Ivrit B'Ivrit: A Discussion in Ten Da'at

  • by: Joel Wolowelsky, Alan Stadtmauer, Moshe Bernstein, Eliyahu Safran and Sara Bellehsen

Table of Contents

 “Ivrit B’Ivrit” by Joel Wolowelsky

“Response to Ivrit B’Ivrit” by Alan Stadtmauer

Response to IVRIT beIVRIT: Not In My School” by Moshe Bernstein

“RESPONSE IVRIT B’IVRIT” by  Eliyahu Safran

“More on Ivrit B’Ivrit” by Sara Bellehsen

“Response” by Joel Wolowelsky

“Afterward” by  Joel Wolowelsky


Joel Wolowelsky

From Ten Da’at, Volume IV, Number 2, Spring 1990.
The State of Israel was about to be reborn and many welcomed it as the unfolding of a Torah vision. Hebrew was rekindled by the Zionists as the spoken language of the Jewish community and even those living outside of Israel could be partof the Zionist undertaking by speaking, reading, and writing Hebrew.
Whatever its historical origins in Europe, here in America Ivrit b’Ivrit — the commitment that yeshiva studies be taught in Hebrew from grade one on—was, and continues to be, tied to Religious Zionism. Yeshivot loyal to this Torah hashkafa embraced Ivrit b’Ivrit much as they eventually included the celebration of Yom HaAtzmaut in their school programs. Religious Zionism, however, was never a reality in those yeshivot which divided the Jewish world between secular Zionists and Torah-true non-Zionists. (Although, we quickly add, except for a very small fringe, the latter remains no less committed to the safety of the State of Israel.) Ivrit b’Ivrit had no ideological call on them; it was part of the Zionist agenda. Hebrew was the language of the sefer; Yiddish was the language of the beis medrash, and it — not Hebrew or English — was to remain the language of the beis medrash in America.
Perhaps the real motivation for this policy was the simple fact that the rebeiim  arriving from Europe were conversant only in Yiddish. In any event, an ideological framework was soon added to justify this policy. Yiddish was the international language of the beis medrash, learning in Yiddish was the passport to enter any yeshivah around the world. (The world of Sephardic Jewry, it must be noted, was excluded from this universe of discourse.) Furthermore, Yiddish was the vernacular of arriving Jews; Talmud should be studied in the language of greatest fluency. Hebrew was a holy tongue; making it a “street language” was the work of the secular Zionists.
The world beganto change, and English slowly replaced Yiddish in popular discourse. The language spoken in the beis medrash soon became English, although the vernacular of the sheur often remained Yiddish. The rationale was simple: Yiddish is the language of Torah. But, of course, as younger English-speaking rebeiim  began to give sheeurim, the language slowly shifted. “Teitching” into Yiddish–a tongue increasingly foreign to students in non-Hasidic yeshivot, became translating into English. A parallel development was taking place in Israel. Slowly Hebrew became the language of the beis medrash just as it became that of general discourse. The most Frum people were now discussing Torah in Hebrew–Sepharadit at that!–and sheurim from younger rebeiim  were soon being delivered in Hebrew.
What, then, was the result of these developments? Suddenly, the American non-Zionist yeshivot were pursuing a policy that worked against their basic philosophy.Their students were being trained to be excluded from many of the world’s yeshivot. Unable to hear a sheur in Hebrew or to interact with Israelis in the beit medrash, yeshiva boys found themselves studying in Israel at “American” yeshivot. Frum Israelis settling in America were discovering, to their dismay, that the yeshivot were not providing their sons with a common language with which to “discuss Torah” with relatives back in Israel. Worse, Hebrew illiteracy was becoming acceptable. Nowadays, the haskamot to English language editions of common classical texts usually indicate that the book was produced for the benefit of those from an unfamiliar background who can’t yet function in Hebrew. It is no secret, however, that these books are often used by yeshiva-trained benai Torah. (Of course, there are many who can read classical Hebrew texts quite fluently. But excellent students rise to the top of any system. To evaluate a program, one must look to the accomplishments of the average student.)
Why is this tolerated, especially when many of the girls’ schools associated with this system have no ideological problem with teaching in Hebrew (albeit in non-Zionist Ivris b’Ivris)? Part of the answer, I think, is a reluctance to be associated with the Zionist movement. Of greater importance, however, is the impossibility of switching to Hebrew speaking sheurim, because too many of the rebbeim, trained in the current system, cannot give such a sheur. Until this reality is confronted , the problem cannot effectively be resolved. But what about those yeshivot which do maintain an ideological commitment to religious Zionism, and hence Ivrit b’Ivrit? Are they more successful? Although many of their superior alumni are capable of learning in Israeli sheurim at various yeshivot Hesder or parallel girls’ yeshivot, too many must study in American style yeshivot where thelanguage of instruction is English. This, despite the fact that their American alma maters “on paper” are teaching in Hebrew. What has gone wrong?
