Culture

4 Ways That the Hebrew Language Redeemed the Jewish People in Our Time

The main factor that redeemed the Jewish people in our time is the state of Israel. It made them an active, generative people again, not merely scattered minorities contending with the Scylla and Charybdis of antisemitism and assimilation.

But a close handmaiden of the Jewish state in effecting this transformation was the Hebrew language. Along with the magnetic pull of the Land of Israel itself, it was Hebrew that enabled the Zionist endeavor to coalesce and take on a distinctive, organic character.

Hebrew—that is, the revival of the Hebrew language in the context of the return to Zion—achieved that in four main ways.

1. It made unity possible for radically diverse immigrants.

From the onset of Zionist aliyah (immigration to Israel) in the early 1880s to today, when the phenomenon continues, Jews have come to Israel from all corners of the world speaking over a hundred different languages. They’ve come from Russia, Poland, Germany, Morocco, Iraq, Ethiopia, India, America—the list goes on. Although not a few of these immigrants had some degree of knowledge of Hebrew or other Jewish languages, the majority had a non-Jewish mother tongue. In other words, a Tower of Babel.

So the adoption of Hebrew as the dominant language of the prestate community, and eventually of Israel itself, was far from a fait accompli. Some championed Yiddish instead. In 1913 the “Language War” broke out over plans to make German the language of the Technion, a technical college in Haifa that thrives to this day. The Language War galvanized those most committed to making Hebrew the main official language of the emerging polity, and they eventually prevailed.

It was a strategic and wise choice; it not only made unity possible but also much else.

2. It connected the society as a whole to the Hebrew Bible and other sources.

From the early days of the Yishuv (prestate community), the Hebrew Bible was taught in schools. The only door to that original text is, of course, the Hebrew language. Its rising prevalence in the Yishuv meant that a direct, formative experience of this text—and to a lesser extent of other core Jewish texts, mainly the Talmud—became a basic part of growing up in it. And it wasn’t only the Book of Books itself. Classes went on field trips to biblical sites; songs and plays and other works blossomed from the encounter with the ancient words.

Visitors to this community—and to some extent it still happens today—were often surprised by its seeming secularity. And indeed, both in the Yishuv and in the state of Israel, the majority have been far from strict religious observance. The society, though, is connected to the past in its own way. Biblical phrases and motifs are part of Israeli discourse. Biblical archeology remains a fervent pursuit. A 2012 poll found that 80 percent of Jewish Israelis—again, the majority of them “secular”—believe in God, and high percentages have other “religious” beliefs. Israel is a “Hebrew” country in a profound sense.

3. It broke down the secular-sacred dichotomy.

In the Diaspora, Hebrew was retained primarily as a holy tongue, a language of prayer and sacred study. In the Yishuv, Hebrew began to appear on storefronts, billboards, signs and the like. Knowing Hebrew no longer meant one was strictly religious or had had a strictly religious education. One could be a fervent atheist and adept in the holy tongue.

The result was that Jewish identity itself became open and flexible. A strictly religious Israeli could give up strict religiosity, yet remain a Hebrew-speaking Jew in the Holy Land. A very secular Israeli who wanted to adopt strict religiosity had easy linguistic (and to some extent, cultural) access.  (And neither phenomenon—leaving religion for secularism, or vice versa—is uncommon.) Hebrew not only brought dozens of nationalities together; it also bridged the whole spectrum of orientations to Jewishness.

4. It gave rise to a unique culture and identity.

Any other language the Yishuv, and the state, would have adopted would have been a language spoken by nations or communities elsewhere. That includes Yiddish, a mix of medieval German and Hebrew that had been a Jewish language in the Diaspora for about a millennium.

Hebrew, however, had been a national language only in the ancient past—in the Land of Israel about three to two thousand years ago. The adoption of Hebrew meant the new Israeli polity was not only identified with that ancient past but also a unique entity in the present. Because few people outside of Israel, including Jews, know Hebrew, access to indigenous Israeli culture is difficult, and a certain loneliness inheres in being Israeli.

But it’s worth it. It’s Hebrew that makes us fully who we are.

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