New life for Old Testament language
Demand for Hebrew is fueled by archeology and desire to explore Bible's roots
WASHINGTON — Learning Hebrew is not as tedious as James Madison was led to believe.
As a freshman at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) in 1769, the soon-to-be Founding Father was told that mastery of ancient languages, such as Latin and Greek, was critical. However, unless he planned on becoming a minister, he could take a pass on Hebrew, as it had become "unhappily unpopular" with students.
About two centuries later, many mainline seminaries came around to the same conclusion - and started bumping the original language of the Old Testament off their required list.
But the language that would not die is on a rebound in places you might not expect. Everyone from adults to children in grade schools is finding new ways - and reasons - to study it on their own. And a spike of Web sites, CD-Roms, periodicals, classes, books, and study aides is meeting the new demand.
Take Oilton, Okla., population 1,060. Last year, the Cimarron Christian Academy began teaching Hebrew to all 103 of their students, starting in kindergarten. Their instructor is a graduate student at nearby Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa.
"The pastor of our church felt that the Hebrew language would give children the foundation they need to read the Bible and to build character," says Cimarron Principal Deborah Jones. "So far," she says, "we only teach classes once a week. But there's such enthusiasm, we'd like to expand it. We take our students to the Jewish museum in Tulsa to add depth to their Bible study. A majority of our adult congregation has visited Israel at least once."
Nor are such ventures the odd exception. Hebrew educators say they are seeing a groundswell of new interest in the language. For some learners, it's the prospect of travel and study in Israel, or the excitement of archeological discoveries, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Others want to hear and feel the poetry of the Old Testament in the original language.
"Every literary work suffers in translation. But of all the world's classics, the Bible suffers most from translation," says David Friedman, who has taught Hebrew in seminaries and universities for more than 50 years.
"The seminaries are generally not requiring Hebrew and Greek anymore, because they're not requiring languages in graduate school. But there's a revival of Hebrew going across the board, chiefly because of the existence of the state of Israel. That gives you a much broader base. And the discoveries in archeology excite everybody," he adds.
Much of the new demand for Hebrew learning materials is coming from non-mainstream Christian groups who want to understand the Hebrew roots of the Bible. Parents interested in home-schooling are building a market for Hebrew-language materials.
At the same time, some Jewish groups are trying to halt what some call a "meltdown" of Jewish life in the US, where fewer than 1 in 5 American Jews can still read a text in the language of the Torah.
For both groups, the possibility of distance learning over the Internet is opening new ways into one of the world's oldest languages. Suppliers say that requests for Hebrew materials have gone from a trickle a few years ago to a flood.
"In Hebrew, it's not the nouns that are important, it's the verbs. Hebrew [in the Old Testament] paints pictures of the heart. The Hebrew language can change lives," says Cheryle Holeman in Independence, Kan. She quit teaching elementary school in 1981 - "I was fed up: The kids weren't expected to read or do homework" -and began developing material for Christian home-schoolers, especially related to Hebrew language and culture.
"I'm now getting requests from more than 35 countries for materials. I'm hearing people say, 'I want to read the Scriptures for myself, rather than through the eyes of an interpreter,' " she says.
Lenore Mullican, who teaches Hebrew at Oral Roberts University, adds that she is getting more requests for Hebrew language books from prisoners.
"Some of them are Jewish; some are Christian. They're interested in self-study, and they really keep going with it," she says.
Not as hard as it looks
The Hebrew alphabet looks daunting, but in fact it's a relatively easy language to learn. Words are built around three-letter roots. Its syntax is simple, and any verb system is more complex. The vocabulary of the Old Testament is limited to about 5,000 words, which consequently have a wide range of meanings.
"The Hebrew language is very earthy, very concrete, and every evocative. Its words are like onions: You can peel off layer after layer," says Dwight Pryor, who took up a serious study of Hebrew after a visit to Israel in 1983. He directs the Center for Judaic-Christian studies in Dayton, Ohio, and collaborates with Jewish and Christian scholars on the life of Jesus.
"Take the word 'shalom,' which we normally translate 'peace.' The English translation conveys a sense of the absence of strife. But shalom is a positive, thrusting word: It speaks of success, completion, well-being, wholeness, protection, prosperity. It can be used in all these settings," he adds.
Delving deeper into the Bible
What's drawing many adults to study Hebrew is the desire for a deeper spiritual experience.
"People are not satisfied with a cursory reading of the Bible or a 'Jesus Loves Me This I Know' approach to spirituality. They want roots. They want to get back to something they can sink their teeth into," says Ward Nunnally, who teaches Hebrew at Central Bible College in Springfield, Mo., which is affiliated with the Assemblies of God.
Similarly, Jewish groups hope that a new emphasis on learning Hebrew will revive tradition and culture. For example, last month the Manhattan-based National Jewish Outreach Program released "Virtual Shabbat," a CD-Rom that includes a "crash course" in reading Hebrew. In November, the NJOP takes an annual campaign on the road to teach Jewish adults "how to read a 5,000-year-old language in five easy lessons." Last year, their Read Hebrew American program taught free literacy clinics at 2,600 locations in the US and Canada.
"Years ago, most Jews could read Hebrew. Even in the Dark Ages, when most people couldn't read or write, it was a universal given of Jewish education that every Jewish man could read Hebrew. Now, 80 percent of the Jews in America cannot...," says Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, NJOP program director.
While helping Christians learn Hebrew is not a priority of such groups, they say that the new resources coming online in this effort will help all learners.
"We want to make this available first to people affiliated with our movement," says Joshua Heller, a recently ordained rabbi who is directing the launch of a distance learning program for the Manhattan-based Jewish Theological Seminary of America. "But I think the materials we have developed could be of great use to other faith communities as well."
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