Part of the problem is that many Modern Orthodox yeshivot often draw their teachers from those who themselves from those who themselves have not been educated in Hebrew. Teaching in Hebrew is simply too difficult for them. Another part of the problem is that too many young teachers are committed to teaching “Yiddishkeit” instead of basic skills. The emphasis is on “feeling good” about Judaism and gaining commitment to mitzvot and yirat Shamayim, not on teaching fundamental technical tools that will be necessary for a lifetime of study. One cannot argue against the former goals; indeed, all Torah educators share them. But when they become a substitute for teaching mastery of essential proficiencies, they are, at best, counterproductive. Adding to the difficulty is that the yeshivah worldpresents a seemingly successful hinukh model in which limudei kodeshi are taught in Israel. But it is not the English discussion which produces benai Torah. Success would be better attributed to the enthusiasm and commitment of the rebbeim–which properly trained educators should be able to duplicate in Hebrew–and (more significantly) to a very restrictive admissions policy which attracts students who totally identify with and subscribe to the yeshivah’s values and philosophy.
Perhaps the real essence of the problem lies in the attitude of the teacher. History teachers often don’t correct grammatical errors on assigned essays; students are not required to respond in full English sentences; it’s more pleasant to discuss a novel rather than drill in grammar; it’s boring and tedious to practice adding fractions when “mathematical concepts” are so much more enjoyable, etc. The results are all too painful: College English classes devoted to remedial writing; calculus teachers who can’t get through the lesson on derivatives because the quotient rule assumes proficiency in fractions; and so on.
It’s the same in sheur. The exhilaration of the hiddush is dampenedby demanding that the student say it in Hebrew. It’s laborious to insist that the classroom discussion proceed in Lashon hakodesh–it robs the talmid of the excitement of the deliberation. (Never mind that the English robs him of later proficiency in Hebrew.) Clearly, Ivrit b’Ivrit is not much fun; it’s “payoff” is down the road and it’s immediate cost is some frustration for teacher and student. (Interestingly, one now hears complaints from parents that their sons know hidushei harishonim before they’ve mastered the Rashi and Tosafot on the daf. It’s the same problem in a different form.) It must be stated that there are many rashei yeshivah on the beit medrash level who are eager and willing to deliver a sheur in Hebrew (and whose hanala would add encouragement) but who cannot do so because too many of their students are not equipped to participate in such a sheur. Post high school, however, is the wrong time to correct this inherited deficit. Ivrit b’Ivrit has to start in grade one. It is here that students must not only learn to strain to say it correctly, but must begin studying Hebrew grammar formally and sequentially. In too many yeshivot, Hebrew proficiency progresses well for the first few grades until the classroom content moves on to Mishnah and Talmud. The reasons are clear.
If we want Ivrit b’Ivrit we shall have to insist on it. Principals must demand and then supervise its implementation as parents monitor its use. Schools should provide Ulpanot for teachers needing reinforcement of Hebrew language skills awhile, at the same time, banning English sefarim from the classroom. Formal study of Hebrew grammar must be reinstated in the curriculum. Tests and homework should be written–and answered–in Hebrew. It may be unappealing to press a rebbe, especially when he is well-liked, or to persevere with students, especially when they are frustrated and impatient. But for all this to be effective, administrators and educators must be insistent, persistent and, if need be, unpopular. We need not apologize for wanting Ivrit b’Ivrit. We need not justify our claim that knowledge ofLashon hakodesh is part of the mastery of Torah. We need not make amends for our insistence that English translations of classical texts be left for those who did not benefit from a yeshivah education. We need not defend our desire for our students to feel at home in our language, our texts, and our country. We need to put our principles back into action. Im tirtsu, ein zu aggada.
DR. WOLOWELSKY, a contributing editor of Ten Da’at, is a Chairman of Advanced Placement Studies at the Yeshiva of Flatbush High School, Brooklyn, and an associate editor of Tradition.
Response to Ivrit B’Ivrit by Rabbi Alan Stadtmauer, The Frisch School
From Ten Da’at, Volume V, No. 1, Fall 1990
Though my youth and relatively few years in the field lead me to doubt my ability to respond meaningfully to someone as experienced as Dr. Wolowelsky, perhaps I am also capable of seeing an old issue in a new light. As a graduate Ivrit B’lvrit programs in both elementary and high school (and for that matter, summer camp too), I am intimately familiar with the advantages and disadvantages of studying in Hebrew. As a teacher in a (Zionist) non-IvritB’Ivrit school, however, I have also seen the positive and negative aspects of instruction in English. So far I haven’t been convinced by the pedagogic arguments advanced by either side.
