Hebrew in the Church: celebration in Jerusalem

It is evident that, in Israel, we live in a country, also in Jerusalem,
where “dreams come true” and have to come true, in ways that are often
unforeseeable. These are the famous words of Theodor Benyamin Ze’ev
Herzl whose 150th anniversary of the birth is commemorated in the
country. As readily mentioned on several occasions, some time ago we
could celebrate the 153th anniversary of the birth of Eliezer Ben
Yehudah in the Empire of Russia, in Belorussia and Lithuania, the
reviver of the Modern Hebrew language. And this year we als could
mention Schalom Aleichem, the famous Yiddish writer and Scholem Asch,
whom I had met in the 80ies, one of the best Yiddish writers and special
character inside of Judaism, on the verge of some Jewish understanding
of Oriental Christianity as it was also the case for Marc Chagall.

“Ich habe einen Traum = I have a dream” does not exactly sound as it
echoes in the Talmud Berachot 55b “chalom chalamti = חלום חלמתי “: I
dreamt a dream and then the dream,( by a specific encounter between East
European and Slavic and Jewish Talmudic spirits) allows to jump into
impossible challenges because miracles are natural”. Especially if they
proceed of a call to implement and carry out actions that are “free”, do
not try to show off, certainly not our pride or arrogance. The revival
of a language has a tremendous significance for all of human
intellectual and human, psychological, religious, comportemental,
selective choices and meanings of what we are intended to do.

As a young Jewish child, I have learnt about Herzl, Eliezer Ben Yehudah
(along with Joseph Trumpeldor and the Rav Kook, with whom it is supposed
we had a connection via Rav Frenkel) since my early age. I met with
Marc Chagall as a child for family connections and much later as a
lecturer in Yiddish, just as it also happened with Scholem Asch who died
at the outskirts of Judaism because of his tendencies to describe, from
inside, a special Christian life in full parallel with the tradition
Judaism he had known and depicted.

When I entered the Church, the first thing I did was to translate the
Holy Prayers into Yiddish. There may be several reasons for this. The
purpose was definitely not connected, as regards my position to any sort
of proselytism among the Jews at whatever level or age; my inner
experience of a profound and extant Judaism would never have accepted
things like that. Christianity for the Jews must certainly not become or
be proposed as a “Zulu Bushmen creed, faith or way to salvation and
redemption”. Similarly, it is somehow a bit ridiculous to prented, thos
it is historically totally correct and extact, that the Jews are the
“natives” of the Church. Indeed, the first disciples were Jewish; maybe
things were a bit more somphisticated with regards to the faithful. But
this “Zulu and Bushmen” compararison had been given to me by my
colleague and senior professor of Yiddsh, a trained linguist, who as
many Jews in the Universties, never would accept to convert to
Christianity but had a sort of intense and interior understanding of the
Gospel and Christendom. Hearing I got converted, he slapped me, which I
considered as a normal act. He then told me I should immediately join
the “Judaism’s regular “Salvation Army” and wear a hat. I got the Dollar
many years later.

He read the translations and found it was nice and rooted in Judaism. I
mean that when we speak Yiddish, we do not speak any Indo-European
dialect or language. The “Mume-lush’n” includes about 22 languages and
dialects from Western and Eastern Europe, from Bavarian, Niederdeutsch,
Slavic, Romanian, Turkish, Greek, French and even Breton, and so much
more via Aramaic and Hebrew and the Semitic languages as a whole. But
these are for sounds and lights, or appearance, let’s say often true and
false friends in terms of etymology and meanings. “Heint/היינט ”
apparently means “today” and indeed comes from German “Heute”, but it
basically refers to “today as eve of tomorrow”, which has a liturgical
“evening-morning” significance and roots and drives the day in other
Weltanschauung than found or understood in the European cultural area…
through not foreign at all.

The real reason why I translated the texts into Yiddish was firstly I
made a sort of Memorial, though the Divine Liturgy and the Service
always intend to be “memorials” in the Jewish and Christian traditions,
which creates an immense spiritual connection between them that cannot
weighed by some odd comparison system.

