A Sacred Language or the Language of the Bible: A Curricular Study of Jewish Hebrew Bible Instruction

Published: 
2019

Source: Religious Education

In this article, I will examine two recently written comprehensive curricula for teaching Tanakh to young students, one produced by the Conservative movement and the other by the Orthodox movement. The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism published MaToK (The Conservative Movement Tanakh Project); and the Consortium of Orthodox Jewish Day Schools (COJDS) published LeHavin U’LeHaskel. My exploration of how these curricula approach the instruction of Biblical Hebrew language will shed light on how different approaches to Biblical Hebrew reflect fundamentally different religious stances and in turn shape different conceptions of Jewish religious activity. Both curricula offer a version of their product designed for Ivrit-b-Ivrit classrooms, but in this article, I analyze the version meant to be taught in English. Whatever differences exist in these two curricula with regard to the teaching of Biblical Hebrew, therefore, cannot be attributed to a different perspective on the value of the Ivrit-b-Ivrit approach.

Research question

How does each curriculum understand the role of Biblical Hebrew as part of the study of Tanakh as a whole?

Results

LeHavin U’LeHaskel spends the bulk of its activities in these early sections of the curricula teaching Biblical Hebrew language skills. MaToK also dedicates significant instructional time to Biblical Hebrew, but its primary concern is with the literary analysis of the text.

The time allotted to these different instructional priorities indicates two different approaches to the Biblical Hebrew language and its perceived role in the teaching of Tanakh to young students. I will call these approaches the literary approach and the literacy approach. Recall, both of these curricula offer their versions designed for Hebrew immersion classrooms.

For MaToK, studying Biblical Hebrew and studying Tanakh are two separate activities and the latter, studying Tanakh, is more important. Working in translation is acceptable. They can still meet the learning goals of the curriculum. For LeHavin U’LeHaskel, learning Biblical Hebrew and learning Tanakh cannot be separated. One cannot study Tanakh in translation without losing the essence of the religious experience. Reading and translating the text verse by verse, therefore, is the essential activity of studying Tanakh for LeHavin U’LeHaskel.

How much time and energy should be spent on teaching young American Jews to become independent readers of Tanakh in the original language? MaToK and LeHavin U’LeHaskel offer two different answers to this question. MaToK operationalizes the literary orientation written about in scholarly theoretical work. It is an exemplar curriculum that uses Biblical Hebrew to achieve literary meaning. LeHavin U’LeHaskel operationalizes a literacy approach. It is an exemplar curriculum that places independent reading of Tanakh in the original language as its primary priority.

The treatment of language in the two curricula expresses fundamentally different religious perspectives. Reading LeHavin U’LeHaskel, one cannot help but note repeated invocations of the concept of Biblical Hebrew as Lashon Hakodesh, the sacred language. In contrast, MaToK refers to Biblical Hebrew as Lashon HaTorah, the language of the Torah. This difference in terminology captures the difference in how these two curricula relate to Biblical Hebrew. For MaToK, Biblical Hebrew is the language in which the Tanakh happened to be written. It is important to understand that language in order to access the text’s literary and personal meaning. There are, for example, literary techniques characteristic of Biblical Hebrew that do not have direct parallels in English. Students need to have some familiarity with Biblical Hebrew so that they can fully appreciate the literary dimensions of the text, but there is nothing sacred about the language itself. The phrase Lashon HaTorah captures the instrumental view of Biblical Hebrew expressed throughout the curriculum

For Lehavin U’LeHaskel, reading and translating Tanakh from Biblical Hebrew is not instrumental. Rather, decoding the text is itself an activity with religious and spiritual significance. Biblical Hebrew is the sacred language. There is spiritual and religious significance in using the language itself, reading it, reciting it, translating it, that requires no higher level of textual analysis. Indeed, in the curriculum, the moral lessons of the text are never presented as derived from some analysis of the text but rather as authoritative and unquestionable interpretations. Lehavin U’LeHaskel seeks to make students literate in Biblical Hebrew, not so that they can find their own lessons in the text, but rather so that they can engage in the religious activity of decoding a sacred language.

Seeing a text as fundamental is not the same as seeing a text as sacred. But the more essential difference between the perspectives of MaToK and LeHavin U’LeHaskel is how the student is trained to interact with Torah. The successful LeHavin U’LeHaskel student will develop fluency in reading the biblical text but will not have learned how to engage with it. They will, most likely, be able to connect to the text by virtue of fluency in the language in which it is written. But what’s unclear is whether they will be prepared to grapple with the complexities of the text—its contradictions, its omissions, its repetitions, and so on. The successful MaToK student probably will not able to read or translate fluently but will be well practiced in engaging the complexities of the text. They will be able notice details and ask questions. What activity is each student prepared for? Connection lends itself to ritual, while engagement lends itself to study. Both curricula are comprehensive, but neither is able to achieve both.

Updated: Aug. 06, 2019
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