language Council that later became the Hebrew Academy. By the time of a “Biblical generation” (1881-1921), he could benefit from the Aliyah from Russia of well-educated, motivated young people for whom it was normal to challenge history and switch to Hebrew in their homes (J. Fellman). Indeed, on November 29, 1922, the British Mandate Authorities recognized Hebrew as the national language of the Jews in Palestine. E. Ben Yehuda died one month later. But the adventure was and remains prophetic.

He had decided, together with many other Jews in the country that parents could speak with mistakes to their children. In return, the kids would teach correct Hebrew to their parents. “Veshinantam levaneycha – ושננתם לבניך…”, you will teach them (Mitzvot – מצוות) to your children “vedibbarta bam – ודיברת בם – and say them again and again into them” (Devarim 6:4) became a substantial and real reviving method for any Jew to make the tongue a living medium. This seems to be the main aspect. It is more than important in the present. True, this remarkable and exciting undertaking was also a mental, psychological and spiritual challenge. Why? Hebrew had to get out of the scope of the synagogue dialog with God and penetrate the shul, shtib, cheder (שול, שטיב , חדר) , i.e. be re-introduced into the natural and outspoken world of education of the Jewish souls.

Thus, Hebrew did take over traditional Yiddish or vernacular Talmudic and not only Biblical training systems. When I arrived in Israel, some groups would only speak Yiddish. Today their children prefer to speak Hebrew. Yiddishkayt reconnects, in a lively way, with the very humane character of God’s Words. Any simple Jewish Israeli child – and the foreigner living in their midst – speaks the TaNaKh and the Talmud, deepening the gap and misunderstandings with the other monotheistic traditions. Hebrew is biblical in Rome, Greek in Moscow and Athens, English in New York. There is a profound estrangement if not more to any in-depth full acceptance and use of the Talmudic roots of the Gospel. We still have to rediscover the works of Daniel Chwolson who taught Hebrew and Judaism at the Orthodox and Catholic and Academies of Saint-Petersburg in the 19th c.

The revival of the tongue relied upon teaching methods, backed by the Alliance Israelite Universelle since 1882. Each teacher was “an academic”… without tools, but absolutely dedicated to the task of upgrading spoken Hebrew. This inspiriting strength is totally defective at the moment and definitely affects the Israeli educational priority duties. Teaching through creativity constitutes the fundamentals of the Mishna and the Gemara. Thus, education, studies are essential in a Jewish group. The Russian First Aliyah newcomers were highly educated as are today the newcomers arriving from the former Soviet Union. But they are not given the same spirit and possibilities at the present as those who arrived in times of dearth. There are still typical Hebrew fan ulpan teachers whose vocabulary, sentences, intonation and search for new words is marvelous. The same exists as concerns the development of Icelandic and its nyyrd – new words.

The third step that brought back Hebrew to revival was to oblige the home family to only speak that language. This is the normal consequence of a functioning synagogue and shul – educational system. Before leaving his home to go to school, the mothers used to bake cakes of honey having the form of the Hebrew alphabet. Ben Yehuda adopted the reversed process in order to anticipate the revival of the tongue: “Son of man, eat from the scroll… that was sweet as honey (devash lematoq – דבש כמתוק) in my mouth” (Ezekiel 3:1). What had found its place in the synagogue, i.e. the community as society living with the specificities of the Word had to reach out each home, family, individual. This also presupposes a very strong sense of responsibility, “fatherhood” and decision to achieve a project.

But “devash lematoq – דבש כמתוק – sweet as honey or honey to sweeten” refers to the faith of Israel and this should be taken into account, whatever doubtful, non-believers definitely speak Hebrew. It shows something of an immeasurable rich and resounding Presence and communion covering all ages and places.

Ben Yehuda’s 150th anniversary is somehow comparable to the shmittah year of remittance that raises so numerous problems…Le’an? Where are we going to with Hebrew? Computer keyboards can’t even manage the letters adequately.

