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The Modern Doctrine of the Hebrew Bible’s Hebrew-ness

By Alan T. Levenson
Schusterman/Josey Professor of Jewish Intellectual History
Judaic Studies, University of Oklahoma
November 2011

The Hebrew Bible, excepting a few passages in Ezra and Daniel, is written in Hebrew, but the authors attached no religious significance to this fact. Professor David Aaron (Hebrew Union College) has shown that a slew of beliefs (e.g., God spoke Hebrew to Adam and Eve; Angels re-educated Abraham in the primordial language after it splintered at the Tower of Babel; Hebrew alone was Holy Tongue used at Creation) developed only in the Second Temple period, driven in large measure by a dual commitment to preserve Hebrew in the face of the triumphant vernaculars (Greek and Aramaic) actually employed by Jews.1 Despite explicit permission in the Mishnah to pray and read Scripture in other languages,2 Jews remained diglossic, using vernacular languages but also developing Hebrew prayer books for synagogue and a Hebrew Haggadah for home use at Passover.

Within Jewish culture, Hebrew generally got assigned the top bunk of the diglossic double-bed. The Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) in the eighteenth century and the national revival in the nineteenth century provided accelerants for the modern glamorization of Hebrew. As Benedict Anderson noted in Imagined Communities, when one language wins the status battle, others must lose. “Thus English elbowed Gaelic out of most of Ireland, French pushed Breton to the wall, and Castilian reduced Catalan to marginality.”3 In modern Israel, where Hebrew succeeded in becoming a vernacular after a hiatus of approximately 2, 500 years, diglossic elements remained. Bits of Yiddish, Arabic and Russian remained embedded in spoken Hebrew; in the last few decades, English has added a slew of new terms. Yet Hebrew retains a special status. Even today, nightly newscasts are broadcast not in everyday lingo, but in ivrit shel Shabbat, Sabbath Hebrew. The Hebrew Language Academy continues to serve as a watchdog for improper usage, and an enterprising publisher ignited controversy a couple years ago by issuing a Hebrew-lite version of Tanach, as the Hebrew Bible is usually called.4 The furor reminded some of the battle in 1911 over whether or not one should teach Tanach in academic high schools in accordance with the findings of Source Criticism. Proponents and opponents appealed to the teacher of the Zionist movement, Ahad Haam (1865-1927). An agnostic, Ahad Haam upheld reading the Hebrew Bible in its Jewish canonical order, reading the text itself instead of chrestomathies, and opposed spending class time on lower critical emendations of the masoretic text.5 Thus Ahad Haam laid out an approach to the Hebrew Bible that was, indisputably, both modern and Jewish.

Source Criticism inadvertently fuelled the modern doctrine of biblical Hebrew-ness. The first generations of Jews who engaged the Source Critics complained endlessly about the deficiencies of Christian (read: German Protestant) scholars and confided in the superior Hebrew Fingerspitzengefühl of scholars versed in rabbinics and the liturgy of the synagogue (which deploys biblical Hebrew in every way imaginable including – direct citation, allusion, proof- texting, truncation and emendation). Solomon Schechter’s words are entirely typical of his generation:

My subject is the Hebrew language and the means of acquiring it are the same as make for proficiency in any other language—sound knowledge of its grammar, wide acquaintance with its vocabulary, and above all, real familiarity with its literature; for it is in the literature that the spirit still surviveth, even in the so-called dead languages…

The dread of partiality for the Masoretic text is so great in certain circles that the notion seems to gain ground that the best qualification for writing on the Old Testament is ignorance of Hebrew. Thus we are brought face to face with the multitude of books, essays and articles of Biblical subjects by authors who freely confess, if not boast of, the fact that they know the Old Testament only through medium of versions, but still insist on their ability to judge upon the gravest questions of dates and authorship.6

Schechter’s words intend to intimidate. What he means by ‘real familiarity with its literature,’ clearly encompasses ability to read Talmud, and his ‘so-called dead language’ comment may refer to the revival of Hebrew, but at the very least, points to the use of Hebrew in Jewish worship. An Oxford Don from an earlier century asking a student, “Do you have Latin?” strikes me as the closest analogy. Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi Hertz, an alumnus of the first graduating class of Schechter’s Jewish Theological Seminary (NYC) agreed, “[g]eneral Bible versions whether new or old, are as a rule marred by ignorance of the Hebrew language and the Jewish tradition…” Isaac Leeser’s introduction to the first distinguished Bible translation of an American Jew sounded a similar note to Schechter’s, “But even if no coloring had been given to the English words not warranted by the Hebrew, it would be a species of mental slavery to rely for ever upon the arbitrary decree of a deceased King of England who was surely no prophet, for the correct understanding of the Scriptures, upon which our life in this world and the next depends.7 To take one final example, and they are innumerable, Nehama Leibowitz (1903-1997) dismissed a fellow-Israeli, fellow-Orthodox Bible commentator’s adoption of source critical methods with a contemptuous verdict, “… these people simply don’t know Hebrew.”8

