Monday, August 11, 2008



I love the Hebrew language. I love the root system, the puns, the grammatical forms, the history of the letters ... not to mention the extraordinary depths of Hebrew texts. I've loved Hebrew for a long time, and I started exploring it beyond the Hebrew School curriculum in high school. I can't imagine studying Torah in anything but Hebrew, and I'm very excited to be in Israel to improve my grasp of the language.

So that's how I feel. For me, Hebrew is an indispensable part of my ability to learn and understand the vast majority of the traditional teachings of Judaism. But a question that came up today in a side conversation (though this was by no means the first time it's been raised) is how important is Hebrew to a modern American Reform rabbi? Specifically, the question was framed in the following way:

The first two principles of the Year in Israel Program are:

1. Knowledge of modern Hebrew, at a level of competence, is necessary if professional leaders of the North American Jewish Community are to establish and maintain significant ties between the institutions and communities they lead and the land and people of Israel. Just as we expect leaders of the State of Israel to be able to dialogue with North American Jewry in English, we should expect the professional leaders of the North American communities to be able to dialogue with Israelis in Hebrew.

2. Competence in the Hebrew language of the classical texts of Judaism is the prerequisite to serious study of those texts and the ability to make those texts accessible to the communities that the students will eventually serve.

If that's so, then why do we have Hebrew only four days a week instead of the usual five? The most obvious answer is that this year, HUC has started a new initiative to familiarize students with biblical history in the place where much of that history was rooted. The biblical history course, then, requires that time be taken out of Hebrew studies.

Okay then, the questioner continues, then why accept students whose Hebrew is not proficient enough? This person I was talking to notices that the Hebrew of many of our classmates is not excellent and it's unlikely that even the strongest of us will be fluent before we head back home. Perhaps it would be better to defer those students who don't have very strong Hebrew until they can improve their fluency.

There are two good arguments against this policy. The first is that it's difficult for some students to learn Hebrew well during the course of their everyday (even University) lives, and there are certainly individuals who would make great rabbis who haven't had the opportunity to study Hebrew in depth. Additionally, changing the Hebrew requirement might not only discourage students from applying, but it would certainly decrease the number of students in our class (and, theoretically, future classes as well). Would the numbers game actually work out this way?

Of course, there's something to be said for sticking to principle. If the URJ actively believes that fluency in Hebrew is required of American Reform rabbis, then by all means, they should require it. But I believe that even that statement requires scrutiny.

Yes, of course, I think it's important to know Hebrew. I think it's necessary for rabbis to be comfortable looking at Torah texts in Hebrew and to have a familiarity with the Hebrew writings of our ancestors. And of course, I think it's necessary that rabbis know what the prayers mean. But what of Talmud? Of modern Hebrew/Israeli literature? I don't think that knowledge of those two areas are essential to being a Reform rabbi in America. Yes, of course they're wonderful and should be cultivated, but they're not necessary. When does Rabbi Cohen in Roanoke use Hebrew? Only at Shabbat services and Torah study as far as I know.

Now, Jessica had a good point to add on this topic. She says that any rabbi should know enough about "Judaism" to be able to give an answer or at least a resource to any person who has a Judaic question. Even if they don't know Yiddish, they should know enough about Yiddish to give an appropriate recommendation. I think that since so much of Jewish intellectual activity has been recorded in Hebrew, a fair facility with the language would be required for this level of comfort in making educated recommendations - but the rabbi wouldn't have to make the recommendation in Hebrew. :-)

So, while I'm going to try to learn as much Hebrew as I possibly can and while I hope that my class mates will thrive and explore Hebrew with enthusiasm, I think I'll also understand when one of them says that Hebrew just isn't that important to them or is very difficult or they don't get as far as they'd like. Living for a year in Israel, with Hebrew class almost every day (including a double-portion on biblical grammar days) will, I believe, give sufficient background to me and my fellow classmates. And we have four years (and a lifetime of study) to make up for any deficiency in education that we discover.


agm said...

