Why Does Hebrew Matter?
"Language is a key to identity and culture, and Hebrew is a key to Jewish identity and Jewish culture. We just have to approach it as such." So writes Jeremy Benstein, the linguist and cultural anthropologist and author of the newly released Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes: A Tribal Language in a Global World.
Benstein explores the significance of Hebrew in the life of Jews and Judaism, and argues that engaging with Hebrew - not with the aim of fluency or solely ritual participation - is a vehicle to enrich our connection to Judaism and its values. "We can try to make Hebrew more accessible as a focus of Jewish literacy not necessarily as a language to be spoken (or not), but as a category of learning, part of the whole range of Jewish knowledge and cultural heritage, just like Bible, Talmud, and Jewish ethics, history, or philosophy. We can learn a little or a lot and become familiar with Jewish values encapsulated in Hebrew terminology, as a part of our identity and connection to Jewishness."
Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes shows us a path for engagement, not estrangment, by focusing on the three-letter roots that are the building blocks of the language. "These nuggets of knowledge encapsulate Jewish value concepts (what today might be termed "memes") that connect all strata of the language. They are the dynamic bearers of meaning that bridge ancient and modern, holy and daily, tradition and innovation, text and talk. If Hebrew is key to Jewish identity and Jewish culture, then it is the roots that are the key to Hebrew."
For example, tzedakah, usually translated as "charity," actually relatesto notions of justice (tzedek) and responsibility, not acts of generosity, thus encapsulating an entire world view.
With many examples throughout the book, and in nineteen innovative "Wordshops," Benstein shows us both why and how to connect to Hebrew. And more than just a book about a language, it's a book about the Jewish people and challenges we face as seen through our shared language - Hebrew.
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