Dr. Wolowelsky, perhaps reacting to the dilemma I and others face, moves the debate to a new realm the ideological; his thesis rests on the assumption that Religious Zionists are by definition committed to Ivrit B’Ivrit. As the discussion continues he implies that those who do not support teaching in Hebrew are either incapable of doing so, are not concerned with “teaching fundamental technical tools,” or are non- Zionists. There lies my problem. I am fluent in Hebrew and capable of teaching in it, and I spend much class time concentrating on basic skills (even when they are tedious). Hence I must conclude that Dr. Wolowelsky would not consider me a Zionist an accusation I cannot help but be offended by. It may be that when Israel was first founded, Ivrit B’Ivrit schools developed as an expression of Religious Zionism. Now, however, many graduates of these institutions have entered the education profession and wonder if studying in Hebrew was necessarily the most productive approach. For many of today’s Zionists, Ivrit B’Ivrit cannot claim to be a basic dogma; while no one need “apologize for wanting Ivrit B’Ivrit,” any claim for a religious ideology built upon the principle needs further defense than that provided by Dr. Wolowelsky.
Response to IVRIT beIVRIT: Not In My School
From Ten Da’at, Volume V, No. 1, Fall 1990
Dr. Moshe Bernstein
For a long time I have harbored in my heart the heresy of writing an article decrying the employment Ivrit beIvrit in Jewish education. I must therefore thank Dr. Joel Wolowelsky for his article in Ten Da’at (Spring 1990), which raised this significant educational issue in the appropriate forum, and offered me the opportunity to turn my mahshavah into ma’aseh. I do not presume that my remarks alone constitute the ultimate resolution to the difficulty, since there are many specific issues which neither Dr. Wolowelsky nor I have addressed, such as different types of schools, grade school vs. high school, Tanakh vs. Talmud, and the like, which might very well lead others, if not us, to modify our expressed positions.I hope that my comments, even if phrased rather strongly, will be taken as a contribution to a necessary and ongoing dialogue.1
Let me begin with my agreements with Dr. Wolowelsky. I am strongly in favor of teaching “fundamental technical tools that will be necessary for a lifetime of study.” I am put off at least as much as he by the teaching of soft hashkafah rather than solid text. I, too, believe that our students must read the classic texts of Judaism in the original. I agree that students should learn how to read Gemara, Rashi, and Tosafot before tossing around rishonim and aharonim. I too would probably ban most English “sefarim” from the classroom. And I too, speaking rather loosely, am a “religious Zionist.” But my experience over the last dozen years teaching Tanakh and biblical Hebrew to students from many backgrounds and on different levels at Yeshiva College and Stern College, coupled with my years as a college teacher of Latin and Greek before that, convinces me that Ivrit beIvrit over the last quarter century or more has actually interfered with our students‘ ability to develop those fundamental skills which both Dr. Wolowelsky and I want them to have and employ for the rest of their lives.
The fundamental language skill which students need to have available for their lifelong Torah learning is the ability to read Hebrew fluently, but not the Hebrew of the Israeli newspaper or supermarket.2We must distinguish between spoken and unspoken dialects of Hebrew for several reasons, and should further stress that it is only in the case of the modern periodhat active as opposed to passive knowledge is demanded. I want my students to be able to identify readily the morphology, vocabulary and syntax of (for example) biblical and mishnaic Hebrew, but not necessarily how to speak or write it. Teaching them how to accomplish the desired goals by speaking modern Hebrew is counterproductive. One of the most important tools, if not the most important tool in a student‘s reading a text in a language foreign to him or her is his/her native language. Hebrew must be treated, certainly early in the educational process, as a language foreign to our students, in order for them to master it sufficiently. The Zionist notion that Hebrew is not a foreign language is a nice emotional touch, but from a pedagogical standpoint simply interferes with the process of learning the language.
Imagine trying to teach Latin to an English speaker by translating the Latin not into English, but into French. It sounds absurd, and only slightly less absurd is any attempt to teach English speakers classical Hebrew texts by translating them into modern Hebrew. What results, in most cases, is what I have termed (and perhaps others have as well) the mechanical vayomerhu amar syndrome, wherein the student never masters either classical or modern Hebrew. This occurs because the roots of the source and translation languages are the same and consequently nuanced translation is nearly impossible, and also because it is much more difficult to explain syntactical constructions without the aid of the student‘s native tongue.There may be an ideal world in which the goals of teaching the biblical text and modern Hebrew together can be accomplished simultaneously, but in most cases the attempt to accomplish these two diverse purposes within one framework will not succeed.
