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Who Needs Hebrew?

Prayer book, ArtScroll.

In 1967, on a visit to Jerusalem, the American novelist Saul Bellow met Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Israel's Nobel laureate in literature. "This spare old man," Bellow would recall, "asked me if any of my books had been translated into Hebrew. If they had not been, I had better see to it immediately, because, he said, they would survive only in the Holy Tongue." And what about Heinrich Heine's imperishably fine German, Bellow asked? "Ah," replied Agnon, "we have him beautifully translated into Hebrew. He is safe."

Relevant Links
The Many Faces of Translation  Sh’ma. In the words of Octavio Paz, “all writing is translation.” A symposium of Jewish writers and translators unpacks that observation for everything it’s worth.
The Battle of the Prayer Books  Martin Lockshin, Canadian Jewish News. Until the appearance in 2009 of a new and directly competitive siddur translated and edited by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, ArtScroll seemed to have the Orthodox market to itself.
Part Bird, Part Ornithologist  Mark Thwaite, Ready Steady Book. On translating medieval Hebrew poetry and related subjects; an interview with Peter Cole.  

"He is safe." Even Heine, the ironic heretic, is tucked in the ark that will bear Hebrew across the floods of time. But which Heine, or which Bellow, will be in that ark? In Hebrew translation, he will inevitably be different from the Heine or the Bellow of his first incarnation.

The anxieties of translation come with the territory; the enterprise itself is all about crossing territory, moving evanescent words from one place to another in the hope that nothing will get lost. Still, Agnon's implied claim—that, thanks to its association with both a people and a faith, Hebrew alone guarantees perpetuity—is more complicated than one might think. 

Recent months, for example, have seen the completion of significant translation projects from Hebrew into . . . Hebrew. One is the publication of the final volume of the Steinsaltz Talmud (named for its mastermind, Adin Steinsaltz); another is the new, Ram Tanakh (named for its publisher). Of the two, the Talmud project is the less surprising, given that multi-volume work's strong leavening of Aramaic, its famously complicated style, and the history of its deliberate demotion in classic Zionist ideology, which sought to recapture the Bible's primal energies and therefore needed to discard the rabbinic lenses through which the Bible had been read for nearly two millennia.

But this same centrality of the Bible to Israel's state school system and secular culture is precisely what makes the Ram Tanakh so startling. Many Hebraists and language purists have been dismayed if not downright appalled by the appearance of this work, which presents the Hebrew original side-by-side with a modern Hebrew translation. And yet there is no getting around the fact that for many Israelis, already several generations removed from tradition, the experience of reading biblical Hebrew unaided is akin to what American college students undergo when trying to make their way through Chaucer (if they still do).

That a connection to the sacred is no longer dependent on Hebrew, ancient or modern, is made clear by another phenomenon of our time: the proliferation of translations of sacred texts for Orthodox Jews. In English, the main force here is the ArtScroll publishing enterprise, which seeks to promote its acculturated version of ultra-Orthodoxy and turn it into the lingua franca of all observant Jews. Perhaps even more jarring, commercial publishing houses have been releasing English translations of classic religious texts and rabbinic rulings, bypassing altogether the nexus between knowledge and authority that once limited entry into these sources to those who had invested the time and effort to learn how to read them. True, the same aura that added to the texts' enchantment kept them securely in the hands of elites; in that sense, for better or for worse, translation in modern times has gone hand in hand with the loosening of religious and political authority. 

As anyone who has tried his hand at it can attest, the act of translation is risky, and can easily stumble. It is itself an act of faith, not only in the ability of translator and reader to jump from one shore to another, but in there being something to find on the other side.  But what does it say about so many American Jews that they are content with reading everything in English translation? That they appear to feel they aren't missing anything, or don't experience the falling-away of Hebrew as a loss? And what can possibly be the excuse of the Orthodox? 

At the end of the day, Agnon may or may not prove to have been right that Jewish writing in languages other than Hebrew will not survive. But as for writing that is self-consciously bound to the tradition, it is certainly unlikely to endure in the absence of a vibrant Hebrew culture, grounded in a Hebrew republic of letters. Without some genuine and internal connection to living organisms in possession of a past, present, and future, the translated words, lovely and well-chosen as they may be, will simply dance themselves away.

