Teaching online Hebrew students is one of the joys of my life. Students are in many cases more than just clients. They are friends. After going through a Hebrew grammar textbook together — which usually takes six months — we translate the book of Ruth and then many continue studying as we work through whatever texts in the Hebrew Bible they want to tackle.
Jeremy Ritter is a perfect example of a student who is a friend. Although he lives more than eight hours from me, we’ve had the chance for our families to get together. We make each other laugh. More importantly, we make each other think. Right now, we’re thinking about Mishlei, the book of Proverbs, the ambiguity and multivalence of its language. “Multivalence” is one of those $3 words that is much simpler than it appears. It simply means “open to more than one meaning.” We’re surprised repeatedly each week by unexpected alternate possibilities presented to us by the language. And it helps reading the superb commentary by Michael Fox in the Anchor-Yale series.
Oh and Sunshine, Jeremy’s wife and best friend, is teaching the children Hebrew. I imagine he must be jealous that they get to grasp Hebrew thinking from a young age. Imagine what they will be capable of as they grow into adulthood. I have watched children raised with Torah and Hebrew and have seen a number of them become strong leaders in their Jewish communities as young adults.
Here are Jeremy’s thoughts on the value of learning and engaging in Hebrew study each week:
Shalom, achi! You asked me to craft an short email conveying my reflections on Hebrew language study. This is what I’ve come up with. Not sure if this is what you had in mind, but this is what fell out onto the page as I began writing. J
For just short of ten months we’ve been studying Hebrew together, the language and the Scripture. The experience of learning the Lord’s language has been a source of inspiration, education, and elation. I knew going in I would learn enough to fill volumes, but I had not anticipated how significantly the experience would impact my perspective on translation, its difficulties, and its rewards.
Those who have ever only read a translation of Scripture, regardless of the language, are at the mercy of a translator’s whim, his mood, her beliefs, their theologies. Henry James said, “Every translation is a lie.” I now appreciate the quote experientially. In my own translations, I have often thrust my own dogma, my own emotional baggage, my own theological bent. And in those moments when I supplanted the average interpretation for my own, I realized how challenging it is, how problematic it can be, how great a burden of virtue rests on the shoulders of the translator.
And yet in the same moment of feeling such a great responsibility, I have found the immense freedom that comes with choice. I have been given the liberty to discern what the Almighty may be conveying through ancient texts. Weighty? Yes. But because Hebrew words can have such a vast array of translational variation, I have begun to realize no single translation can possible convey the infinite storehouse of wisdom contained within the pages of Holy Writ.
In a manner of speaking, there is no one, right answer. There are limits, to be sure. But like the freedom afforded and defined by the 613 mitzvot, I have found that moving within the space of each Hebrew word has granted me the chance to safely explore the depth of God’s wisdom while still tethered to the limitations of how far a text can be stretched. This may sound a bit mystical, and I suspect it is! One cannot go for a casual stroll through the Garden of HaShem and expect to leave unscathed.
Grace & Peace,
Want to study Hebrew or the Hebrew Bible in English? I teach online students from all over the U.S. and other countries. Half-hour sessions on Skype. Email me for more info. Derek at TheHebrewNerd.com