• Review
By – February 2, 2017

Lewis Glin­ert, pro­fes­sor of Hebrew Stud­ies at Dart­mouth Col­lege, is wide­ly acknowl­edged as one of the most pro­lif­ic schol­ars of the Hebrew lan­guage. His books on Hebrew range wide­ly from the pop­u­lar The Joys of Hebrew to his col­lec­tion of schol­ar­ly essays Hebrew in Ashke­naz. In his newest book, Glin­ert, a tal­ent­ed sto­ry­teller, writes a mod­ern, even col­lo­qui­al, his­to­ry of Hebrew, recount­ing the language’s flour­ish­ing and what he sees as its inevitable decline over sev­er­al centuries.

Glin­ert attrib­ut­es much of Hebrew’s decline to the scorn of Hebrew gram­mar by pious Ashke­nazi Jews. Although he doesn’t say so out­right, many yeshi­va stu­dents today, woe­ful­ly igno­rant of Hebrew gram­mar, like to cite the indif­fer­ence to Hebrew gram­mar of their revered rebbes as proof that knowl­edge of the ways that Hebrew works is not nec­es­sary for under­stand­ing clas­si­cal Hebrew texts. And yet, even today, halakhik respon­sa writ­ten by anti-Zion­ist rab­bis of the Eda ha-hared­it in Israel often present mod­els of per­fect gram­mar and grace­ful Hebrew prose.

Glin­ert pos­sess­es a ver­i­ta­ble mine of Hebra­ic anec­dotes. He notes sev­er­al charm­ing errors com­mit­ted by Renais­sance schol­ars who want­ed so dear­ly to see Hebrew as the orig­i­nal lan­guage, cre­at­ed dur­ing the sev­en days of cre­ation — Let there be Hebrew” — that they saw ety­mo­log­i­cal sim­i­lar­i­ties between Hebrew and cer­tain Euro­pean lan­guages where there were none and forced them through the sieve of reli­gious belief.

Glin­ert dis­tin­guish­es between Chris­t­ian knowl­edge of Hebrew — Hebrew de-Judaized” — and Jew­ish knowl­edge of Hebrew. Among Glinert’s dis­cus­sions of var­i­ous Chris­t­ian trans­la­tions of the Hebrew Bible, Glin­ert dilates at some length on the 1530 trans­la­tion of the Pen­ta­teuch into Eng­lish by William Tyn­dale, pay­ing par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to Tyndale’s efforts to inject and reflect a Hebra­ic note into the Eng­lish syn­tax. Glin­ert writes about Tyndale:

Tyn­dale wished to forge a Hebra­ic con­scious­ness, unlike so many twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry trans­la­tors try­ing to make read­ers for­get they are read­ing a trans­la­tion. The result was Eng­lish that was at times even more crude” than Renais­sance Eng­lish was gen­er­al­ly thought to be. But Tyn­dale was not will­ing to sell his Eng­lish birthright for a mess of Roman rhetoric.

This Hebraiz­ing of his trans­la­tion, adds Glin­ert, led to Tyndale’s mur­der in Bel­gium by the Eng­lish régime in 1536. Of course, it also led to the King James Bible in 1611.

Tak­ing us to the dawn of moder­ni­ty, Glin­ert attrib­ut­es to Hasidism the first seeds” of Hebrew’s revival. Even though the Hasidic mas­ters orat­ed in Yid­dish, their oral pro­nounce­ments were tran­scribed in Hebrew. He quotes one schol­ar who describes this sit­u­a­tion as ele­vat­ing the sta­tus of Yid­dish while at the same time revi­tal­iz­ing Hebrew.” Among Glinert’s many tit­il­lat­ing tid­bits is that Rab­bi Nach­man of Brat­slav pub­lished his famous Tales” in a bilin­gual Yid­dish-Hebrew edition.

In the final two chap­ters of the book Glin­ert moves into the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry to focus on the Hasidim and the mask­il­im (of the Jew­ish Enlight­en­ment), and into the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry with the role of Hebrew in the found­ing of the Jew­ish State.

While acknowl­edg­ing the enor­mous accom­plish­ment of the revival of Hebrew today, Glin­ert strikes sev­er­al pes­simistic notes in his con­clud­ing chap­ters. His con­clu­sions leave us with food for thought: The Hebrew State is in many ways a tri­umphant stage in the sto­ry of Hebrew. But it is not the final word on the state of Hebrew.” Unable to let go of the idea of the dynam­ic qual­i­ty of Hebrew as a liv­ing lan­guage, Glin­ert takes it up again in the epi­logue: His­to­ry has sprung some big sur­pris­es on this ancient lin­guis­tic brand, and one can be con­fi­dent that his­to­ry is far from done with it.” Opti­misti­cal­ly enough, that his­to­ry involves the future of the Hebrew language.

Joseph Lowin, Hebrew lan­guage colum­nist for Hadas­sah Mag­a­zine, is the author most recent­ly of a book of lit­er­ary analy­sis, Art and the Artist in the Con­tem­po­rary Israeli Nov­el (Lex­ing­ton Books, 2017).

Discussion Questions