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Scott David Lucas on January 6, 2011 at 8:07 am (Reply)
Hebrew, yes. The language of the earth, before King Nimrod rebelled against The God of Israel in his desire to build the Tower of Babel.
As Israel was reborn in 1948, so too, the language of Hebrew experienced a rebirth.
Scott David Lucas on January 6, 2011 at 8:18 am (Reply)
As it is written in the TANAKH, Israel will encompass the earth someday; so to, the Hebrew language will be like the waters of the earth that cover the sea.
Ron Broxted on January 6, 2011 at 11:11 am (Reply)
How useful is Ivrit? The decision not to use Yiddish as the lingua franca of Israel in 1948 meant that a sacred language was resurrected for secular use. The non-roman script is difficult - indeed Ataturk shifted away from from "original" Turkish to make contact with the west easier. At least the status of Hebrew provides work for bible studies professors...
David F. on January 6, 2011 at 12:54 pm (Reply)
Thank you, Yehudah for asking the questions. Pondering them creates in me a frustration similar to that which I experience when I find that most students I meet who are as little as ten years younger than I have never read Erich Fromm's "Escape from Freedom".

In contrast to your contention that the proliferation of translations has gone hand-in-hand with the loosening of religious authority, I would contend that it has become a tool for tightening that authority. In former times, when there was a critical mass of 'baaeli batim' in congregations who were familiar enough with Hebrew to use an untranslated text, they often saw it as their role to hold the rabbi accountable to the truth when he taught, preached or rendered decisions. This was an attitudinal role also adopted by plain folk who had no command of the language, but would consult with peers when they intuited that something was amiss.

It seems the contemporary rabbi and "bal'ebos" have abdicated their roles. The bal'ebos wants simply to be told right from wrong, kosher from traif by a recognizable branded authority. Rabbis, authors, and publishing houses are glad to supply this market. And it is much easier to do this when consumers do not have the knowledge or wish to detect selective use of material, translations that are engineered to eliminate important ambiguities and omissions of words, sentences and entire chapters.

I have recently attended a lecture that was part of a program that ostensibly had a "Centrist Orthodox" orientation. The audience seemed to be a crowd with a post-secondary yeshiva education. The speaker suggested as source material a certain ArtScroll book on the subject. I had seen the volume and it was not the one of the publishing house's serious treatments of subject matter. And he did not mean the remark tongue in cheek.

So what is the excuse of the Orthodox? Read Erich Fromm.
Antigonos on January 6, 2011 at 1:44 pm (Reply)
I beg to differ with one statement: for a modern Hebrew-speaker, the Tanach is about as difficult as Shakespeare, not Chaucer, is for an English-speaker.
The Aramaic of the Talmud is more like Chaucerian English -- which was recognizably English [unlike Beowulf] but still much more Germanic than Shakespeare's English. Most Hebrew-speakers can puzzle out considerable bits of Aramaic, but not all of it.
Jacob Arnon on January 6, 2011 at 2:53 pm (Reply)
What Antigonos said, but in addition the problem with learning to read old texts in one’s own language is not confined merely to Hebrew.
In Europe as well as in America there are fewer and fewer readers who can understand works written in their own language that are more than a couple of hundred years old.
How many can read the King James translation of the Bible in English or Montaigne in the original French?
The problem is the level and quality of literacy: it is diminishing. To know a language well is to learn how to read it across the centuries and not just those books published while we are alive.

I suspect that Hebrew will keep changing but that it will survive as there have always been groups of readers (and not only Jews) who have made it their business to study Biblical Hebrew.

What is knew today is the large quantity of first rate literature in that language from Agnon to Yehoshua which didn’t exist in past centuries. Surely some of those interested in Biblical Hebrew will also wish to become acquainted with the secular works in that language as well.

S. on January 6, 2011 at 6:30 pm (Reply)
Spend a few hours trolling Google Books or or There was as much - maybe more - sacred Jewish texts translated into German. Still useful, they are for specialists, sit in research libraries, and get thrown out by the bushel every Pesach as more people rid themselves of old inheritances that mean nothing to them. I've rescued some nice gems in German from geniza trucks myself.