This is a unique spiritual and human experience. Hebrew – even not known or not pronounced – has unconsciously been the native (innate) tongue of every Jew and shows in many ways in the realm of psychology, human attitudes, reflections, beliefs, trading and creativity. It has to be handled with care and not be used as a means for excluding the others. Hebrew is not framing. It needs “border ropes” (cf. Talmud) to breathing and go on the trip. Just as the Christian monasteries have enclosing walls. The revival of Hebrew resembles the statement made by Paul of Tarsus with regard to “resurrection” (To the Romans 11:25).

This is why Hebrew continuously interrogates the Churches. It is worthless to fake using a language or to try to make it and instrument of conversion. In the Churches, Jews have often been denied their “Father tongue – שפת האב” for some obscure reasons that there should be no difference between Jews and non-Jews in Jesus. It only means that all are equal. The child who was born these days in Bethlehem, the city of David, never used Hebrew (largely traced back in the Gospel) for national purpose. New insights into the Talmud and its importance have been “unwillingly” proposed by E. Ben Yehuda. He could not avoid doing that. Hebrew has to be a part of the Church without too much will of capture or replacement from the non-Jewish side. It constitutes a part of the incarnation of the Word and a mark of belief in the resurrection.

It would be interesting one day to examine the positive Christianity-linked influences of Jewishness that allowed Eliezer Ben Yehuda to abruptly break with any tongue safe Hebrew. We need such inspired individuals and people.

Ceci est la deuxieme partie de l’article “Avot” egalement paru dans mon blog du Jerusalem Post. C’est aujourd’hui le 150eme anniversaire de la naissance du renovateur de la langue hebraique. Ce blog a ete publie des ce matin. En fin, cet anniversaire ne passionne personne et n’est pas connecte aux evenements majeurs qui secouent regulierement la constitution stable d’une societe israelienne. Cela pose beaucoup de questions, surtout sur le plan spirituel. L’aventure et le defi furent et demeurent uniques. Il est aussi vrai que la personnalite d’Eliezer Ben Yehudah a ete presente depuis ma plus tendre enfance. Mon pere avait place ses dictionnaires plurilingues au-dessus de mon lit et j’ai ici a Jerusalem, l’exemplaire du son polyglotte hebreu-yiddish, allemand-polonais-russe. J’ai toujours sa photographie en poche. Ce n’est pas par souci d’un culte de la personnalite. Cet homme a realise quelque chose qui touche a l’ame juive; il lui a propose en fait – peut-etre sans le savoir – une sorte de tikkun (reparation), si cher au mouvement hassidique. Je suis davantage un etre qui vit du yiddish; mais j’ai appris a ecrire les lettres hebraiques avant tout autre alphabet (cyrillique et latin), de droite a gauche que Ben Yehudah a imposees avec la langue. Je suis persuade que l’hebreu est – de maniere sous-jacence, interieure, profonde – la langue historique et mentale de tout juif ou a laquelle tout juif honnete peut se referer, sans meme la connaitre. Aujourd’hui, elle est une langue d’une exceptionnelle vivacite, fertilite et creativite. J’en donne plus haut plusieurs clefs d’interpretation.

A un niveau individuel – mais aussi collectif – j’ai consacre ma vie a cette langue comme vecteur de l’intimite la plus forte et inderacinable du dialogue propose par Dieu avec l’ame humaine, tant dans le depot biblique que talmudique.

Sauf erreur ou omission, je suis le seul pretre orthodoxe en Israel pour qui toute la culture hebraique et talmudique a ete recue d’abord en hebreu et qui essaye, sans faiblir ni flechir, de celebrer en langue hebraique dans un contexte qui ne tend pas naturellement a des innovations spirituelles, surtout si elles conduisent a tracer des ponts avec le judaisme. L’extraordinaire fecondite humaine et intellectuelle, pedagogique d’Eliezer Ben Yehudah demeure un modele pour tout ame d’Israel et bien plus ou avec “un supplement d’ame” lorsquela langue trouve sa place juive dans l’expression de l’Eglise dans sa totalite.

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