We should begin to teach students from earliest grades both the classical and modern dialects of Hebrew. Lest that sound overly forbidding, we ought to remember that biblical Hebrew is probably best taught inductively, directly from the Hebrew text, without the superimposition of charts and paradigms at earliest stages, and only later on needs to be structured more formally.3
I am willing to leave the question of how to teach modern Hebrew to my colleagues in Departments of Hebrew Language and Literature. I know that many of them are as distressed as I am with the nature of Hebrew language education which over-emphasizes the spoken language, andwhich does not stress sufficiently the basics of grammatical forms, syntax, and the mastery of written texts. These scholars have also stressed to me the fact that a sound knowledge of biblical Hebrew serves as the best foundation for all later forms of the language, from classical rabbinic literature through the ages to the works of Agnon, Hazaz or Yehoshua. But others, of course, will continue to emphasize oral expression in modern Hebrew as their pedagogical goal.
When studying anything in limmudei kodesh other than Hebrew language, however, the Hebrew text under analysis must be translated into English (or whatever other language the students know); although the terminology of English may be imperfect for describing a Semitic language, the terminology of modern Hebrew, modeled on that of European languages, is not much better.Vocabulary and syntax can be clarified much more easily when using a frame of reference, the language natively spoken by thestudent, as an analogue. The rote translations, such as my vayomerhu amar example, can better be avoided when translating into a different language, and only if such translation is done can we be sure that vocabulary is being mastered.4
There are a number of other benefits which accrue to my suggested approach, beyond the proper learning of the language of Tanakh. We are always to be concerned with maximizing the amount of Torah which our students will study, whether chapters of Tanakh or folios of Talmud, and the employment of the student‘s native language in classroom instruction saves a great deal of time, to put it most simply, and time saved in turn generates more Torah learned. The student who thinks in English, translates into English, and asksor answers questions in English will be able to learn more rapidly and effectively than the one for whom a foreign language presents an additional barrier in the educational process.5 The level of discourse in the classroom will automatically be raised when the give and take is not hindered by the hesitation which non-native language generates.
Clarity of thought is also increased when the student reasons and argues in a language which he/she speaks fluently.Rigorous textual analysis is enhanced when nuances and shades of meaning can be expressed, and the student is far more likely to be able to do that in English where his/her range ofvocabulary and modes of expression are far less limited than they are in Hebrew. A discussion, whether about Jewish history or halakhah, will be pedagogically most effective when students and teacher are operating linguistically at full strength. To exchange the more rapid development of these skills in ourstudents for the ability to speak Hebrew gives up, to my mind, far more than it achieves.6If we must choose between theteaching of modern Hebrew language and the teaching ofclassical Hebrew texts, there is no doubt that the former must be dispensed with for the benefit of the latter. After all, a student can always take an ulpan in modernHebrew later in life, but we cannot afford the luxury of deferring the ability to learn our classical texts.7
The only possible excuse for maintaining Ivrit beIvrit in our classrooms if, as I claim, it hinders other, more important, aspects of learning, is the religious Zionist dimension. But we cannot brook a religious Zionism which interferes with our students‘learning of Torah. The equation of the celebration of Yom haAtzmaut and teaching Ivrit beIvrit is, quite frankly, demagogic and not pedagogic. It makes the vehicle of learning, thelanguage of the classroom, the ikkar, and the learning itself the tafel.Furthermore, I know many graduates of such schools as MTA and Frisch, whose talmud Torah was conducted in English, who are no less committed to religious Zionism than graduates of Flatbush and Ramaz who learned in Hebrew. Both groups, furthermore, after leaving high school, functioned equally well in the world of the Hebrew-speaking Israeli yeshivot which they attended.
It may be that my disagreement with Dr. Wolowelsky is a theoretical one, but I am afraid that it is not, that it is a pragmatic question of educational priorities.If I am right about the issue of how to teach texts in a foreign language, then rather than calling for a strengthening of Ivrit beIvrit, we should be calling for its elimination. We cannot allow our emotional attachments to medinat Yisrael and religious Zionism to deflect us from our primary goal as mehanekhim, the training of students who will be able to continue learning Torah long after they have left our classrooms.
Dr. Moshe Bernstein is an Associate Professor of Bible in Yeshiva University, New York City.



Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
From Ten Da’at, Fall 1990, (Volume V, Number 1)
The first half of Dr. Joel Wolowelsky’s excellent analysis of the Ivrit b’Ivrit crisis in today’s classrooms (Ten Da’at Spring 1990), focuses on the “Zionist agenda” of a given school’s ideology and hashkafah. While this unfortunately is the case, and schools do indeed adopt or reject the Ivrit b’Ivrit shita based on their pro- or anti- Israel attitudes, I believe that an equally strong case is to be made in favor of Ivrit b’lvrit based on the obvious advantages that are to be accrued from Torah study in the Hebrew language and via original Hebrew primary sources. Historically, the classical talmid hakham was one who was fluent and conversant with the classical sources and texts which were written and studied in Hebrew, albeit in simplified language and phraseology, e.g. Rambam’s Yad Hahazakah. It is not at all surprising that Hazal were chagrined and disappointed when the Torah was translated into Greek (…”as the day when the golden calf was made”). Studying the Torah in a foreign tongue was viewed as taking a giant step away from the traditional, historical mode in which Torah was to be transmitted. Yet, today when more Torah is being taught to many more students thanin previous generations, we tend to compromise on one of the most essential elements and ingredients necessary to achieve excellence, fluency, and ease with the Torah material being studied – the language. Our generation seems to bask in the “glory” of more and abundant English translations of Talmudic, medieval and contemporary Judaica classics being disseminated, marketed and used not merely among the uninitiated or newcomers to Torah study, but among benai yeshiva and lomdim as well, if not more so. One may visit well known batei midrash of large, prominent yeshivot and find well-intentioned, serious-minded talmidim studying Humash, the five megillot or Mishnah Berurah in English translation.
Why supply perfectly healthy students with crutches when they can walk and even run? True, as Dr. Wolowelsky points out, Ivrit b’Ivrit‘s “payoff is down the road and its immediate cost is some frustration for teacher and student,” but the element and vital experience of “amalah shel Torah” or the horeven over a piece of Ramban, Midrash or Metsudot will ultimately leave students with skills and tools that will, in the long run, allow them to study on their own. After all isn’t that one of the main goals of any good system of education? It used to be that in many yeshivot and day schools students were assigned to prepare a d’var Torah to be shared with classmates on erev Shabbat. Students would have to research, study through the parsha, mefarshim and midrashim, invest time, effort and thought and yes, struggle through an inyan until they finally understood and felt a sense of accomplishment and gratification. Today, students flee to the “easy rider” approach, seek out the compendiums or anthologies of midrashim, perushim or vertelekh – all in English, and they too deliver divrei Torah. What is the difference? Today, there is little or no investment, nor is there amalah shel Torah. It’s instantaneous! Torah, our Sages taught, is acquired by means of forty eight qualities which require time, effort, understanding, sharp discussion, and deliberation to name just a few. Torah study anticipates toil, which historically came about through the constant usage and understanding of the language of Torah. Ivrit b’Ivrit, as well as the amalah shel Torah involves one in actual text work, for which good educators know there is just no substitute. The “instant” translation approach also removes the opportunities and necessary experiences of actually handling the sefarim, leafing through the dapim back and forth, familiarizing oneself with the particular nuances, phraseology, methodology and derekh of a given mefaresh, sefer andyes, even of a masekhet all features of the art of being a true talmid(a) hakham(a).
The issue of Ivrit b’Ivrit vs. Ivrit b’-Anglit, or any other foreign language, is ultimately to be measured with gauging the type of product we want to produce. The student taught in Hebrew with usage of Hebrew sources is given the opportunity to become a complete, wholesome, well rounded, enlightened product. Any other approach leaves the student wanting. It is a sad day (as when theTorah was translated into Greek) when students of the most intensive institutions of Torah learning in America, i.e. the day schools, are forced (by their systems!) to study Rashi, Ramban, midrashim etc. and even the Humash itself in English.
Many decades ago, before the rebirth of the State of Israel, the mother yeshiva of America, Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, taught thousands of its students in a Hebrew speaking department of Torah studies. The students and the rebbeim were the better for it. Perhaps today there is confusion and blurred vision between producing a wholesome Torah student, conversant and at ease in the mekorot haTorah, and producing a student who can buy a falafel on Rehov Yaffo in Hebrew. The two are obviously not the same. One of the avenues available to all schools, whereby students maybe given a taste and an appreciation of Hebrew while at the same time broadening the horizons and dimensions of budding talmidei(dot) hakhamim(mot) is in the structure and curriculum of Hebrew language courses and classes.
The content of such courses should focus on classical medieval and contemporary writings, rich in religious, ethical, moral, philosophical, hashkafic lessons and messages. From Rambam’s Deot to the Rav’s Kol Dodi Dofek, from Kuzari’s analysis of Eretz Yisrael and Am Ha-Nivhar to Rav Zevin’s Moadim BeHalakha, students’ Jewish knowledge and exposure could be enriched and broadened, while being allowed to enter the vast, varied and endless world of Jewish-Hebrew literary creativity without English language crutches. A moment of great triumph in our school occurred when an entire class agreed that their Hebrew language and literature class wasas meaningful and relevant as their English literature class. Students always respond well to sophisticated and thought provoking material. Need we look far to find such material in our sifrut? Hebrew language curricula focused on high level,enriched and challenging material (instead of simplistic sipurim plus a weekly dosage of Yisrael Shelanu) can serve as a basis for an eventual and gradual return to Ivrit b’Ivrit. We must start somewhere.

