Is Hebrew Still Relevant?

on Thursday, 01 October 2009. Posted in Rabbi Marshall's Articles

The ORacle, October 2009 Issue

The catch phrase for the Reform movement is “educated choice,” the conviction being that “Judaism frozen in time is an heirloom, not a living fountain.”[1] As Reform Jews, we learn as much as we can and preserve the meaningful parts of our tradition while continuing to innovate. Gone is the notion of hiyyuv, of commandedness. As sovereign selves we are able to try on commandedness, obligation, prayer, and ritual in our own idiosyncratic ways and individually determine what to retain.

Early Reform Jews radicalized Judaism by omitting much of the Hebrew from our worship service.   They believed that praying in the vernacular was more relatable for modern Jews. The question then becomes, is Hebrew still relevant? If Jews are able to pray in English, and feel that they are offering and receiving the essential message of a blessing or petition, why bother with Hebrew? What would it be like just to recite the Shema in English? If the continuation of the Jewish people is our goal, would Judaism be more approachable if people could pray fluently in their native language? If they find Jewish meaning in poetic English, the way our ancestors found it in Hebrew, is that fully acceptable?

            While I offer these provocative questions, I believe that Hebrew is the indispensible language of our people. It is the language of our ancient traditions, texts and customs. Moreover, it is the language of our extraordinary system of change, evolution and reevaluation which has always been at the core of our religion.[2]

Knowing Hebrew helps further our appreciation of the debate over tradition versus innovation. Similarly, I think that those who currently prefer prayer in poetic English may come to appreciate the warmth and texture of traditional Hebrew prayer. At the same time, replacing Hebrew as universally better than the appropriate English parallels robs Jewish seekers of their potential for Jewish meaning. Our prayer is deepened by both.

            Temple Beth Or has several opportunities to learn Hebrew. Twice a month we offer a beginning Hebrew class for those who know the Hebrew alphabet but have little vocabulary. This class is taught by Jeremy Alk. We are also launching a crash course in Hebrew for congregants looking to have an adult B’nai Mitzvah. This will be a ten-week class beginning _____ and taught by Heidi Piel. Students will come away with a knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet as well as the basic prayers of the Shabbat morning service prepared to act as a sheliah tzibbur, a service leader. I encourage everyone to consider these possibilities for learning.

            As we learn the language of our ancestors, may we be able to more fully appreciate the value of our Hebrew heritage while continuing to create new liturgies and traditions that express our contemporary spiritual needs.