Yiddish had dropped into the terrible bloodsheds of War War II. We were
many to think that it would survive due to its huge importance in the
spiritual scope of Jewish world conception and analyzing the Talmud and
the whole of the Oral and Written Traditions. But it was not that
evident some 35 years ago. Today, things are clearer and Yiddish will
survive and may even develop, indeed it might be difficult to continue
on the tradition Kanaan (Poland and Eastern Europe) basis.

Secondly, I may have translated the texts of the Prayers because it was a
way to understand their spiritual meaning in depths. I often give the
example of a young catechumen confided to my wife to be baptized. She
was of a very well educated Afghan family and her sister, who did not
convert but had accepted to be present to her baptism, used to talk with
my wife. One thing, she would scarcely accept as a catechumen – though
definitely a full “Christian believer” – was that God can pardon sins.
The ingraved sense of Islam showed up at once. I asked a famous
Orientalist to get a Persian version of the Gospel and I guess we even
got a Pashto short version. She read it thoroughly and started to ask
questions to my wife and very quickly got to the meaning of sin and
forgiveness of sins in the Gospel and the Words of Jesus. There are
things that need to be clarified in your own cultural mother tongue,
other wise ideas can continue to hip hop the wrong way. This happens
quite often with a lot of converts and should be carefully taken into
consideration before approaching any Jewish soul.

I dedicate my life to Hebrew in the Church. This includes the language
and the Jewish languages, but mainly the cultural approach, tradition,
way of thinking, analyzing, considering the world and the environment,
our contexts – even the Christian reality – as a consequence of the
specific Jewish ever-extant and significant, pertinent, meaningful
envisionings of faith and Divine realities. We have formed chains of
generations of different clergy and teachers, professors who decided to
get into such a “border line” position. This is why I had the great
chance to be with Fr. Kurt Hruby and Mgr Georgyi Rochcau. Both
introduced me to the realm of a limit situation and how to face it with
faith, courage and confidence and some realism. But again, I could do
that because they were the “historical” links of the chain that tracks
back to the first centuries and wil anywayl be carried over in the

I have always believed in “Hebrew in the Church” and have composed at
the demand of late Cardinal J.M. Lustiger a specific Oriental Euchology
book (“Le Sacrifice de Lounage – The Sacrifice of Thanks giving”) rooted
in the Oriental Traditions and published for the use of special
Judaeo-Christian groups in the Church (Peeters, Louvain 1989). I had the
promise to come to Israel that I alwayas have considered as my only
home country and serve here. It took some more time. But the direciton
has always been trustful to the line governing unity through the In
gathering of the Exiled in Eretz Israel, firstly, then by the in
gathering of some intermingled gorups of various Western and Eastern
rite tradition of the Church that, in Jerusalem only can be “Catholic
and Orthodox = open to the plenitude/fulfillment-pler

ome” giving the sens of the “true faith, the
authentic faith”.

I also focused on a possible meaning of the Church that is not that
common for the moment but should be studied in the forthcoming decades
and generations, in particular in Israel. That the Klal Israel/כלל ישראל
or “Great Assembly of the Fulfillment of the Communities of Israel” is
extending to the world Nations and is on the way to move forward and not
backward, ahead of the fulfillment of the Divine Community of Israel
that invisibly and without much awareness from both sides include the
Church and the Jewish People as a wholeness and ONE and Unique

Thus, language plays an immense role in such a development. Language is
the medium human beings have at their disposal to scrutizine and scan,
survey, study, examine, detect, get insights about the whole of mental
and invisible scopes of various realities that should never be framed or
sterilized in dogmas. This confers a huge importance to the ancient
religious speeches, parlances, words and tongues. This has definitely
marked our “tekufah/תקופה – era and civilization” as being the time of
Sumerian civilization with regards to “Oneness of God and Divine

All through my life I have studied the different meanings that link
traumas and psychological damages (nezikin/נזיקין ) and spiritual
“survival”. This is an important feature. We often -especially in Israel
– consider history as a series of fragmented events that are linked in a
row of historically traceable facts. We do not feel how much our brains
“are surviving” various fractions, splits and we are not entitled to
judge who is first or last or why this happens here and not there . This
is the for the moment invisible part or portion of our human

This is why the manifold layers that constitute our history are often
scattered much wider into other splits because we do not consider the
factor of memory or we change “election” into stiff backgrounds; it is
merely an “element for the future or “forthground”!