More on Ivrit b’Ivrit 

Sara Bellehsen
From Ten Da’at, Volume V, Number 2, Spring 1991
Your recent article on Ivrit b’Ivrit (Ten Da’at, Spring 1990) and the responses it received provoked quite a discussion at the Frisch School. The teachers’ room buzzed with the disagreement “It is!” “It isn’t!” “What a hutzpah to consider modern Hebrew to be l’shon hakodesh!” “But what’s the nafka mina?” The nafka mina is a very simple and a very essential point. Is learning Ivrit a kiyum of a mitzvah or is it not?
It is interesting that we refer to Hebrew as l’shon hakodesh. Lashon, a tongue, indicates that which should be spoken and not just read. The Rambam points out that prayer was fixed by Ezra and his Bet Din when the Jews of Babylonia were no longer fluent in Hebrew and thus could no longer properly praise God. Prayer in other languages, while permitted, is not the ideal. Jews should make their requests of God in Hebrew. This would seem to necessitate the ability to frame all of one’s thoughts in that language.
Commenting on the words from parashat Ekev which we recite daily “v’limadtem et bneikhern l’daber bam,” the Sifrei states “when a child begins to speak, his father should speak with him in Hebrew and teach him Torah. Whoever does not speak with his child in l’shon hakodesh and does not teach him Torah, can be considered to have buried him.” This cannot mean that he mustmerely be taught Torah in Hebrew because two separate activities are mentioned. On parashat Haazinu the Sifrei states “All who live in Eretz Yisrael, who recite the morning and evening shema, and who speak l’shon hakodesh will be granted olam haba.” Similarly, the Tosefta on Vayeshev tells us “When a child begins to speak, his father teaches him shema and Torah and l’shon hakodesh.” L’shon hakodesh is not held as a language for scholars, nor should it be learned as a technique to enable one to master sacred texts or to express holy thoughts. On the contrary, it is a language in which even a child should be able to speak about whatever is on his mind, whether that be baseball, tzabei ninj’a, or higher level thinking.
Some say that modern lvrit cannot be considered l’shon hakodesh because it has been subjected to foreign influences. However, the concept of foreign words in l’shon hakodesh did not shock our rabbis as statements by Rabbi Akiva and others clearly indicate. Medieval commentators have made similar references. Foreign influence never disqualified Hebrew from kedusha.
Rabbi Yehudah Halevi explains in the Kuzari that the distinction of Hebrew is derived as much from the prominence of the people of Israel who speak it as from the fact that God communicates in it. (We, too, recognize that this is so by granting a semi-l’shon hakodesh status to other languages spoken by Jews such as Aramaic and Yiddish.) He observes that itis possible to express any thought in the holy tongue without finding any words lacking. Yehudah HaLevi could say this because he and his colleagues added words, expanded forms, and continued to help Hebrew develop to meet the needs of the people who used it, while recognizing that it remained l’shon hakodesh.
From all of the above, it is clear that our language, like any living language, has grown and changed organically over the years, as if continues to do. Changes in vocabulary and morphology can be noted even within biblical Hebrew; it is not static. Hazal recognized this, and noted that sometimes words changed their meanings or their forms. They never stated that the mitzvah of speaking Hebrew was limited tothe biblical form. Aware of the change in language, they formulated the halakha which states that regarding vows one follows the vernacular, not the classic meaning of the word.
I don’t think that Hazal, in requiring that children be taught to speak Hebrew, recommended a passive knowledge of the language. Therefore, I disagree with Dr. Bernstein who wrote that only in the modern period has active, rather than passive knowledge of Hebrew been demanded. However, it is interesting that the sources cited above all originated in Eretz Yisrael. Perhaps that is because the mitzvah of speaking Hebrew, (as many other mitzvot) is really best observed when our people lives in its land. Can it have been preserved passively during the long years of exile to be revived actively on our return? Is this perhaps why, to Dr. Wolowelsky, Ivrit b’Ivrit is an indication of one’s commitment to Eretz Yisrael? Is this why the Netziv wrote a wonderful little book (available in the rare book room of the Yeshiva University library) called Safah La-Ne’emanim?
We are privileged to live at such a time when the people of Israel is again able to express all its thoughts and find no words lacking, when rabbis can write their piske halakha in Hebrew without depending on foreign languages, when we can talk of science, mathematics, rockets, robots and Rehov Sumsum and create prayers, when we actually purchase kishuim and avatihim, batzal and shum and not just reminisce about them. Who can deny that this language of the supermarket, the newspaper and the Beit Midrash is still l’shon hakodesh?
Teaching Ivrit b’Ivrit is really another topic, too broad for this letter. But, because it worked for me, I’d like to express my belated thanks to all those who taught me Hebrew as a student in the Herzliah Hebrew High School and Teachers Institute. It was by the vayomer/ hu amar method that I acquired the key to unlock our people’s treasure. The wonderful teachers I had there communicated not just knowledge of the language but also their passion for Hebrew, for Israel and for the Jewish people. In my classroom, I try to repay the debt I owe to the Feinstein family and to my other teachers bycontinuing to teach Hebrew to my students and enable them to fulfill the mitzvah of learning l’shon hakodesh which is a mitzvah that is, to paraphrase Rambam , too often neglected.
