Watch Your Language
25 October 2006, 12:03 PM
So. One of the good things about Congregation Beth Bolshoy is that they are big enough to have a variety of meetings and sessions of various kinds on various topics any day of the week. Something for everybody. Well, not everybody, but still. The rabbis decided (for what reason, I have no idea) that they would start a weekly mid-day study session on the Song of Songs. The first week we met in the Senior Rabbi’s palatial office, but there were too many people even for that space, so this week we met in one of the classrooms. And, of course, fewer people showed up, but I was less worried about spilling my tea. On the other hand, it would have been nice to have the Rabbi’s bookshelf to go to for reference. They are renovating the library (as part of the five million dollar capital campaign), so maybe they’ll have a good space in there for study meetings, with access to their shelves. On the other hand, nobody but me has shown any inclination to use anything but the English text in front of them. You know, Reform.
I want to talk about the Song of Songs, not Jewish politics, but do any Gentle Readers claim the Reform movement as their own? I am finding it disconcerting. Mostly, I am against the whole vernacular business. Are there Catholic GRs who are old enough to have undergone the adoption of the vernacular? I understand grudgingly accepting the need for some English in the liturgy, because in fact not very many Jews speak or understand Hebrew, and concessions must be made. On the other hand, I’ve been in congregations where the whole congregation sings along in Hebrew, so it can be done. YHB, after all, speaks no Hebrew outside of the liturgy, but could probably, in a pinch, lead Shabbat Shacharit service. No, the thing is that Reform Jews—and here I’m drawing from our Papa Rabbi—appear to prefer to pray in English. What’s up with that?
No, seriously, what’s up with that? I’m serious, here. I know you Anglicans settled all this hundreds of years ago—how’s that working out for you? Do you miss having a special language of prayer? Do you not feel cut off?
When reading Scripture—and leaving aside the question of whether you consider the particular English you use Inspired, but assuming that the English is at least in some sense Scripture—do you take the words as they are in English, or are you kissing through a kerchief? I find I can’t really study Scripture in English, without having the Hebrew to hand to attempt to pry out something from behind the wall. I imagine it’s the same with New Testament Greek. And since I don’t actually have the Hebrew, I rely on the concordance, and Strong’s comments. At least I know how to pronounce the words and can sometimes hear a pun, although I know I’m missing a hundred for every one I catch.
I grew up in a Conservative shul, and it was quite conservative even for a Conservative shul in those days. In my adult years, I’ve mostly attended unaffiliated synagogues, when I’ve attended at all. Some have had more English in the service, and some less, but there’s always been a sense that English was, if necessary, an inferior language for prayer (or study). It’s part of the odd Conservative divided view, where (for instance) the members don’t want to keep kosher themselves, but they want their Rabbi to keep kosher, and to tell them that they ought to keep kosher. Similarly, the congregants want to pray in Hebrew, even though they don’t necessarily want to learn the language. But it’s more than that. I want to say the Ma Tovu and the Alenu the way my father says it, the way my grandfather said it, the way Rashi said it, the way the Rambam said it. Which is ahistorical nonsense, but it’s important anyway. Except that I want to change the text where I can’t accept it. But I want to change it in Hebrew.
Feh. Perhaps I’ll get back to talking about the Song of Songs later.
chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,