No matter the denominational orientation or country of origin, Jewish Bible scholars have been united in their preference for the Masoretic text, and tended toward reticence in emending it. Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) dismissed Higher Criticism as an ephemeral phenomenon: his confidence in the Masoretic (Hebrew) text was unbounded.9 A century later, Jewish scholars such as David Zvi Hoffman, Umberto Cassuto and Benno Jacob argued the superiority of the Masoretic text on technical grounds (e.g., genealogies and number structures available only in Hebrew) and exegetical ones (e.g., Jacob argued the Septuagint and Samaritan Pentateuch “corrected” things in the original Hebrew from apologetic motives). Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig considered “R” as Rabbenu, the ultimate Teacher-Guide, in contrast to Source Critics, for whom “R” was the ham-handed “Redactor.” The nuanced scholarship on the Buber-Rozenzweig translation obscures a simple observation — in presuming that the modern person could hear the Voice behind the text they took that Masoretic text for granted. While Rosenzweig knew Greek and Latin better than Hebrew, he barely consulted the Septuagint or the Vulgate.

In a review of the New English Bible (NEB), the Bible-scholar and theologian, Moshe Greenberg accurately noted the emendatory spirit in the NEB’s treatment of the “Old Testament” editors versus the respectful and tentative approach toward emending the “New Testament.”10 Specifically, Greenberg preferred the NEB’s rendering of Luke to its rendering of Deuteronomy. He argued that the cautious approach should always prevail in biblical renderings; be he/she Christian or Jewish, the translator of the Bible is never free to ignore the community of Bible readers – overwhelmingly inclined to grant a measure of sanctity to the text. Secular critics of the Bible would hardly concede Greenberg’s procedural claim, but I would say that in Jewish Bible translations Greenberg has been granted his wish. Even the New JPS Tanakh — The Holy Scriptures According to the Traditional Hebrew Text (my emphasis), relied principally on the Masoretic Text, despite the chief editor’s signal role in refuting the idea that a singular Masoretic Text ever existed!11

Assessing the Hebrew-ness of the Bible, it seems to me that we are looking at a doctrine, if not a dogma. To conclude on a personal note: I worked for eighteen years at a Jewish college where faculty meetings lurched into Hebrew, punctuated with friendly rebukes. These corrections might have been expected from my Israeli colleagues, but our Ancient Near East specialist would point out Ugaritic or Akkadian cognates, and our colleague best-versed in Talmud usually supplied a rabbinic phrase (Hebrew or Aramaic) to drive his point home. Our Dean, who wrote her thesis on the Zionist Yosef Hayyim Brenner, took umbrage at our ignorance of the modern classics. How could someone know Hebrew without knowing the poetry of Chaim Nachman Bialik or the Nobel Prize winning novelist Shmuel Yosef Agnon? Since everyone on that faculty could read the Bible, follow a Hebrew-only service, and understand an Israeli university lecture, I have concluded that the modern concept of “Hebrew mastery”’ invites an unduly elitist standard. The Hebrew-ness of the Hebrew Bible means much more to contemporary Jews than it did to the original authors.


1 My title is a nod to David Aaron’s important essays “The Doctrine of Hebrew Language Usage,” in The Blackwell Companion to Judaism vol. 1: 268-287 and vol. 2: 202-211. See also: “Judaism’s Holy Language,” in Jacob Neusner, ed., Approaches to Ancient Judaism New Series, vol. 16. (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999), 49-107.

2 See, for examples of approving vernacular prayer, Mishnah, Sotah 7:1-2; Mishnah, Megillah 2:1.

3 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London-New York, Verso, 1983), 78.

4 “Education Ministry to Ban Bible-Lite Study Booklet” Haaretz (English-edition) (5 September 2008).

5 Ahad Haam, “Torah m’Tzion” Yalkut Katan. Al Pr’ishat Drachim (Berlin:, Jüdischer Verlag, 1921), 127.

6 Solomon Schechter, “The Study of the Bible” Studies in Judaism, (Philadelphia: JPS, 1908) 30-54.

7 Lance J. Sussman, “Another Look at Isaac Leeser and the First Jewish Translation of the Bible in the United States,” Modern Judaism 5:2 (May 1985): 161, 159-190.

8 Mordechai Breuer, “Nehama Leibowitz’s Approach to Critical Bible Scholarship,” Limmudim 1 (2001): 11-20.

9 Edward Breuer, The Limits of Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996); David J. Sorkin, Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

10 Moshe Greenberg “Can Modern Critical Jewish Scholarship Have a Jewish Character?” (1983), reprinted in Studies on the Bible and Jewish Thought (Philadelphia: JPS, 1995).

11 Harry Orlinky, Essays in Biblical Culture and Bible Translations (NY: KTAV, 1974), who probably did more than any scholar of his generation to discredit the notion of there being a single, pristine Masoretic text.