I think -- as a general principle; obv I have no say in Judaic matters -- that it's important to cultivate an equal-opportunity environment. You have had a number of advantages when it comes to entering with good Hebrew skills: You have a natural talent for languages; You were able to attend a university with excellent language departments (even though it was a good financial deal for us, think about what out-of-state students pay); You were able to spend a summer at ulpan in NYC instead of, for example, working. On the other hand, you describe many good reasons to require some proficiency.

Even if someone might be able to enter rabbinical school with a basic Hebrew-school background and become an excellent rabbi *in some contexts*, maybe there are some rabbinical functions for which it is just too late? For example, it is unfortunately too late for me to become an olympic gymnast. Or, on a more realistic note, it is reasonable for a grad school admissions committee to take into account an applicant's limited opportunity to do research at his or her undergrad institution, but no dept can go as far as accepting someone who wasn't able to attend college even if affirmative-action type factors were part of the reason for this.

What I'm trying to get at: You once described to me how there are different kinds of rabbis -- the congregational rabbi most people think of first, rabbis who write books, rabbis who work for national organizations, etc etc. And it seems like Hebrew proficiency would be of varying importance for these different functions. Do you think it would be reasonable to give entering students some career guidance based on their initial grasp of Hebrew? Do you know anyone whose aspirations are questionable in light of his or her proficiency?

Sam & Debbie said...


You raised some interesting points. I once asked Alanna why it took so long to become a Rabbi. One could argue that she (and you) probably already know more than 95% of your potential future congregations and are almost able to lead right now. Maybe with one year of classes and a one year internship you would be ready. Similarly, why do Math teachers need a bachelor's degree in Math to teach High School level math. They will be learning Math at a much higher level than what they will ever need to teach.

I think there are several answers. The first, is the one that you & Jessica have raised. That in order to have a deep understanding of Judiasm and the texts you need to have a strong ability to understand Hebrew.

The second you also raised... The ability to communicate with Israeli religious, cultural and political leaders.

But the one that you didn't mention is this. Most congregants want their Rabbi's to be "the Jew" that they aren't. We want them to be more knowledgeable, more observant, more generous, etc. Daniel, if you want to or not, you will become the Jew that the rest of us will aspire to become. And, that includes a knowledge of Hebrew.

So, to teach High School Math, one doesn't need a course in Complex Variables. But, the brightest students won't be comfortable unless their teacher knows more than them.

Similarly, Congregations want to know that their Rabbi is a Biblical Scholar.

So, best of luck to you and your classmates, in becoming the unattainable - the Jew that we all aspire to become, spiritual, scholarly, understanding, politically astute, organizationally savvy, funny, great public speakers, strong family people, etc. The future of the movement depends on it.

- Sam

Daniel said...

To Amanda:

I think you and I are on the same wavelength. Some rabbis have extensive opportunities to improve their Hebrew. Others are good singers, youth group programmers, educators, etc. (with plenty of overlap, of course).

I think, therefore, that some Hebrew requirement is understandable (HUC requires the equivalent of 2 years of college-level Hebrew instruction and an entrance exam), but I wouldn't expect the standards to be higher than they are now. This allows for rabbis with various career directions to focus on the area where they want to and need to grow. (And, of course, not everyone at HUC is studying to be a rabbi.)

Thanks for your comment - and see Jessica's dad's comment below yours to see the basis for your future Gov School teaching position!

Daniel said...

To Sam:

You raise a valid point that I certainly hadn't considered. (Call it a mental block!) I think another dimension of the same "Jew everyone wants to be" model is that rabbis (in my opinion) should love to learn. For me, I very much look forward to five years of study here at HUC, and even if I won't be *using* everything that I learn, I know that it will enrich me to learn them. And as I mentioned, these lessons will often require familiarity and facility with Hebrew. Thanks for sharing your perspective!