Teaching Hebrew: A Suggestion for Hebrew Educators

by: David Zisenwine

From Religious Education 92,1 (1997), pp. 55-60.
Teacher-training programs for Jewish educators in the United States have de-emphasized the Hebrew language as an essential element in their curricula. Research in the field of sociolinguistics points to the relationship of language, culture, and identity. It is the purpose of this paper to point out the intimate relationship between Hebrew language and Jewish culture and identity. The de-emphasis of Hebrew-language learning leads teachers to present a culture and religion which does not properly reflect the texts’ culture, and practice that form the base of Jewish tradition. The need to transmit an authentic tradition effectively requires an awareness and understanding of the centrality of Hebrew in the training of Jewish teachers.
Life and death [is] at the service of language
(Proverbs 18:21)
The knowledge base of teachers has been a subject of inquiry and investigation in the general field of education. The issues raised by Shulman (1986, 1987) and others have become part of the literature of teacher education. This topic has not been widely analyzed or discussed in the field of Jewish education and has attracted the attention and energy of only a limited number of Jewish educators. A recent empirical study on the “Background and Professional Training of Teachers in Jewish Schools” (Gamoran and Goldring 1994) has verified what many of us have long suspected: Teachers in Jewish schools are woefully unprepared for their task. The purpose of the study was to describe and quantify the professional training of teachers in Jewish schools in the United States, but it did not investigate the actual content of the training.
In an essay entitled “Knowledge, Pedagogy and Professionalism: Shulman’s Epistemics of Teaching,” H.A. Alexander has stated a point of view which offers an acceptable profile of what the Jewish teacher should do:
. . . [T]eaching begins with a text, a body of cultural beliefs and practices communicated coherently through some medium. The interpretation of such a text to meet the needs of a particular group of students requires not a blind acceptance of what is said but a willingness to ask what is wrong with the text: to adapt it and change it: to mold it to meet current demands. . . . The teacher’s responsibility in this view is not only transmission, but also empowerment . . .. In a sense, the teacher’s job is to work him or herself out of a job. (Alexander 1983)
It is clear that the presentation of a text, as described by Alexander, requires the teacher and student to be able to “read” the text as the starting point in their mutual adventure of learning. In this paper, I would like to address the form and content of “reading” Jewish texts. It seems that what appears to be a technical skill, that is, knowing the Hebrew language, is in fact a critical element in the training of Jewish teachers for Jewish schools.
Language as understood by sociolinguists is not simply a formal tool used to communicate ideas or practices; it is part of the very content of the cultural beliefs and practices which are to be communicated. Gardner (1985) and others have shown that language is one of the central vehicles in the transmission of culture and identity. Language reflects the culture in which it grew and developed, and is, in fact, the central means by which we communicate ideas and nuance. The texture of a language, the syntax and grammatical form, as well as the varied vocabulary and phrasing combine to present a particular worldview. To attach oneself to a language is to attach oneself to a “way of looking at things” that is both unique to and different from that of other cultures.
The use of a specific language is a means of declaring ones identity (Gioura, et al. 1972). The choice of language is a statement about how we see ourselves and how we choose to present ourselves and our ideas to the world. Additionally, language is tied to status and position (Schumann 1978). People often choose the language they select to be learned according to the status of that language in the world community. This is certainly discernable in the widespread study of English around the world. Americans often judge world leaders by the quality of their spoken English and their accent. It is clear that the present status of English has resulted in an unstated but clear view that American English is preferred for work, play, study, and identity. Many an immigrant has understood the advantage of sounding “native,” and grasping that identity is indeed bound by the language one speaks, reads, and writes. When there exists a plurality of competing identities, the choice of language will indicate the importance one attributes to the selected identity. The use of language and identity selection brings us to the centrality of the Hebrew language in the training of Jewish teachers.
The Jewish classical tradition, as well as the evolving modern tradition of Hebrew learning and literature, are a continuation of Jewish identity and its link to the past. Knowing the Hebrew language is a sign of identifying with that religious and literary tradition, which continues to form Jewish identity. The recognition of this reality should be the primary motivator for the study of Hebrew. Various formulations of the language-identity theory assert that attachment to a specific language is in fact an attachment to the identity associated with the language. The French governments efforts at reducing the amount of “foreign language intrusion” is certainly the most current recognition of the relationship of language to culture on the world stage today.
The gradual de-emphasis of Hebrew from a wide range of Jewish curricula is not simply part of the recognition of the difficulties inherent in language learning. I would argue that the phasing out of Hebrew-language learning is a serious rupture of identity and continuity. Following the sociolingistic perspective stated above, the abandonment of Hebrew represents a dramatic change in how American Jews want to define themselves in the world of American hegemony. By shifting Jewish teaching to the English language, educators and policymakers have chosen to define Jewish identity as part of the English linguistic tradition and, therefore, transferred the essence as well as the nuances of Jewish culture to one defined by American English.
