Time for Another Jewish Ed Heresy-The English Bar/Bat Mitzvah?

Over on his blog The Fifth Child, my friend and fellow Jewish Educator Peter Eckstein wrote a great post asking, yet again. what the goals of teaching Hebrew are in supplementary Jewish education. http://thefifthchild.blogspot.com/2009/07/point-of-teaching-hebrew-is.html  (Peter also makes a wonderful case for abandoning the inappropriate name of "supplementary" – recognizing that  what we really have is-using my words, not his-"surrogate" schools. If there’s nothing much at home Jewishly, what, exactly, would we be supplementing? I think there’s another blog post in that to post soon after this one.)

Peter wrote

I’ve been obsessing on Hebrew lately. What’s the purpose of teaching decoding to kids? Remember, reading implies comprehension. My guess is that most kids, despite our best efforts, really don’t understand (or don’t care about) the meaning of the Hebrew they’re reciting. They just mouth the sounds: ergo decoding. At the risk of sounding really cynical, I’m going to guess that a large chunk of the parents who send their kids to a congregational school do it for one main reason – to prevent performance anxiety. They want their kids to shine at their 13-year-old-coming-out-party. Is this the really the point of what we Jewish educators are doing?

And later in his post:

Do we teach Hebrew so that the kids can decode their Torah portions without error, or because the Hebrew language is that which defines the Jewish people? Remember – back in the 3rd century BCE (!) the Torah was translated into Greek by 70 rabbis for the Greek speaking Jews of the Diaspora. I wonder if back then they were having the same conversation we’re having now about Hebrew education. What does this tell us about the goals of teaching Hebrew? Where do we put our energy? What should be the focus of whatever Hebrew instruction we implement? Given the realities of the amount of time we have the kids, what should we be aiming to accomplish?

There’s a logical option that is hinted at here, but never expressed openly. That option is to not teach Hebrew at all. Please note-I’m not advocating that-but I am holding it up as one possibility.

I, for one, value my knowledge of Hebrew. I made it a point to acquire Hebrew skills, and, in particular, biblical Hebrew skills, so that I would not be held hostage by translation, as I believe all translations are ultimately interpretations. Any of you who have read my Torah musing here or elsewhere know that I often challenge even the most scholarly translations (like the JPS committees.)

Nevertheless, even my own desires are ultimately futile because we don’t not have an ur-text Torah. We have some fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Cairo Geniza, but the Torah that we read from today, and we hold as authoritative is the product of the Masoretic school, and it’s vowelization and cantillation. Trust me, the Masoretes had an agenda which influenced their work, as is true for most, if not all, such work. We have the Septuagint, the Aramaic targums, and many other translated sources to use for comparison-and many of them disagree in places.

This being the case, why do we struggle so to "teach Hebrew" to our students in our (for lack of better terms for now) supplementary/complementary schools, and generally achieve, at best, good "decoding" skills.

I found this interesting article on the web on a site devoted to linguistics: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=507

The article’s author, in explaining a citation from another, wrote:

By "a good bar mitzvah language", Mark means a language whose written form is easy to learn how to recite, whether or not you understand any of it or even recognize the words. This is a reference to the fact that some Jewish children learn only enough Hebrew to be able to read a Torah or Haftarah passage out loud at their bar mitzvah (or bat mitzvah) ceremony. If the diacritical signs representing vowels are present,  written Hebrew is phonologically transparent enough that it’s fairly easy to learn to read it in this way, without knowing much (or even any) of the language. (And the cantillation signs provide a stylized form of phrasing and intonation…)

Some languages, like Hebrew, are easier to learn to recite. English, by the way, it not one of them. If fact, the article is entitled "Why isn’t English a Bar Mitzvah language? So, the fact of the matter is, we can keep doing what we are doing, and decide to be honest about it–that we include Hebrew in supplementary/complementary Jewish Education in order to enable students to participate in the traditional ritual of chanting the text of Torah associated with becoming a bar or bat mitzvah.

We can be honest like that–or, we could try something radically different. Why not an "English" bar/bat mitzvah ritual? Instead of a tutor working with a student to enable them to decode and chant their parasha, the tutor could work with them to explore it, comparing different translations and sources. They could then choose to read their parasha, in English, from their own created translation (in fact, creating a "mash-up" translation could be the goal) or an extant one. If they have the skills and time, perhaps they could, as many have started to do, apply the trope to the English. At the very least, their reading in English could be histrionic and dramatic. (One thing I love to do for students is to read Torah in Hebrew, without trope, but as spoken sentences with the normal inflections they might hear when speaking English.)

The idea that we could, in the limited time available to us, enable students to truly understand, comprehend, and translate for themselves the Hebrew of their bar/bat mitzvah service Torah/haftarah readings is a chimera at best. So, rather than focus on the rather limited goal of enabling them to chant a few p’sukim, why not focus on enabling them to study and learn what the text says, and share that with the congregation, both in their reading of the parasha, and in their d’var Torah?

Some argue that since those in the congregation usually have access to a translation, why not have the bar/bat mitzvah student reading/chant Torah and haftarah in Hebrew. I would counter that, in most cases, they have access to only one translation.

Of late, their has been growing interest in restoring the role of the meturgeman, the scholar who would translate in real-time from Hebrew to Aramaic the readings from the Torah in post-exilic Israel. Why not enable each young student in our Jewish supplemental/complementary schools to become, if only for a brief shining moment, a sort of meturgeman for their congregation? While they wouldn’t be doing a real-time translation, they would be relying on their studies to present to the congregation a reading of Torah in the vernacular so that all present might hear, learn, and potentially understand.

I’m not sure if this is a good idea or not. A connection with Hebrew still feels to me, at a visceral level, a core component of giving students to tools to create a Jewish identity. Yet why not give our students a choice? Must things continue to be the way they are simply because that’s how they have always been? My friend Peter Eckstein wondered if the 70 rabbis of the Septuagint were having similar discussions about Jewish education and Hebrew. After all, they took the radical step of translating the Torah into Greek so Jews whose native language was Greek could understand and learn from Torah.

Perhaps, instead of vainly attempting to teach Hebrew to our students, we should teach them enough to get them interested, should they choose, to pursue its study, and give them the tools and the opportunity to do so. We should teach them that there is value in the study of Hebrew, suggest to them that there is an intrinsic connection between Judaism and the Hebrew language. Yet we should see that those who choose not to pursue further study in Hebrew are not made to feel like second-class Jews as a result of their choice, and make sure they have all have the resources and tools necessary available in their language to work to develop their own Jewish selves.

I haven’t touched upon the subject of the liturgy. Even there one can find a case for an all-vernacular service, though I must admit that even I find that somewhat jarring to even consider. Nevertheless, that ought to be considered as well. We have plenty of great English translations/adaptations of  of the traditional liturgy. If we do an all-English service not, as may have happened in the past, to throw out the baby with the bath water and to be more like our protestant neighbors, but so that all who participate may truly understand what they are praying, that might not be so bad after all.

Planning an "English" bar/bat mitzvah? I’d like to know (and attend!!)

Kol Tuv,

Adrian Durlester (aka Migdalor Guy)

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About migdalorguy

Jewish Educator & Musician, Technology Nerd and all around nice Renaissance guy
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