Rambam, Hilkhot Tefilah ; Shabbat 12b; Rosh Hashannah26a; See, for example, Siftei Hakhamim, Bereishit 41:3 on the word dakot basar; Rashi on hesed in Vayikra 20:17; or Ramban on the word zevadani, Bereishit 30:20; Nedarim 49a, 51b; Commentary to Avot 2:1.
Joel B. Wolowelsky Responds:
Much as I respect Dr. Bernstein’s scholarship and commitment to hinukh on all levels, I nevertheless find his arguments to be unpersuasive. A good deal of what I would have to say in response to his comments is already contained in Rabbi Safran’s letter and I need not repeat those points here.
I do not know Rabbi Stadtmauer, and I certainly have no reason to question his Zionist credentials. I regret that I might have left the impression that Ivrit b’Ivrit is inexorably tied to the commitment to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut or produce students committed to religious Zionism. I tried to argue that it was this underlying misunderstanding about the importance of Ivrit b’Ivrit that led non-Zionist Yeshivot to decline to teach in Hebrew. Rabbi Stadtmauer doesn’t say why his Zionist high school does not conduct its classes in Hebrew. If I had to guess, I would suggest that it has more to do with the Hebrew background of the students entering the school than with basic educational philosophy.
There are two fundamental areas of disagreement between Dr. Bernstein and myself that lead to our difference of opinion regarding a policy of Ivrit b’Ivrit. We shall not resolve these differences here, but they are worth laying out for others to consider. The first is Dr. Bernstein’s assertion that modern Hebrew is not sacred and is rather just another foreign language like Greek or Latin. Perhaps he thinks this too is an issue of Zionism, but it certainly is not. His postulate that only biblical and perhaps messianic Hebrew is Lashon hakodesh is simply incredible. Does one fulfill Sifrei‘s admonition (Ekev 46) to speak to one’s child in Lashon hakodesh only by speaking biblical Hebrew? What of the language of Rambam, of countless authors of generations of responsa literature, of the writers of Torah books in contemporary Israel, and of the lecturers who give sheurim in batei medrash in Jerusalem? Were all these simply using a foreign secular Semitic language that derived from Lashon hakodesh in the way–lehavdil–French developed from Latin? I just don’t know where to begin to argue against this desecration of Hebrew. We may not like the fact that much of what is written in modern Hebrew is unworthy of a sacred language, but that no more points to the secular nature of Ivrit than would the activities on Dizengorff demonstrate that the land of Israel has lost its kedusha. Dr. Bernstein agrees with my assertion that “knowledge of Lashon hakodesh is part of the mastery of Torah” only to the extent that it relates to identifying the morphology, vocabulary and syntax of biblical and messianic Hebrew. I, however, had something else in mind. The technical skills required to read a good Israeli newspaper are basically the same as those required to read contemporary Israeli Torah literature. But aside from that, modern Hebrew is not simply a vehicle forlearning Torah, it is part of learning Torah.
Some years ago, I had a conversation with an eighth grader from a non-Zionist yeshivah who was debating the pros and cons of various yeshivah high schools. I commented that one did not offerforeign languages and that I saw that as a shortcoming. He replied that it offered Regents Hebrew. I indicated that I was talking not about meeting state requirements in a foreign language, but rather about studying a foreign culture and attaining (at least on an elementary level) the ability to gain access to that unfamiliar society. To my amazement he argued, repeating his rebbe’s position, that modern Hebrew was a foreign language in that sense also; it had nothing to do with Lashon hakodesh. I laughed it off at the time. But after reading what a distinguished scholar and serious educator has written here, I will take the issue more seriously in the future.
The second point of disagreement is on the understanding of what Ivrit b’Ivrit is all about. It has nothing to do with “Vayomer hu amar” and is really quite different from teaching classical Greek and Latin. It means that from the first grade on, teachers speak Hebrew in class and students are forced to respond in Hebrew, whether orally or in writing. Grammar and the like is introduced as in English: after the students feel comfortable with the language and are using it. If it’s done right, students do learn to think in Hebrew; they fit right into an Israeli sheur and in fact feel uncomfortable to some extent if their Torah sheur is given in English. We’ve seen this work for decades, but it can’t be started in tenth grade or college.
Of course, if a college Bible teacher finds that his or her students never had a solid Hebrew education, the wise thing would be to conduct the classroom discussion in English. Indeed, if I were teaching a college English class inpoetry to a group of educationally disadvantaged youth, I might well overlook the sentence fragments and grammatical errors in their responses in order to concentrate on how to appreciate what is for them a new form of literature. But it would never occur to me to commend their elementary and high school teachers for their good judgment in not focusing on these issues when they should have.
Dr. Bernstein argues that if we must choose between the teaching of modern Hebrew and the teaching of classical texts, the former must be dispensed with for the sake of the latter. But the current progression from Mikraot Gedolot in English, to the Mishnah Berura in translation, to the new Talmud-in-Englishseries shows that when we ignore the former we forfeit the latter. The problem is not that Dr. Bernstein’s position is heresy. It is rather, if you pardon the expression, that so many educators take it for gospel.