I love English, but English Judaica is also ephemeral, even though it's necessary for the moment.
Truth on January 6, 2011 at 8:52 pm (Reply)
Biblical Hebrew is extremely close to Modern Hebrew. Although there are many new words in Hebrew and the grammar has been altered, both forms of the language are extremely close. Many American Jews moved to Israel without knowing any Modern Hebrew and only Biblical Hebrew and “switched” to Modern Hebrew with extreme ease. Hebrew is the holy tongue. Anybody with any knowledge of Torah study knows that to really understand the Torah you must study it in Hebrew. Every letter and every note and every crown of each of the letters have meanings. Plus there is Gamatria. After that, there are hidden messages and many hidden messages are quite obvious. What is the 25th word of the Torah? It is light. Hanukkah is the 25th day of Kislev. Hanukkah is the festival of lights. The first letter of Hebrew is the letter Bet. The last letter is the letter Lamed. You put a lamed and a bet together you get the word Lev. What did Rabbi Hillel say when asked “Teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot?” Rabbi Hillel said. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself. The rest is commentary." Well what do you love with? Your heart. You love with your heart. These are but a few examples and there are thousands more that are obvious. And an infinite amount of examples that are not obvious. Only Torah study can point them out.
Ben Plonie on January 7, 2011 at 12:38 am (Reply)
Some good comments here. Reading Jewish texts in translation is like watching a blockbuster movie on a small black-and-white TV. You are going to miss a lot of context and detail and be bored. The Orthodox of which I am one never read the texts in translation. We sometimes use them as a crutch for a difficult or poetic word.
David F. on January 7, 2011 at 6:36 am (Reply)
I am certain that readers are aware of the ongoing debate in the various sections of Haaretz on the relationship between modern and biblical Hebrew and the prospect of familiarizing Israeli students with biblical Hebrew.

Apropos, some years ago, Asaf Inbari wrote an article describing a strand that runs from biblical Hebrew through modern times that makes literature in Hebrew and other languages "Jewish" as opposed to "modern". It is a wonderful article entitled מעמד הפעלים and it can be found on his website.
S. on January 7, 2011 at 8:55 am (Reply)
> The Orthodox of which I am one never read the texts in translation.

Right, because it's the non-Orthodox buying Artscroll's Baal Haturim. Give me a break.
Jacob Arnon on January 7, 2011 at 9:49 am (Reply)
I should say apropos the story used to introduce the subject of the best chances for a Jewish writer to survive, the native language of the writer or Hebrew, that Agnon was probably being ironic. He is one of the greatest ironist Hebrew literature has produced. He was also not above pulling someone’s leg.
He told an interviewer that he never read Kafka, while sitting in front of the complete works of that writer.

I also think that Agnon may not have been wrong to ask such a question.

Bellow has fewer and fewer readers each year in English though the release of his letters gave him a momentary spike in readership. I am a strong admirer of Bellow’s work but I have my doubts whether he will be read in English by anyone other than a small dedicated group of mostly Jewish readers.

Whether he will do any better in Hebrew, I am not in a position to know.

Ben Plonie on January 8, 2011 at 9:22 pm (Reply)
The ArtScroll Baal HaTurim is not your best example, as according to Artscroll it "...was written so tersely that even great scholars labor over it. I don't happen to own it but if I did, I would read the original and then consult the translation for any gaps in my grasp. I rarely look at the English in a Chumash (Bible). For someone with no Jewish education the English may be great, but otherwise it is a shadow of the original.

You may compare it to watching an Israeli movie with English subtitles. You will find that many nuances and jokes are not reproduced in the English.
stuart rose on January 9, 2011 at 3:08 pm (Reply)
First, I think that Jacob is wrong about Bellow. Now, he's right about Bellow's diminished readership (the same fate I imagine Capote, Cheever, Updike and other major post-WW II authors face), but much of the problem seems to be the dwindling number of Americans who read literary fiction. But Bellow will probably never have the readership he once had in part because he represents a kind of American Jew that cannot exist anymore- a Jew who is simultaneously very Jewish in his inflections and style of arguing and in love with the vibrancy of their native tongue. Let's not forget that when Bellow began to write, many English departments tended to doubt Jews could really imbibe the ethos of English fully enough to tend its literature.