Most “Holy, sacred, divinely inspired” languages have shown a rare
tendency to “become like fossiles or rigid, stiff, normalized,
standardized according to sophisticated patterns. Some languages have
disappeared, others are maintained articifially or along to another more
vivid form of dialects. It is supposed that, in the monotheist world,
languages have died out. Usually this (partly wrongly) refers to Latin,
Sasncrit, Coptic, Gheez, Church Armenian, Syriac/some forms of Aramaic
and others languages. This does not apply to Arabic or to Slavonic. Of
course, Latin has ceased to be a colloquial tongue, but, normally, in
the Church and in different countries in according to oppcupations, it
can be used for writing or even sharing ideas: priests, Russian doctors,
I often met with German lawyers who had “fluent possible Latin”. It
happens to speak Latin in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The case of Greek is very interesting because it is supposedly and until
now the real language of the Gospel since we know that the Gospels were
written in Greek. We did not find any comparable Syriac version. On the
other hand, Aramaic texts seem to show a real Aramaic substract to the
Greek, even if the text were written down much later.

The Greek parlance of the Bible and the Gospel is due to Jews. This is
clear for the Septuagint. In the case of the Gospel and the Epistles or
the Acts of the Apostles, the Greek New testament language is full of
Semitism phrases and errors with regards to the classical Greek
grammatical rules. We cannot speak of a Judeo-Gospel Greek as there was a
Judeo-Greek dialect at Corfu, for instance. On the other hand, it is
quite possible that a lot of mental parameters induced in the Semitic
Hebrew and Jewish speech entered the Greek Gospel tongue, juste as the
Greek language did enter the language of the Talmud significantly.

Interestingly, Slavonic was created by Cyrill and Methodios from a
Bulgarian or “Ukrainian-like” then rather Central if not Dalmatian
slavic dialect and developed over the centuries of inculturation and
Christendom into a real tongue. The language continues to vividly
nurture the faithful. It has a mental and cultural impact that show the
line of civilization split that is persistent between Western and
Eastern Christianity, but also, curiously enough, inside of European
Judaic ways of thinking.

The Slavonic liturgical texts are basically – though definitely not
always – a word-to-word copy of the originally proposed Greek version.
One of the major difficulties for the Slavic faithful of the Orthodox
Church at the present, in the context of more freedom, is to switch with
precision and adequacy from the Old united Slavonic speech to God to
the local languages. The Russian Church has been very cautious in
developing this process. It has always had over the past century,
different personalities and individuals who sketched out how to produce a
correct and suitable translation.

Many translators are thus drifted toward the Latin and Roman Catholic
Church. Interestingly, the Russian version of the “Credo” for the
Catholic Latin rite is a duplicate from the Polish version and words.
Per se, the thing maybe understood. It could be possible to propose a
common Catholic/Orthodox Russian version resolving the Filioque as it
always had been in the Ukraine, for example. In reality, each version
does not only refer to a specific Church as such, but to a specific
“mentality”. This makes a huge difference.

The language is a living sign of life and life-giving. This is why the
traditional Church languages aim to preserve keep and maintain the unity
among the faithful. It is a sort of spiritual care, based on fixed and
vivid word of God. Hebrew has the same as in Sota 1,7 that states that
God understands all languages but would prefer to be addressed in
Hebrew. Beyond the mental aspect, we have to take into account the
“divine-inspired” prospect that is a major factor.

I was recently asked by a Greek priest to teach him some Talmud… At
least, he asked. His explanation is very much at the heart of the whole
problem of free prayer and attitude to God and some stiff aspects due to
“preferred election”. He explained that he was willing to learn the
Talmud in order to understand how the Jews think and proceed to think
the way they do!

This should be respected as an attitude because we all behave, to some
point, in the same way. He speaks colloquial Hebrew. There is no reason
for him not to understand the Hebrew he hears within the Israeli
society. Still, he feels there is something more. I asked him why he
wanted to learn Talmud and Talmudic Hebrew. He then said that “he wants
to understand the way the Jews think because it is incumbent upon the
Greeks, as having received in Greek the message of Jesus Christ, to get
into the special way of reasoning of the Jews. And having gotten to the
core to be able to “translate and explain” to them the reality of Jesus
Christ as the Messiah and Savior.”

