Hebrew is our Heritage

By: Hadassah Penn  |  December 20, 2018

By Hadassah Penn, Opinions Editor

I’m terrible with languages. I took two years of Spanish in high school. Now? I remember maybe a few words. Same goes for American Sign Language. It’s not for lack of trying. I look at my cool international friends who, invariably, know two to five languages, and I think about how great it would feel to effortlessly switch back and forth like they do.

The language that represents my biggest failure is Hebrew. I’ve gone to Jewish schools my entire life. I spent a year and a half in Israel, for God’s sake. And I still don’t know Hebrew. The words that I do know are mostly biblical and archaic, the kind that would get me laughed out of the shuk (if my American accent didn’t do it first).

Even though I’m linguistically challenged, I have an enormous appreciation for the Hebrew language, which I find so beautiful and fascinating. The language itself is expressive and nuanced, but beyond that, I love what Hebrew represents. I love the history of it: the blend of lashon hakodesh– the Holy tongue– and modern Hebrew, the transition from a dying language to a thriving one. The continued survival of our language seems, to me, to be a symbol of the continued survival of the Jewish people. Jews from all over the world find in Hebrew a common language; it’s what connects us despite vast differences in location and lifestyle.

Therefore, it is perfectly natural to me that students are required to study Hebrew during their time at Stern. On the surface, it may seem like any other required course that you never wanted to take; ranging somewhere from vaguely interesting to downright inconvenient, maybe getting in the way of your major or your midday break. However, Hebrew is so much more than just another requirement in the course booklet. Hebrew is our heritage, the key to our nation’s knowledge and history.

Hebrew is important simply as a means to an end as it provides us with the tools to study our sacred texts. Many, many Jewish writings are available in English these days, as well as other common languages. This is definitely a positive development, as these translations allow for so many more people to learn Torah and enjoy classic Jewish texts. Often, though, despite the best efforts of Artscroll, Koren, and other Jewish publishers, exact translations leave no room for the depth of the original work: the nuances, the room for interpretation, the wordplay and double meanings– they all survive the process, but seem slightly flattened. Of course, it is wonderful to study Torah in any language, but there is something to be said for returning to the source and experiencing it firsthand, not through the lens of some translator’s executive decisions.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever be fluent in Hebrew, because, for better or worse, it seems that my brain can only hold onto one language at a time. However, I strongly believe that Hebrew is a crucial element of our heritage, and should be studied and respected as such. Yeshiva University is a Jewish college, and proudly so. What better expresses our faith than the devoted study of the Hebrew language, the language which facilitates our personal study and represents our unity as a nation?