Mirsky claims that a Jewish culture only accessible in English is doomed. "S"'s mention of the fate of German language Hebraica backs that up nicely. What is it about Judaism replanted in English soil that will condemn it to failure? Beside the obvious loss of nuance and tam, maybe it's the fact a minority culture in America needs to have its culture to be distinctly marked off from the majoritarian culture- and language is the most prominent sign.
S. on January 12, 2011 at 1:02 am (Reply)
>I don't happen to own it

If you own a Chumash you probably own it.

What about ArtScroll's Ramban? Who is Feldheim's Mishna Berurah translation aimed at? Point is, plenty of Orthodox people only wish they "never read the texts in translation."

Ben Plonie on January 12, 2011 at 8:34 am (Reply)
You are getting far afield of the point of the discussion, which was "That a connection to the sacred is no longer dependent on Hebrew". ArtScroll would laugh at that idea. Or perhaps cry. The Jewish connection to the sacred is wholly dependant on Hebrew. Any other format is an increasingly greater stretch.

An enormous volume of Rabbinic discussion centers not only on what is written, but how it is written and in connection or resemblance to other such writings. Most of that is invisible in translation; something that contributes to its dismissal by non-Orhodox authorities.

So what you are saying is that less educated foreign born Orthodox people need a translation as a crutch or training wheels; that is Artscroll's oft-stated intention. There has also been an unfortunate neglect of pure Hebrew education for political reasons. But it is very few who will read the translation exclusively in lieu of he original, primarily those who come to observance in adulthood.

By the way, I have absolutely no problem with the Ram Tanakh. It is hardly the first of such materials, although in the past they were more annotated than translated as such. Certainly there have been innumerable English versions among the Christians, each with its own angle.

Besides the classic language being quaint and archaic, it is often poetic in surprising and non-obvious ways. It is however an Orthodox given that the ancient texts were 100% comprehensible and unambiguous to the ancient mind, and any such ambiguities arose from the cultural trauma of numerous destructions and dispersions over millennia. It is a central goal of Torah study to brng ourselves to the frame of mind in which those texts can be assimilated in an unambiguous manner once again.
Jerry Blaz on February 22, 2013 at 8:12 pm (Reply)
Hebrew is one language among literally thousands of languages, dialects, creoles, pidgeons, etc. What is remarkable is that it is spoken today in by millions of Israelis in their quotidian existences. What is exceptional about Hebrew is that it is the language in which the Scriptures came down to the Jewish people, but it ceased being a lingua franca for all practical purposes about 2500 years ago when the Jews were exiled by the Babylonians and lived in a Persian milieu, and came back to Israel with their Hebrew Scriptures intact but speaking Aramaic, which was followed by troubled Greek and Roman acquaintanceships with the Jewish people. (Jews so studiously ignored Greek as a language for themselves that they ignored the writing of Philo, an Alexandrian Jew who wrote in Greek.)

Aramaic was known to the Jews of Judea as their spoken language during most of this period while Hebrew existed more or less as a religious language and as a source of religous study and inspiration. We don't know the conversational language of the average Jew during the period referred to as the Second Temple, but we do have the Hebrew of the intellectual class, mainly scribes who became known as rabbis who wrote the Mishne in Hebrew, a very different Hebrew, but recognizable and understandable to anyone who knew Biblical Hebrew.

The succesful revival of Hebrew is the modern miracle of Hebrew. It was revived as a beautiful language, but it had sounds its own "revivers" could not pronounce, from the Xet and Ayen to the daggesh Xazak. When I was studying with a reader of the daily parasha b'tanax on kol yisrael radio, Hayim Kohen Melamed, back in the forties and fifties, he lamented that after Eliezer Ben Yehuda revived the language, the children are losing Hebrew sounds. And it didn't stop with the loss of non-european sounds, but with a general lassitude as a way of speaking.

Today, as an older man, I sometimes have difficulty understanding Israelis aged 40 and under. As another older Hebrew-speaker stated, when she speaks with younger Israelis, she is pigeonholed as speaking "evrit shel oz," Hebrew of olden days. I know that younger Israelis are capable of speaking Hebrew clearly, but I think they're fearful that they'll be considered "friers" (suckers). If any of them are reading this, let me say, you'll not be a frier, but you might be better understood.

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