Such a discussion belongs to moments of grace: they allow to understand
the profound estrangement procedure that does not only affect the
Greeks. At least, it is honest and this attitude is more than current in
the Slavic world today or the Orthodox way of trying to convert any
soul. It has not disappeared at all from the Western and Roman Catholic
Church and it cannot disappear because it is a tremendous mental and
spiritual reflexive reaction. It put clear where the gaps are and remain

In the case of Hebrew, the language we speak today in the State of
Israel is of course a strongly Semitically grounded tongue or dialect.
It is new. it has been chosen not to oblige to special directions. In
the course of the decades, I could feel the important development of the
speech and writing within the society. The case is considered as unique
and is indeed because of the fact that it allows today to bridge
together people of all possible backgrounds and personal biographies.
This is definitely a special miracle with regards to Judaism as the Body
of the Klal Israel.

It suddenly woke up something that has always been kept alive (and this
is the major point) and now germinates ahead of something that we
hardly can anticipate. Both a theological an a colloquial language. When
we participate to any public debate, it is interesting to note the
strong connection between secular and spiritual speech, Old, Biblical,
Talmudic Hebrew and the new “half-Slavic or East-European dialect of
Hebrew origin” that is developing.

This is the second aspect of Hebrew today. Is it the Biblical tongue or
something else? Prof. Wexley suggests that Hebrew has revived with
strong Slavic and East-European and Yiddish influences. Eliezer Ben
Yehudah as also those who decided to speak Hebrew came from the
Yiddishland. There is no doubt that there is indeed an extraordinary
interconnection that showed historically between this part of European
multi-cultural and pluri-religious substracts. Indeed, Modern Hebrew
sounds very often closer to some Yiddish-translated dialect with some
spices of pan-Semitic inputs.

I have always been convinced of this very deep and meaningful connection
that also could link Judaism and Christianity. Usually people can
misunderstand. On the one hand, there are indeed, very important
connections between Hesychasm and the Russian Byzantine Church. This is
also to be felt in the Greek texts. But then we speak of a spiritual
proximity between two different and separate religions. They are not
only separated, they are estranged and they are framed by mutual
ignorace and most often “long-distanced hatred systems”.

But Yiddish is much more the possible linguistic link that could have
allowed a sort of encounter between Judaism and Chrsitendom in these
regions of the East. It failed. It remains that, even in its aversion
toward Christianity, Yiddish has a lot of phrases, expressions, words,
often also present in the Talmud or used to explain it, that are found
in daily speech and normal linguistic use. Hebrew is too “hieratic” and
“astray” from any appertaining. It is the language of the Jewish people
and has always remained. Yiddish is the language the jews took among the
Nations and combined with Talmud and their special spirit in order to
include the world of Judaism in a reality that bridges the two people of
the Jews and the Gentiles. This has a very powerful Church or spiritual
and Israel Community aspect of plenitude.

It is not sure that the Churches are able to comprehend with such a
dimension, and definitely not at the present in the State of Israel. On
the other hand there is something more that may have a much deeper
significance over the decades to come.

Towards the middle of the 19th century, most Churches have tried to
convert all the “pagan” nations and the Jews. The Catholic Church got
largely belated because of the importance of Latin that had erased local
tongues and ecclesiastical rites. In 1841, the Russian Orthodox Synod
of Moscow, i.e. previously to the reinstallation of the Patriarchate of
Moscow by the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, accepted and blessed to
celebrated the Divine Liturgy and the Service of the Russian Orthodox
Church in both Hebrew and Russian. The text dated 1841, was due to Fr.
D. Levinson who the nserved in Jerusalem. This is the text I have always
used for the prayer for two major reasons.

To begin with, the text is and remains official and has been accepted by
an official and large body of the Eastern Orthodox Church and seemingly
also accepted by the Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem at that time.

It makes more sense to use with slights updates an official text rather
than darfting different translations. It is an act of faith in the
Church “unity”. Till new versions – maybe only one – could be accepted
and blesssed by the official Church authorities.