The Bible in translation even when translated by the best of scholars, is not the Hebrew Tanach. Translations are always selections laden with commentary. The American versions are remote from the text born and cultivated in a vastly different culture. The Orthodox Art Scroll, and the Jewish Publication Society scientific critical edition, say as much about the culture for which they were translated as they do about the meaning of the text itself. The same may be said for all translations of classical and modern Hebrew texts. While it may be argued that translations fulfill a necessary function, they represent a shift in Jewish self definition. These English language texts move Jewish learning and piety into the cultural and linguistic context of the American rather than the Jewish tradition. The Jewish educational community has adopted the various models of cultural and linguistic acculturation in the name of making the tradition available. By using English as the almost exclusive language of teaching, it has identified itself with the majority culture (Schumann 1983). In leaving Hebrew to the province of prayer and ritual, areas that are not in the mainstream of American culture but rather that underline and stress difference, Jewish educators are inviting failure. The message is that prayer, synagogue life, and ritual are different and remote from the majority culture. Using Hebrew is an announcement of difference in a world that we want to be marked by sameness. The different worldview, value system, ethical system, and aesthetics that are embedded in the Hebrew language will be lost to our children.
It is interesting to note that the most conservative groups in the Orthodox community have made the study of religious texts in Hebrew with discussion in Yiddish a central method in their schools. They have understood, albeit in a most extreme way, the intimate relationship between language, culture, and Jewish identity. The teachers in these communities are expected to have full mastery of Hebrew as the language of the text, culture, and religion, as well as the ability to explain and amplify in Yiddish rather than in English. They understand that language implies culture and asserts identity. Their reluctance to use English as the language of Jewish instruction is a rejection of the English language and its culture. The choice is purposeful, insightful, and worthy of reflection.
Let me move from the de-emphasis in the training of teachers for formal Jewish education programs in schools to the de-emphasis of Hebrew in informal education training programs such as camps and youth groups. In the post-Holocaust Jewish community we were witness to the rise of Jewish camps in general, and in particular Hebrew-speaking or Hebrew-language oriented summer camps. The Massad camp, Camp Yavne, and the Ramah camps became the breeding ground for future leaders in the American Jewish community. Hebrew language and the evolving Hebrew culture of the new state of Israel were at the center of the camp curriculum. Israel’s emergence had represented the hope for a renaissance of Jewish life and culture in the shadow of the Holocaust. The centrality of the language as the bearer of the new Hebrew-Jewish worldview was intuitively understood by Jewish educators in the United States. The Israeli was the “New Jew”; he or she was the embodiment of the hopes of religious and secular Jews, and an essential part of this new and highly valued state and its citizenry was the Hebrew language, its songs, dance, and art forms. The modern commentaries on the Torah as well as archaeological information became well known and used in the American Jewish community.
The new scholarship continued to be important in the informal learning communities with the evolving Hebrew culture at the center of the curriculum. In the language of sociolinguistic theory, Hebrew became the target language of the informal structures as well as the formal settings. A multicultural model of Jewish education was beginning to emerge. The self-image of the Jewish child who learned about and identified with these “new Jews” was extremely positive and led to a group of serious young educators (Erikson 1950). They had found a way to link the past and present glory of the Jewish people in the concrete learning of the Hebrew language.
The late 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s saw the continuation of this positive phenomenon. However, as Israel began to deal with the aftermath of the Six Day War and the realities of occupation of the West Bank, this image began to tarnish. The 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s have seen a dilution of the camps’ Hebrew curricula and a complete closing of the Massad camps. The Ramah camps and Camp Yavne continue to claim the centrality of Hebrew, but in reality they are American-Jewish camps with some Hebrew instruction. The Hebrew language requirement for participation as staff or camper has become a historical footnote. While a variety of explanations have been offered about the changing American youth culture and the shifting economics of summer camping and its clientele, I would like to suggest that this is part of the shift in identity as expressed by language. The changing climate and reality of Israel as part of the community of nations has not always lived up to the dream, or fantasy, of the American Jewish community. The post- 1967 realities as well as the image of the “new Israeli-Jew” have been found disappointing by Jewish educators and their clients. Hence, the ethnolinguistic vitality of Hebrew is at present low, and the motivation to learn a language offering negative status as well as inferior culture and values is no longer worthy of the effort. A positive Hebrew culture was found wanting and has resulted in a collective rearrangement of priorities for the Jewish teacher-training agenda.
A major theoretician of language learning has claimed that only two types of factors, social and affective, are the major causal ones in language acquisition, and that these two are subsumed by the larger construct of acculturation (Lambert 1974). Language acquisition is directly linked to the use of “cultural beliefs and practices.”
It is clear, therefore, that the negation of Hebrew as essential to the Jewish religious-school teacher or informal educator effectively prevents any real assimilation of Jewish life as it is presented in old and new texts (Zisenwine & Kraemer 1989). The move away from Hebrew as a prerequisite for Jewish teaching is the redefinition of Judaism as some form of the American tradition. The ability to deal with and understand the texts of Jewish life, as proposed by Alexander, “a willingness to ask what is wrong with the text: to adapt it and change it,” cannot be done. The dialectic will be untrue and inauthentic to the authors of the texts, and our children will sense the difficulty. The “knowledge base” of the Jewish teacher cannot be analyzed in its translated and changed form.
The classical texts of Jewish tradition, from biblical literature to rabbinic responsa, are written in Hebrew, The Hebrew phrases and expressions are central to understanding the text. Our understanding of the relationship between language and culture dictates that the study and mastery of the Hebrew language is essential to the training program of the Jewish teacher who transmits the authentic voice of Jewish tradition to American Jewish children.
Whatever debate takes place on the role of Hebrew in the curriculum of teachers should be informed by the literature of sociolinguistics. The role of Hebrew is a complex issue that should be on the Jewish-education agenda. We would do well to read Proverbs 18:2 carefully.
David Zisenwine teaches in the School of Education and serves as Chair of the Unit for Jewish Education at Tel Aviv University in Israel.
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