You don’t have to spend much time in a Reform or Conservative synagogue to realize that American Judaism has a language problem, one that’s simple to describe but hard to solve. American Jews speak English, but our sacred texts—the Torah readings, the prayers—are in Hebrew. As a result, most of us don’t know what we’re hearing, or even what we’re saying, during a prayer service. Yet if you try to reduce the amount of Hebrew in the service, by saying prayers in English, you lose the sense of connection with ancient tradition that is such a large part of Jewish spirituality. The only real solution to this dilemma would be for every Jew to become fluent in Hebrew, but we will be waiting a long time before that day comes.
It was consoling to read Daf Yomi this week, then, and realize that this is not just an American problem; it’s been with Judaism since the Babylonian exile. The language of the Tanakh is Hebrew, but by the time the Talmud was compiled, the Jewish people even in the Holy Land no longer spoke Hebrew as a native language; instead, they spoke the closely related Aramaic. And Jews in other parts of the classical world didn’t even know Aramaic, conducting their lives instead in Greek. Indeed, Philo of Alexandria, the biblical commentator who lived in the 1st century C.E., based his detailed explication of the Torah on the Greek translation known as the Septuagint; it’s not certain that he even knew Hebrew at all. Judaism has been a religion of and in translation almost since the beginning.
Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.