What is the role of language study in the undergraduate Jewish Studies curriculum?

The Ohio State University

One hundred years ago, Jewish life was full of debates over languages. At the Czernowitz Language Conference in 1908, attendees argued about what the Jewish national language should be, Yiddish or Hebrew. In the Jewish community in Palestine, educators and public figures debated what the language of instruction should be in schools: French, German, English, Arabic, or Hebrew. At much the same time, east European writers like Semen An-sky and Shmuel Niger were arguing about the proper language for modern secular Jewish literature, Russian or Yiddish.

These linguistic rivalries have been relegated to history, but questions of language, specifically questions about Jewish languages, surface in other contexts. While there are many different definitions of a Jewish language, I am referring to languages that, historically, were spoken and/or written by Jews and were distinct from the languages spoken in the surrounding non-Jewish world. I believe that Jewish languages have a central place in the Jewish Studies curriculum. The question that we should be asking is not whether or not Jewish Studies programs should require students to study a Jewish language, but rather which Jewish languages students should be able to study.

A Jewish Studies curriculum should reflect the broadly interdisciplinary nature of the field, ranging from the analysis of Jewish texts to the diversity of Jewish practices and cultures to the politics and history of premodern and modern Jewish life. Language study has a critical role in the attainment of these learning objectives by cultivating an awareness of the multiplicity of Jewish existence. Jewish communal values and history, religious practices, and textual and oral traditions seep into language and language study. Practically speaking, the language offered by most Jewish Studies programs in North America is Hebrew. But the Jewish language should not have to be Hebrew.

Jewish Studies programs need to find ways to cultivate the study of a variety of Jewish languages by offering courses in lesser-taught Jewish languages like Yiddish and Ladino, adding flexibility to major and minor requirements, or sponsoring events that spotlight Jewish languages and multilingualism. Recognizing and teaching Jewish languages is critical for preserving these tongues and for understanding the dynamics of Jewish life, past and present.

University of Arkansas

As we create our new Jewish Studies program and minor at the University of Arkansas, we often discuss how best to integrate a language component, because we feel that some amount of language study is essential. Whatever approach a student takes to Jewish Studies, another language besides English will play a role. The deeper a student wishes to go, the more familiarity with languages beyond English is necessary. At the very least, central ideas in Jewish thought are inseparable from Hebrew, while study of Jewish life around the world requires knowledge of other languages, whether for practical purposes, or for historical cultural significance (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, for example, or questions of assimilation, emigration, or repatriation).

We approach the issue of language study with three concerns in particular: staffing; feasibility of completing the minor; and the university's decision to remove language study from its core course requirements. Will requiring language study discourage or even prohibit students from minoring? And if we do require language study, should we require Hebrew? Ancient or modern? What about other current or historically important languages like Latin, Greek, French, German, Russian, Spanish, or Arabic? What about Yiddish or Ladino? We are currently unable to offer Hebrew, Yiddish, or Ladino on a consistent basis; since we are nonetheless of the opinion that some basic familiarity with Hebrew and Yiddish, at least, is essential, we developed a course called "Introduction to Jewish Languages," in which students can learn the basics (alphabet, significant and frequent phrases, important historical information) of Aramaic, Biblical and Modern Hebrew, and Yiddish. As our program is a minor, there is also some room to encourage students to study another language in more depth.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

One's answer to this question depends on one's approach to Jewish Studies overall. If one conceives of the field as synonymous with the study of traditional Judaism, with a focus on certain canonical texts (e.g., Tanakh, Talmud), then language study would be necessary only insofar as it enables the reading and interpretation of such texts.

But if one adopts a more expansive view of Jewish Studies, one that has at its heart a process of critical reflection on matters of identity and culture formation, then it is possible to grant language study a role that is more than ancillary. Since language, by nature, encodes culture, the study of language can serve as one of the many sites for this critical cultural reflection. Such a view would imply a broadening of the languages in the curriculum, beyond the traditional focus on Hebrew, to include other languages with cultural significance for Jews throughout history (e.g., Yiddish, Ladino). More importantly, the teaching of these languages would not be restricted to grammar instruction, but would give attention to the interaction between the shape of these languages and the social and historical circumstances of their use.

In a Classical Hebrew course that I developed for the Jewish Studies program at UNC–Chapel Hill, we adopt just such an approach. In addition to presenting the fundamentals of Biblical Hebrew grammar, we explore the historical circumstances behind the emergence of Hebrew as a distinct linguistic entity in the southern Levant in the first millennium BCE. In surveying such topics as the invention of the alphabet, the pre-exilic inscriptions, and the development of the ancient Hebrew and Aramaic scripts, we come to understand the early history of written Hebrew in relation to the crafting of social and political identities. Thus the study of the language, beyond facilitating the reading of canonical texts, becomes also a window into the dynamics of cultural formation.

