Saturday, January 31, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Lashon Hakodesh

I recently received the book Lashon Hakodesh: History, Holiness & Hebrew by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein. I honestly wasn't sure what to think of the book at first. The author and I come from very different worlds - or at least very different world views (we actually both come from California and now live in Israel). Klein has a strong yeshiva background, whereas while I learned in a yeshiva (and in fact learned much more there about Hebrew than I did in university), my approach is much more "academic" (a term he uses frequently throughout the book). But Klein does show respect and openness to the academic approach, even when he doesn't agree with it (and that's a path I try to follow as well).  Another difference between us is that he prefers to reconcile different approaches, whereas I like to accentuate them. But there’s certainly a tradition in that going back to the Talmud (see for example Steinsaltz's Reference Guide to the Talmud, where he writes (page 6) that "in seeking to understand the words of the Mishnah or of the Amoraim one should always seek elements that reconcile the parties to the dispute and not those that divide them. Many of the most searching and significant questions and discussions in the Talmud derive from the desire to resolve differences.)  Klein also did a tremendous amount of research, with extensive footnotes to allow the reader to continue investigating on their own. So in general, I found the book a pleasant and interesting read.

The first four chapters deal with the Jewish (Rabbinic) view of the history of the Hebrew language (Klein consistently refers to the language described in the book as Lashon Hakodesh, partially as a polemic device to distinguish it from Modern Hebrew / Ivrit. While I understand his choice, I still prefer to use "Hebrew".)  He discusses the language spoken by Adam after Creation, how the languages were split up at Migdal Bavel, what language Avraham spoke both before and after his migration to Canaan, and what the Jews spoke in Egypt. I found those chapters interesting on a personal level (particularly for my ongoing Avraham project), even though they’re not as relevant to what I write about on this site.

Chapter five deals with the change of speech from Biblical Hebrew to Mishnaic Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Page 115 deals with borrowing words from other languages, which is much more relevant to Balashon. The second half of the chapter deals with Jewish languages in exile – lots of interesting material that I didn't know previously.

I suppose the most controversial chapter is chapter six - The Language Wars. Here Klein's own views come out more – and while I disagree with them personally, I still think it was helpful to read a detailed summary of what “the other side” thinks.  He does bring some rabbinic sources that support speaking modern Hebrew, but not many (and clearly there are many Religious Zionist ones that did.)

On page 136 of that chapter, he claims that the meanings of some older words were changed in Modern Hebrew with the intent to make them more secular and remove the historic religious sense. This is strange to me, for I have not heard that claim before. I'll need to investigate the examples word for word, and I will try to address them on future posts here. A few I've already discussed – tarbut, bilui, achuz, and reviewing what I wrote there, I don't find evidence of the "ideological secularization of Hebrew terms" that Klein describes.

He continues in chapter six, and quotes the Satmar Rebbe (page 142) as saying that Ben Yehuda died on Shabbat night with a pen in his hand. Klein says that whether or not it’s literally true is irrelevant, Ben Yehuda died an unrepentant sinner. But if he’s already talking about legends, there are other stories as well that emphasize that in response to Rav Kook's prodding, Ben Yehuda repented before his death. I don't find either set of stories particularly moving or significant (and in fact, I believe that Ben Yehuda's legacy should be viewed as secure from a religious standpoint as well, considering how much easier he made it for all Jews in Israel to study traditional texts), but I think more balance would have been appropriate here.

Chapter seven – like chapter five – also deals with foreign influences on Hebrew. I've written about two of the terms he mentions: gematria and afikoman (the ones I haven't written about might serve as future posts here).The actual etymologies are less relevant – even folk etymologies are interesting, for they show how people viewed languages. (We see the same biases with non-rabbinic scholars such as Jastrow, Kohut, etc). He brings examples of rabbis who claim that there are not really foreign words in the Bible, or all words derive from Hebrew, Again, you don't need to accept the approach to find something interesting in seeing how the issue was viewed over time.

The book ends with sections dealing with the religious status of Aramaic and the rabbinic views of the Ktav Ashuri and Ktav Ivri scripts (I personally enjoyed his quote on page 192 of the Rambam's commentary on Mishna Yadayim 4:5, who says that it was called Ashuri (fortunate) because each letter is distinct from each other, unlike the cursive languages where each letter runs into each other, causing confusion. Klein doesn't mention it, but I assume the Rambam was referring to Arabic, and I definitely find myself confused with aspect of the Arabic script).

Judging a book by its cover, I can say that I found the cover design very attractive, and the book's overall layout and typesetting rather pleasing. While the book include a detailed biographical index, I would have appreciated a more traditional index of topics with page numbers.

A book of this nature, in English, is long overdue for the traditional Orthodox reader. I hope it inspires more interest in the history of the Hebrew language.

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