There is more: 169 years ago, with a project of conversion of the Jews
that is profoundly and fundamentally under question as such in the State
of Israel for different reasons, Fr. Levinson could instinctively make
use of the Talmudic and Rabbinical language to translate the liturgical
texts of the Russian Orthodox Church. Bishop Salomon Alexander Pollack,
the first Anglican bishop of Jerusalem in the same years (a former
chasan, cantor), also used traditional and Talmudic lexicon. It gives to
their translation a sound an a spirit of authenticity and not of some
odd “Zulu-like” pidgin essay of inculturation.

The other Western rite Churches are not in such a position. They mainly
“refuse if not reject” the Oriental rites that were born from Jerusalem
and the Middle-East. I have the text in Aramaic of the Liturgy of Mar
Yaakov/Saint James in hebrew script that was used by the small first
group of Roman Catholics around 1952. Mgr Eugène Tisserant had convinced
Pope Pius X they should be allowed to pray in Hebrew. The Pope had then
asked “if Hebrew is a liturgical language”? The cardinal had answered
by a question: “Holy Father, in which language was it written on the
Cross that Jesus is the king of the Jews?”. The Pope admitted it was in
Hebrew, Latin and Greek (John 19: 19) and subsequently decided to accept
that the brothers could pray in teh Assyrian-Chaldean rite that is the
closest to the Hebrew tradition. The community chose rather quickly to
switch to the Western and Latin rite in common language.

Is Hebrew a liturgical language for Christianity? This is indeed a
pendingl question. It interrogates about how Christians can use Jewish
terms to confess, explain, teach and discuss of the reality of the faith
that has been condemned and rejected by the Jewish Community. This
“excommunication” has not been cancelled or denied by the Jews and it is
far too early to consider any possible and substantial change in this

On the other hand, something special happens and continues to show in
the new, recent and Modern State of Israel. The language, Hebrew, is
riviving and getting reinvigorated. It tracks back to the most ancient
times and makes it in a way that, evidently, questions the world. Which
nation has ever pretended to be at home in a place their ancestors had
left over two thousands years ago. Beyond any political views, this
simply challenges our understanding of “belonging, being at home over
time, inculturation, survival and development, apparent erasing and new

But then, the Eastern Orthodox Church is placed in a special context as
also the East-European societies. Hebrew has been used in the Orthodox
Church before the birth of Eliezer Ben Yehudah and Theodore Herzl (who
has not always been likely to support the use of Hebrew)!

When we served in Hebrew according to the blessed version at the Holy
Trinity Cathedral in Jerusalem on June 12th with the blessing of
Patriarch Theophilos III and of the Russian ecclesiastical Moscow
Patriarchate, it was the first time, at our common knowledge, that the
text also “revived” with local Israeli choir members, in a living Hebrew
spirit and bridging the Slavic cultures that are so intimately
intertwined on this earth.

We have felt totally at home and not like guests. Fully welcome and more
faithful had come, just because it was a Saturday and the opportunity
to participate in the Divine Liturgy. There was a sensitive and very
emotional feeling of doing something we could not even anticipate. We
are not in a period of great theological or ecumenical dialogue. But
here, this was not the point: everyone felt it was “normal”, obvious”.

It was normal to hear the main parts of the Liturgy in Hebrew and some
slavonic litanies and prayers. It was norma lto read the Gospel in
Hebrew and normal to hear some words of a sermon in Russia nand Hebrew.
It was more a real moment of “One Church of Jerusalem”. Just having a
look at the faithful, it was obvious that they were intermingled, Jews,
Hebrew Christians, Gentiles, former Soviets and others, certainly some
people going to different places. But the place was simply there that

What will be next? God gives in due time. But the point is that on that
Saturday, the memory of the local Church of Jerusalem tracked back,
beyond all acts of hatred, persecutions, pogroms, extermination,
ignorance, slander, destruction, to the original text that preceeded the
birth of Eliezer Ben Yehudah, the reviver of Modern Hebrew, himself
being a man from this Slavic area.

It is important that memory could also be “revived” in a positive sense:
we took from old and felt it is new.

Av Aleksandr (Winogradsky Frenkel)

17 – 4 of June 2010 – 5 deTamuz 5770 / ה’ דתמוז תש”ע

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