Common Jewish Language, R.I.P.
by Rabbi Avi Shafran
Am Echad Resources
December 13, 1999
Jews – even those of us for whom English is our native tongue – are increasingly speaking different languages.
Take the word "outreach". Used for decades – and to this day by Orthodox Jews – to mean efforts to bring Jews closer to their religious heritage, the word has been co-opted by some contemporary Jewish leaders to describe conversion overtures to non-Jews who have married Jews. Some have even employed it to mean the active proselytization of broader non-Jewish society, which they endorse.
Or, to move to Hebrew, consider a word, "kollel", that has an illustrious history as meaning an intensive high-level Talmudic research fellowship. A kollel has always been comprised of advanced scholars analyzing Jewish texts according to centuries-old traditional methodologies. Of late, however, it has been appropriated for things like an adult education program offering lectures like "Chicken Soup from the Rabbis: Sermons that Really Worked."
And then there is the word "Midrash" which, for 3000 years, was reserved for the "Oral Law" portion of the Jewish religious tradition, the authoritative meaning of, and addenda to, the Jewish Bible’s laws and narratives. Lately, though, "Midrash" has been redefined in some circles to mean any creative exercise of imagination regarding Judaism’s holiest text, a sort of bible game for all to play. Thus, Rutgers University English professor and "midrashist" Alicia Ostriker, who teaches "midrash workshops" for the Institute of Contemporary Midrash, can write, as she does in the current issue of Reform Judaism, that "Midrash" writing "requires no special knowledge of the Bible."
The critical word "halacha" is another good example of a word whose meaning has been changed by some. Since well before the Talmudic era, it has described the demands of Jewish religious law, painstakingly researched and applied to life situations. Today, though, it has been employed to mean whatever a group of rabbis (and even laymen) vote as their own determination of what the times – rather than the texts and spirit of the law – require; in effect, a culture-driven system of religious praxis.
Even the most basic Jewish words, those we use constantly, have come to assume different meanings for different Jews. "Rabbi" once meant someone learned in Jewish religious texts and law; today, in many Jewish circles, it means someone who can provide the pastoral needs of a congregation or someone who is a good public speaker (or, best of
all, both) – even if he (or she) is ignorant of (or entirely unconcerned with) the Talmud
and responsa literature.
Even the word "Judaism" itself, tragically, has become multiple-meaninged.
That process began when German Jews during the previous century created a movement that unabashedly laid aside the idea of divinely revealed commandments – the essential underpinning of the Jewish religious tradition – and yet insisted on retaining the name "Judaism", albeit with a prefix.
That movement’s American descendant came in turn to catalyze a number of even newer "Judaisms" – among them at least one group that goes so far as to shun the concept of a Creator. The movements are Jewish – in the sense that they are the products of Jewish people and have many Jewish affiliates – but calling them "Judaisms" does violence to what the word has meant for dozens of centuries.
"Torah", too, has come to be similarly disfigured. One Jewish leader proclaimed his movement’s embrace of "Torah, Torah, Torah!" even though the word "Torah" claims more than 3000 years of synonymity with the very concept of revealed law that his movement openly renounces. The same leader also mangled the word "mitzvah" – whose literal and historical meaning is "commandment":
"[U]ltimately," he wrote, " [a Jew] must examine each mitzvah and ask the question: 'do I feel commanded in this instance …?’"
Feeling that something is right and being commanded to do it would seem to be alternatives – perhaps at times compatible, even overlapping, concepts – but certainly not a cause and its effect.
Is it any wonder that the very word "Jew", frighteningly, has likewise assumed manifold meanings? To some, it continues, as in the past, to refer to children of a Jewish mother or to a convert who has met the demanding conversion requirements of Jewish religious law. To others, it also means anyone born of a Jewish father, as long as some degree of self-Jewish-identification is present. Or it means Gentiles who "convert" to Judaism on nothing much more than an expression of interest in being Jewish. With this particular difference of definition, the seeds of a bifurcated Jewish people were tragically sown.
Those of us – one hopes it is all of us – who lament the increasing fragmentation of the Jewish world would do well to ponder the radically different ways Jews have come to use crucial Jewish words today – and then ponder, hard and deep, the possibility that true unity might just lie in our return to a common language.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as Agudath Israel of America's director of public affairs and as Am Echad's American director]
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