University of Michigan

At the risk of seeming terribly old-fashioned or even cantankerous, I would have to answer this question by lamenting that it needs to be asked at all. I know it is a real question and one that—given the state of language instruction and acquisition in the United States— is posed with increasing urgency. It is a sign of the times and not an encouraging one. A liberal arts curriculum that does not have language study at its center makes no sense to me. We spend a lot of time in the academy seeking diversity and attending to difference. How can we hope to do that without teaching the languages in which other cultures flourished and understood themselves? And 'ad kamah ve-kamah (how much more so) is this true of Jewish Studies. Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, or the languages used by Jews in any of the lands and times of their existence seem to me absolutely essential if we are to know something about the civilizations they created and lived within.

In her story "Envy, or Yiddish in America" Cynthia Ozick reminded us that Elijah the Prophet is not the same as Eliohu hanovi and Bible Lands is quite different from eretz yisroel. There are an infinite number of similar examples. It is not just that one person's nakba (catastrophe) is another's milhemet ha-'azma'ut (War of Independence), offering antithetical perspectives on the same event, but that even excellent translations have different resonances because the source and target languages are directed toward and understood by distinct audiences. Surely, how we name things matters. To Ozick's reminder, we might add that Wissenschaft means more than "knowledge," yiddishkeyt more than Jewishness, and that Shoah, Khurbn, and Holocaust are not quite synonyms or translations. That kind of understanding cannot happen without language study.

Middlebury College

The year was 1923. Hayim Nahman Bialik, then in Berlin, wrote a congratulatory letter to the editors of Dvir, a new journal of Jewish Studies that was launched in Berlin and published only in Hebrew. Bialik's letter was reprinted as the headpiece of the first issue: the founding of a journal of Jewish Studies in Hebrew in the birthplace of modern Jewish Studies was an occasion for celebration—"for reciting the She-hehiyonu." Bialik hoped that Western Jewish scholars were finally recognizing that "translated Judaism," which he claimed was an invention of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, was misbegotten from the start. Jewish Studies should be transacted only in Hebrew. Judaism is untranslatable.

How distant is Bialik's vision of such a Hebrew utopia now, and how contrary to the present state of Jewish Studies. I have been at Middlebury College for most of thirty years, hired to teach Jewish Studies and Classical Hebrew, and yet, as at other liberal arts colleges with minor and occasionally major programs in Jewish Studies, a vanishingly small number of students pursue Hebrew study for the purpose of unlocking the literary treasure trove of Jewish tradition. A few want to read the Bible.

I sympathize with Bialik's motives, if not with his plea for linguistic exclusivity: to read Hebrew texts with students means to escort them behind the veil of translation, to reveal etymology—I recall, for instance, my own thrill as an undergrad at learning that "to exile" connoted "to lay the land bare," or that the verb system of Classical Hebrew indicated a foreign conception of tense and time. And yet now it is the rare college student who will have similar experiences. The MLA statistics tell the story*: the study of Hebrew is in decline. In the four years ending in 2013, Biblical Hebrew declined by 8.7% and even Modern Hebrew by 19.4% (!). Over a decade ago, when Peter Cole visited Middlebury to give a course on the medieval poets he was collecting for his anthology The Dream of the Poem, four advanced students of Classical Hebrew were eager to meet with him weekly to read the original texts. That clientele no longer exists. Even the famed University of Wisconsin Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies eliminated its BA program in Biblical Hebrew. To be sure, Middlebury's summer school in Hebrew is thriving, drawing graduate students, undergraduates, and many professionals from government service, but the college's regular year-round courses in Modern Hebrew, like those at its sister institutions, do not fill.

Thus, it seems that nearly a century after Bialik's Ashkenazic-accented "Shehehiyonu" fewer students are interested in Classical Hebrew as the language of a long literary tradition. The shrinking number of undergraduates who do study Hebrew enroll in courses in Modern Hebrew, the key to the vital contemporary Israeli scene. Their interest is the Israeli present, not the Jewish literature of the diasporic past. Whereas Bialik sought to sustain the connection between the Hebrew literary past and the vernacular coming alive in his day, its seems to me that present trends will allow that past to recede from the field of vision of a likewise diminishing number of students.

* David Goldberg et al., Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2013 (Modern Language Association of America, Web publication February 2015).

