A Fractured Discipline

29 10 2007

In the absence of anything of my own to say, I thought that I might share the words of another. Professor Frederick E. Greenspahn, the President of the National Association of Professors of Hebrew, wrote the following for their recent newsletter:

One of the stranger experiences I have had since moving to South Florida a few years ago has been learning about the “communities” in which everyone here lives. If you’ve ever watched “Seinfeld,” you probably know what I’m talking about. They are actually sub-divisions, each with a single entrance where a guard lets only invited guests in and, even that, after checking for photo-identification. Signposts at major intersections point to these developments, which serve as landmarks. Directions, therefore, often take the form, “Turn right at Vista Del Mar,” or “Drive past Duckworth Lake,” or “Let’s meet at the Target behind Pleasant Acres,” instead of “Go north on Westwood Ave., then turn left at the Chevron station.” In fact, if you ask people where they live, they will usually name their development rather than the city or street address. As a result, they don’t identify with the city as a whole, much less the metropolitan area. What matters is their sub-division. The fences that surround these communities segregate as much as they protect.

That aspect of life here resembles our shared field of Hebrew, which has become so compartmentalized that we risk losing sight of the larger context in which we work. Some of us teach Biblical Hebrew; others, modern Hebrew, not to mention those engaged with rabbinic or medieval Hebrew, and, of course, grammar and various kinds of literature. Each of these has become a little sub-development of its own: There are those who live in Bible Del Vista, while others inhabit Israel Rio, and still others reside in Linguistics Cove, carefully and blissfully pretending not to notice those other neighborhoods just over the fence.

Of course, those neighborhoods are right next door, for, like all languages, Hebrew is not a rigid, self-contained entity, but a conveyor of meaning within several different communities. As such, it does not exist in a pure and abstract form, but as an ever-changing vehicle for communication.

So I can’t help wondering what would happen if we opened the gates and looked around, daring to venture outside our “comfort zone,” where everybody is just like us. What new sights would we see, and what new discoveries would we make about things we thought we understood?

Imagine the kinds of conversations we might have with our neighbors (the ones on the other side of the fence) and what could come of them: For example, what could we learn by comparing the vowel letters (matres lectionis) that developed in antiquity with those that are current today or by exploring how the tenses have evolved or particles, such as asher and et, changed? What if we looked at the fossilized images that are embedded in the language, terms like asherah (in the Bible) and Yom Sylvester (in modern Israel) or if we compared the influence of foreign languages, such as English and Polish, with that of Aramaic and Greek?

A broader perspective on Hebrew might lead us to think about the people who have studied it. I have often wondered, for example, how it happened that the Sefer Yetsirah was the first to describe similarities in consonant articulation or why Christian hebraists were so interested in kabbalah. Exploring such issues might lead us to think about the ways in which modern teaching methods and effectiveness are affected by departmental (or institutional) setting. We might even compare the pedagogical methods that are used for Hebrew with those for Spanish and French or, perhaps, lesser-taught languages, such as Chinese and Latin. From a more sociological perspective, we could also consider parallels between those communities that try to preserve Hebrew with those that are devoted to the survival of Arabic or Korean.

Fences are supposed to make people safe by keeping the “riffraff” out. However, that may be an illusion; the walls around some developments look like they could be rather easily scaled, maybe without anyone noticing. What they really accomplish is to isolate those on the inside, imprisoning residents in an artificial environment, while depriving them of access to valuable and enriching insights. That’s no way to learn about the real world nor, in the end, to gain a full understanding of our own.

– “Presidential Perspective”, Frederick E. Greenspahn.




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