Hebrew is a Language, Not a Legacy

By: Channa Buxbaum  |  December 20, 2018

By Channa Buxbaum

In 1946, Yeshiva University formally adopted Torah Umadda as its slogan. Ever since then, this mantra has encapsulated the institute’s goal: to instill students with the absolute centrality of both Torah study and secular education. However, there remains a crucial divide. One may use secular studies to elucidate upon Torah, to navigate and enhance one’s experience in today’s modern world, but one must not mistake madda for Torah.     

Unfortunately, I have experienced what I believe to be misunderstandings of this crucial equation during my time at Stern College. One of the most glaring examples is the Hebrew dilemma. Among the Judaic Studies requirements that all Stern students must fulfill are a healthy dose of Hebrew classes. Equated with the lofty study of Tanach, halacha, and machshava are stumbling through stories about blonde date scammers and learning to say the word “cannibal” b’Ivrit.

Let’s ignore the practical absurdity of attempting to teach a language in the span of two or three courses, especially for those who have never studied the language before. Let us also attempt to disregard the condescending implications of assigning each student a number of Hebrew courses based solely on their previous education. On a core level, there is something deeply wrong with thinking the study of a modern language is part and parcel with God’s sacred teachings. Torah is everlasting and unchanging; it connects us with our past and directs our future. Modern Hebrew, on the other hand, was created mere centuries ago as a method of communication. Opportunities for fostering Judaic skills and broadening one’s Torah education are too often being replaced by these mandatory Hebrew classes. There is an active exchange of skills here: having a good grip of modern Hebrew may help you navigate the shuk on a busy Friday afternoon, but it can’t entirely translate a tricky Rambam with all its nuances and intentions. Modern Hebrew is not lashon hakodesh, just as Modern Hebrew is not a Judaic study.

Perhaps to remedy this dilemma, many professors in the Hebrew department make an effort to intersperse Biblical sources and Jewish writings into their curriculum. However, having the occasional reference to Tehillim still doesn’t help the case for their class. Hebrew is linked to the Judaic text just as science or psychology connects to Judaic content, and yet the latter courses don’t merit the title of “Judaic study.” This may seem inconsequential and nit-picky on a surface level, but labels are incredibly important. The more we broaden the boundaries of what is considered Torah, the less conviction we have in claiming that Torah stands out uniquely from madda.  

Don’t get me wrong: I’d love to speak fluent Hebrew as much as the next starry-eyed American Jew. I believe it’s a vital link to Israel, and because of that I will try and fail and try again to master the nuances of the language. However, language skills and Torah education belong to vastly different fields. They serve different purposes, are taught in different ways, and should accordingly be placed in different categories. Hebrew, while near and dear to many Stern students, is a foreign language and should be approached accordingly. In doing otherwise, Yeshiva University has made a regrettable mistranslation of their most time-honored and cherished ideology.