University of Tennessee

The study of languages is highly valued at the University of Tennessee, with a large Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures as well as a Department of Classics. However, languages that relate to Jewish Studies are not included in either department. This is most unfortunate, as it is impossible to study a complex civilization like Judaism without knowledge of the requisite languages. Both Biblical Hebrew and Modern Hebrew were being taught at this institution before there was a Judaic Studies Program, but in a very idiosyncratic way. Biblical Hebrew was taught as an upper-level companion course and as an overload by the professor who taught Hebrew Bible in the Department of Religious Studies. After the faculty member's retirement, Biblical Hebrew was not taught for about a decade. In 2012, we were fortunate that the spouse of a new colleague offered to teach Biblical Hebrew. Religious Studies revamped Biblical Hebrew in line with other language courses (levels I and II) and it now fulfills the Arts and Sciences language requirement.

A Modern Hebrew tape program has existed at the University of Tennessee for more than twenty years. At this university, Modern Hebrew is known as a less commonly taught language and is located in Asian Studies, an interdisciplinary program like Judaic Studies. Students study in the language lab with the assistance of a tutor. Modern Hebrew fulfills the Arts and Sciences language requirement. In 2008 I was able to convince a donor to help fund a real teacher of Modern Hebrew. Now in its sixth year, the uncertainty of future funding necessitates our making conservative promises to potential hires, which in turn inhibits efforts to aggressively grow this course of study.

It is urgent for the Fern and Manfred Steinfeld Program in Judaic Studies, now in its third decade, to secure permanent funding for Hebrew language instruction and to rethink the Judaic Studies curriculum so that Hebrew will become an integral part of our course of study.

Northwestern University

Seven years ago, when colleagues and I sat around a table to discuss Jewish Studies curricular requirements for undergraduates, our discussion was swift and unequivocal: Jewish Studies majors would need to have Hebrew or Yiddish. This consensus reflected my own sense that even in those areas of Jewish Studies in which languages are not absolutely essential for primary research, additional language skills only enhance the work.

Today, as the administrator responsible for running Northwestern's undergraduate program in Jewish Studies, I am not sure I have the luxury of demanding a language requirement that stands for rigor and baseline competence as a researcher. Under attack, the humanities disciplines are increasingly asked to justify their project through metrics: the number of students enrolled in courses and the number of students who major and minor in a given subject. While Jewish Studies is somewhat cushioned against the threat of departmental closure by our relatively large endowments, this shelter does not guarantee that we will be able to continue to offer lowenrollment specialty courses and that we will be able to replace departing faculty. A couple of recent email exchanges with students have made it clear to me that our language requirement can be prohibitive to some students who would otherwise be willing to commit to the number of courses required of a major.

This pragmatic questioning of the status quo causes me to reflect on the theoretical question from two different angles. First, I've come to realize the extent to which higher education in the United States has been undergoing a significant change with respect to languages. The movement away from core requirements has destroyed the notion of a classical education that supported both the study of the humanities in universities and the historical rise of Jewish Studies as a discipline. Second, the changing shape of humanities education is making the choice of a major in Jewish Studies harder than it has been. Perhaps the goal of such a major should not be the production of students capable of doing graduate-level primary research in Jewish Studies (a goal we are proudly achieving for our small cadre of majors), but of producing students who have honed critical thinking and writing skills while considering the subsection of the humanities that addresses things Jews have done?

University of Arizona

In recent years students and parents have demanded that undergraduate programs produce graduates who can earn a "decent living." Enrollments in STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, math) have exploded. These majors have reduced or altogether eliminated the foreign language requirement. This trend is understandable amidst the quest for a more efficient undergraduate experience, but it is also regrettable because language is how humans communicate, and people speak a plethora of languages. Mastery of a foreign language takes considerable time and effort, but it pays a tremendous dividend: it enables us to communicate with people from different cultures. Today's world is diverse and interdependent, so reduced foreign language requirements ultimately will limit our students' chances to have an impact on and to succeed in the global marketplace.

Foreign language competence is essential to student success in Jewish Studies because it enables them to engage with aspects of Jewish civilizations across vast linguistic boundaries. In a graduate seminar at the Hebrew University years ago, I witnessed a telling exchange between the professor and a student. The professor had assigned readings in a few languages, and one student noted that he could read only Hebrew and English. The professor's response was direct and firm: "What, you think Jewish civilization exists only in Hebrew and English? How do you expect to engage with the ideas of Jews who speak other languages?" Foreign language competence enables us to examine events and ideas through others' eyes, an absolutely essential skill in today's world.

Jewish Studies also has a temporal dimension, reaching back over three thousand years. Jews at various times used Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Ladino, Yiddish, and other languages. Inscriptions, administrative records, and vast literary works reveal aspects of Jewish life from biblical to modern times. Competence in foreign languages pertinent to Jewish Studies enables us to study the literary records of past generations. In a very real sense, we preserve their memory as we understand how they expressed their unique take on Judaic culture.