Mitzvah Day

Imagine the possibility of having restricted access to your own religion and culture without even realizing it, whether you attend synagogue and study sessions faithfully or not. Such a phenomenon actually exists, and it’s doing its disturbing work in our own Jewish community. I am referring to the inability to read and interpret the Hebrew language – the original mode of communication of the Torah, rabbis, biblical scholars and personas, and thousands of years of Judaism. I call this disability Hebrew/Jewish illiteracy.

The term illiteracy most often conjures up those stereotypical images of people far outside the walls of our own community. Prima facie, no one would associate this handicap with the People of the Book. Yet it is a fact that most Jewish Americans do not possess the bilingual skills necessary in which to truly live up to their name. Yes, being a fully expressed Jew actually does have something to do with the Hebrew language. Generally speaking, Jewish Americans, due to a language barrier, are incapable of fully connecting with the bread and butter of their faith – biblical and rabbinic texts. These repositories of our collective ancient wisdom and spirituality remain, for most, largely unapproachable, and yet they form the basis of what it means to be Jewish. And whereas the concept of Jewish literacy means much more than just reading and writing in a particular language, on the most fundamental level it certainly must start there.

You can’t just take somebody else’s word for what thousands of years of Judaism have to say. The availability of the many excellent English translations of classical Jewish writings simply does not do the job. First of all, for every English language Torah book, there remain thousands still available only in the original Hebrew. Buyer demand has created a steady supply of English Bibles, prayer books, Talmuds, philosophical guides, Rashis, etc. But try getting your hands on a sufficient number of the layers upon layers of classical commentaries in English that make the aforementioned works user-friendly and truly accessible. Commentaries, whose job is to elucidate, create access to the primary evidence they are interpreting. Lose the commentaries, and you lose real touch with the source material. Certainly, there are numerous modern scholars who offer valuable thoughts in English on the Bible, liturgy and Jewish law. But no collection of modern theories and formulas can take the place of centuries of Jewish thought and scholarship. At the current pace, we might never see the finish of the massive job of translating the necessary books of ages past.

Moreover, English translations are often, though not always, misleading, emphasizing a conceptual understanding rather than a literal one. The final product ends up being a processed explanation rather than a true and careful translation, so you end up studying the translator and not the original author. In addition, even if a given translation is extremely precise, each Hebrew word can mean different things to the various classical scholars. Since it is rare to find a complete consensus, a typical English Bible, let us say, will have to resort to something like offering one scholar’s view in its translation of one word and another sage’s opinion for a different term. Technically, such renditions, when viewed as a whole, do not satisfy any one opinion of those original biblical exegetes; instead they are a hodgepodge of them all. Only upon learning the Hebrew language can we effectively sift through all the evidence and see how Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi, Rabbi David Kimchi, and the Maharal of Prague would each independently translate that same Bible.Finally, only a small percentage of the English-language Jewish books in publication today are dedicated to the task of translation at all. New-age authors have their own valuable ideas to communicate. Yet, somehow, year after year, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher’s 14th century magnum opus – the Tur, a compendium of Jewish law and the actual precursor to the monumental Shulchan Aruch – remains a mystery for the masses due to an ever-present language barrier.

The problem of Hebrew/Jewish illiteracy is by no means new, but it is particularly virulent in its modern form due to the dynamics of today’s Jewish landscape. The incredible availability of certain excellent Jewish works in English is really both a blessing and a curse in its propensity to solve one problem and exacerbate another. Fifty years ago, most of these books weren’t even available in English. Now we have little incentive to actually master the fundamentals of the Hebrew language. We are undoubtedly the first generation in history to produce individuals who have studied the entire Talmud and who cannot translate a single word of it. Today’s synagogues and Jewish institutions largely add to the problem by simply not acknowledging it – most rabbis, from Orthodox to Reform, give sound-bite oriented lectures, which demand zero textual skills on the part of their audiences. Jewish organizations continue to boast of their large constituencies who remain virtual outsiders when faced with the basic task of praying in Hebrew. (I make no attempt to use this phenomenon to measure anyone’s spirituality; I am addressing our potential for complete Jewish literacy.) And so it continues to be a world of haves and have-nots: Jewish children quickly surpass their own parents’ Hebrew ability, and Jewish adults continue to stare at the letters of the alef-bet as if it were hieroglyphics.

There is a viable solution. We need to adopt a more proactive attitude by demanding more opportunities for Hebrew language empowerment. We need to study Judaism more efficiently and learn how to learn. We, instead of the teacher, must be seated in the driver’s seat with an open book in front of us armed with the mission of improving our textual skills. For some, the answer may be as simple as signing up for an ulpan or a Hebrew grammar course; others may prefer the time-proven method of poring over the material with an advanced study partner (chavruta). All of this may seem hard at first, but as with any other skill, the reward is commensurate with the effort; the Talmudic giant Rabbi Akiba began his Hebrew linguistic adventure at age 40. I truly believe that Mark Twain’s words put many of these issues in proper perspective: “Don’t explain your author; read him right, and he explains himself.”

Free Hebrew Courses

North Valley JCC, the Jewish Home for the Aging, Westwood Kehilla and Jewish Learning Exchange are just a few of the Southland locations that will host a free Hebrew class during November for the Third Annual Read Hebrew America, a program organized by the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP).The classes, designed for Jews with little or no background in Hebrew, will concentrate on the Hebrew alphabet and basic reading skills. A level-two program will be available for those interested in advancing their Hebrew reading and comprehension skills.

NJOP’s primer, “Hebrew Reading Crash Courses,” will be available in English, Russian and Spanish, and a French version will be published next year. As a bonus, students who complete this year’s course will receive a mezuzah designed by world-renowned artist Yaacov Agam.

NJOP, which also spearheads Shabbat Across America, estimates that more than 15,000 unaffiliated and marginally affiliated Jews will participate in this year’s classes nationwide. Since 1987, NJOP has taught more than 215,000 North American Jews to read Hebrew.

To find the location and date of the class nearest you, visit the NJOP Web site at or call (800) 44-HEBREW. – Staff Report