Ivrit b’Ivrit — Afterward
by Dr. Joel Wolowelsky
October 1999
After almost a decade, I am more convinced than ever about the validity of my original arguments (although there is onepoint that I shall correct at the end). Flatbush alumni studying in Israel constantly write to say thanks for giving them the tools to integrate into Israeli sheurim, and just recently a group of alumni at an American program in Israel convinced the director to add a sheur in Hebrew–studying Talmud in English just wasn’t satisfying to them. Older alumni regularly lament the fact that they cannot convince their children’s principals to give their own children the gift of language that they themselves had received. When they are told that it just can’t be done, they know from their own experiences that indeed it can.
That is not to say that it has been easy to keep ablaze the torch of Hebrew literacy. We have had to arrange year-long ulpanim so that younger teachers could translate their extensive passive Hebrew vocabulary into a fluent spoken Hebrew. We have had to schedule remedial Hebrew classes for those students whose elementary schools claimed that Torah couldn’t be taught in Hebrew. Once they catch up, they too are full participants in their sheurim –proof-positive that their elementary schools were wrong in their excuses for providing a substandard education.
Not every yeshiva has the resources or fortitude to carry through to the same extent we do. But, for example, there certainly is no excuse for a yeshiva to allow test questions –put aside for a moment the issue of the answers– to be in English. Cana student who cannot read a question about the text really understand the text itself? Or are the teachers counting on ArtScroll to eventually translate every Rishon and Acharon into English? It might require temporarily hiring a faculty member who is fluent in Hebrew to check each test for spelling and grammar mistakes. But the whole history of our Hebrew language rabbinic literature should not be thrown out because it is inconvenient to protect it.
The real educational issue, of course, extends well beyond the issue of Hebrew in the classroom. A local haredi yeshivah, forced to give in to the demands of those mothers who, alas, insist on their children getting a Regents high school diploma, offers a diploma track. Senior students have to be prepared to answer the Regents questions in English literature, so the teacher gives them the Cliff notes so that they don’t have to waste time with the literature text itself. What’s the problem, one student told me. We know the plot and can discuss it intelligently–and we get good marks on the Regents exam. Indeed, what’s the problem?
Those of us who see a value in reading good literature know the difference between the hard work of learning to read a difficult literature text and the easy way out of knowing enough to have an “intelligent discussion.” It’s no different in the Talmud classroom. When our aim is for the student to simply enjoy the class and not to have to bother learning the difficult skills required for more advanced study, we get students who can explain the chiluk of Rav Hayyim that their rebbe told them but can’t read the Tosafot themselves. (ArtScroll has translated the text of the Talmud but not that of every Tosafot.) Indeed, the most difficult Talmudic sugya can now be covered in a one-hour daf yomi sheur and people who can’t understand a page of Talmud by themselves “finish Shas” every few years. Training students to haveto study in American-only yeshivot because they cannot communicate with the benai Torah of Israel just isn’t good educational policy.
The point that I have to amend is: I now do know Rabbi Stadtmauer. He has been teaching Jewish Studies (in Hebrew, of course) at Flatbush, where he also took the lead in computerizing the school. He most recently was named assistant principal, and his duties include sometimes reminding teachers that when they allow themselves or their students to speak English in their class, they are robbing the students of a sound education.
1I should like to acknowledge a number of colleagues andstudents at Yeshiva University who improved these remarks bytheirconstructive criticism of earlier drafts: Rabbi ShalomCarmy, Dr. Yaakov Elman, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, Mr. Hillel Novetsky, Dr. Shmuel Schneider, and Mr. Howard  Sragow. Needless to say, they are not responsible etc.
2Dr. Wolowelsky obfuscates the issues when he writes, “Weneed not justify our claim that knowledge of lashon is part ofthe mastery of Torah” (p. 40, final paragraph). The languageof the Israeli street is not sacred, the language of Tanakh is. I should note that although my discussion tends to focus on the Hebrew of Tanakh vs. modem, spoken Hebrew because myarea of instruction is Tanakh, the same arguments apply to any other Hebrew literacy text, including contemporary literary Hebrew. My quarrel is with oral Hebrew expression in theeducational process, not with modern Hebrew in otherforms.
3Not a great deal of time needs to be invested in this effort. Little by little, in the course of the study of Humash, theteacher can identify forms and functions of the Hebrew verb, at first only the shelemim, of course, until the student will eventually be able to recognize all the forms which are in common occurrence in Tanakh and begin to see the system which underlies them.The concomitant formal study of modern Hebrew as a language will supply the framework at a later date.My suggestions presume and demand a teaching staff which knows biblical and other requisite forms of Hebrew properly, just as Dr. Wolowelsky‘s demand a properly Hebrew-speaking faculty.I am bemused by the question of which one is easier to find.
4 One may correctly claim that “vayomer-and he said” may also lead to rote learning, but the nature of this problem is greater in Ivrit beIvrit because of the frequent employment of the identical root in translation as appears in the text.
5 My argument should not be subject to the reductio ad absurdum of suggesting that we should abandon the study of texts written in Hebrew completely and operate only in English. We are a People of the Book and of books, and only by maintaining the most intimate connections with those texts can we sustain that critical aspect of our identity.
6It has been claimed that after eight or ten years of Ivrit beIvrit students should be equally at home in both English and Hebrew, but in reality this is not the case.I am told by teachers of Ivrit that there is a significant gap between the quality of 10th grade England and 10th grade Hebrew even at “good” Ivrit beIvrit institutions.It is for this reason that I should be reluctant to introduce Ivrit beIvrit even in the upper grades after the student has been studying modern Hebrew, literary and oral, as a language for several years, but my disagreement with anyone who would adopt that practice would be relatively minor.
7It is true that language is usually picked up much more easily in a student‘s formative years than later in life, but it is for that reason that I emphasize the need to study modern Hebrew from earliest grades.It is only if that learning is completely ineffective that “re-learning” of modern Hebrew will be necessary.