Saturday, January 25, 2020

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I was surprised to read a piece by Dr. Wallace Greene titled, “The Ashke-Sefard Dilemma” (November 27, 2019), where despite his description as a “Jewish educator” and having “pioneered the Hebrew in America curriculum,” he repeats some common misconceptions about language.

Despite (contradictory) claims of “even though every pronunciation has validity” and “our schools should teach it correctly,” there is an objectively more correct (and ancient) pronunciation in Halacha, a concept that is found openly in the writings of Chaza”l. Have a look in the Mishne Tora, הלכות קריאת שמע פרק 2 הלכה 9, והלכות תפילה ונשיאת כפים פרק 8. Also see the same in the Shulḥan `Arukh, Oraḥ Ḥayyim 53:12, 128:33, et al. Precision with the rules of shawa na` and shawa naḥ is small potatoes compared to the reality that neither Modern nor Ashkenazic Hebrew distinguishes between ב and ו, nor ח and כ, nor ת and ט, nor א and ע, and ignores other linguistic phenomena of the Hebrew language such as gemination, the six spirants and other minutiae.

Of all of the claims in the article, the most problematic is “the Ashkenazic enunciation [sic] seems to be the most ancient.” Any living pronunciation of Hebrew is constantly evolving like any other living language, thus this is an impossible claim by dint of the fact that all modern pronunciations of Hebrew are equally as old (perhaps with the exception of a historical reconstruction). Also see the book “Hebrew in Ashkenaz” by Lewis Glinert for an analysis of the evolving pronunciation of Ashkenazic Hebrew. Suffice it to say, Rashi would not have sounded remotely Ashkenazic to even the most forgiving ear.

Children can handle multiple pronunciations of any language with ease, a phenomenon commonly called “code-switching.” I certainly did when I attended Kushner, speaking yeshivish with yeshivish people, standard American English in everyday life and a southern drawl when with family in Texas. Likewise, I used Ashkenazic Hebrew when davening, and Modern Hebrew in the classroom without much of an issue.

If we want to teach children fluency in Modern Hebrew, then an Israeli (not “Sephardic”) pronunciation should be emphasized. If we want to give children fluency in Ashkenazic (albeit not particularly modern) yeshiva settings, then an Ashkenazic textual Hebrew is necessary as a social marker of “in-group” membership (in English: it marks a person as frum, not ‘harry-ish’).

The Modern Orthodox education system deserves to be the best we can offer in both academic and Torah studies. That is why a proper understanding of both is critical to setting a prescription for Hebrew curriculum. If we can’t agree on the goals of Hebrew in the Modern Orthodox education system, if we can’t even agree on what makes “good” or “bad” Hebrew (pardon the prescriptivism), how can we ask schools to teach it ‘correctly’? I hope Dr. Wallace Greene would be willing to develop an answer to these questions and create an effective proposal for how Hebrew should be taught.

Ephraim Ayil
Lander College for Men