Jewish Surnames [Supposedly] Explained

“Dara, you’ll love this!” Actually, I don’t.
Jewish Surnames [Supposedly] Explained
Gluckel of Hameln—not actually from Hameln.
 
Observation
Dara Horn
Jan. 21 2014 12:00AM

Why, O Internet, do you keep doing this to me?

By “this,” I mean turning unsubstantiated nonsense into articles that are then smeared across the globe. And when the fun-filled piece-of-the-week concerns something related to Jewish culture—about which a few million Americans feel a sense of ownership, and millions more feel an intense curiosity, but remarkably few have any substantial knowledge—the phenomenon can multiply exponentially.

The latest in this genre is “Jewish Surnames Explained,” an article by Bennett Muraskin that appeared last November in the online magazine Jewish Currents, was picked up and further popularized a couple of weeks ago by Slate, and even found a spot among Mosaic’s daily listings of noteworthy items from around the web. According to Jewish Currents, not exactly a mass medium, the original piece attracted no fewer than 200,000 visitors; Slate’s posting has already garnered 79,000 “shares” on Facebook; and a quick Google search yields no fewer than 200,000 results for the title alone. All this, for an article that purports to explain the origins of a large number of common Ashkenazi family names.

If you are an American Jew who uses the Internet, I suspect that you, too, have already seen this article, and I even know how you found it or, rather, how it found you. It was sent by your friend, or your mom, or your friend’s mom, or you saw it on Facebook, or retweeted it on Twitter, or came across it republished elsewhere. I myself have been exposed to it at least three dozen times in the past six days, often accompanied by a tag or header: “Dara, you’ll love this!”

Actually, I don’t. Not because there’s anything illegitimate about the subject of Jewish names, or because linguistic and genealogical inquiry is a pointless endeavor. To the contrary: the immense attention paid to this article reveals the degree to which many American Jews are still fascinated to learn where they came from. Unfortunately, it also reveals how the members of a group so highly educated in other respects know so little about their own history that they will swallow any “fact” from the Jewish past that comes flitting across their screens.

 

What’s wrong, exactly, with “Jewish Surnames Explained”? In a sentence: despite its quotient of accurate information, its errors are legion. Yes, I know, everyone makes mistakes. Just yesterday, for instance, I unintentionally put a cat in my microwave. He’s dead now, and I won’t do that to him again. But the mistakes here aren’t of that one-off variety. They’re of the underlying-premise variety, and they are sufficient to place the whole enterprise under suspicion.

The first underlying premise is that one need not actually know Yiddish, Hebrew, German, or Slavic languages, or consult with anyone who does, in order to translate words from those languages and present the resulting fun-filled facts to a new audience. This leads to a symphony of errors, so many that it’s hard to know where to begin or to end. But here are a few.

Consider the name Kagan, which according to the article is derived from the Khazars, a Central Asian people who, according to legend, converted en masse to Judaism in the Middle Ages. Any mention of Khazars and Jews in the same sentence ought to raise a red flag, if only because the mythic Khazar “history” has become a favorite trope of anti-Semites, who use it to negate the Middle Eastern origins of the Jews—archaeology and genetic studies be damned. But to notice the mistake here, you need only know that h’s in other languages can become g’s in Russian. The name Kagan and its variants derive from the Hebrew word kohen, denoting descendants of the biblical high priests.

“Lieb means lion in Yiddish,” we are told. Actually, leyb means lion in Yiddish (with the vowel sound ey as in “hey”), while lib (the word that sounds like the German word lieb) is a verb form for “love”—as it is in German; this error requires an ignorance of two languages. We are told that Berliner means “husband of Berl,” despite the fact that Berl is a man’s name in Yiddish and Berliner is more recognizably derived from Berlin. We are told that Lieberman means “loverman”; it is actually a term of formal address, as in “dear sir.” We learn that Mendel is derived from Emanuel, when a rudimentary knowledge of Yiddish makes it clear that it is a diminutive of Menahem. There are more like this, but I needn’t bore you.

A second underlying premise in the piece is that a place-related surname describes where one’s ancestors came from. Seems obvious, right? In fact, such a name usually describes where one’s ancestors didn’t come from.

Take the Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln, an autobiography by a 17th-century German Jewish businesswoman and a classic of early modern Yiddish literature, written well before the advent of official surnames among Ashkenazi Jews. In this memoir, Gluckel frequently identifies the people with whom she interacts by means of place names. Glikl Hamel, as she is known in Yiddish, married a man from Hameln (“Hamel” to Yiddish speakers). In her memoirs, she refers to her husband and her in-laws by that place name (which isn’t a surname) even though she and her husband spent most of their married life in Hamburg where she was born. In fact, they stayed in Hameln, which she describes as “a dull shabby hole,” only for the first year of their very young marriage—which for her husband meant only until he was fifteen. Yet the book isn’t called Memoirs of Gluckel of Hamburg. Similarly, Gluckel refers to a man with whom she has business ties as Judah Berlin since, yes, he lives in Berlin. But she does that because she lives in Hamburg. Did Judah’s neighbors in Berlin call him Judah Berlin? Unlikely.

 

Another big problem here is the utter lack of sources. Many of the article’s derivations amount to just one among several possibilities; the lack of substantiation makes it impossible to judge. Koenig, we are told, refers to a “Purim king, in reality a poor wretch.” I’d venture that Koenig is probably a place name based on Koenigsberg. Nor does the name Hirschhorn strike me as an animal name referring to deer antlers; it’s likely a simple reference to the German town of Hirschhorn—which does mean deer antler, but so what? When we say people are from Buffalo, are we saying they have meaningful associations with buffalos?

More: while I guess the name Kessler could, in theory, be a patronymic for the (rather unusual) name Kesl, it is more likely derived from kestler, a Yiddish word denoting a married man who lives with his in-laws. The name Zaks or Saks may or may not be a Hebrew acronym for zera k’doshim sh’mo (“his name descends from martyrs”); I’ve heard a similar story about its derivation from zikhron k’doshey shtendal (“memorial of the martyrs of Stendal”), referring to a medieval massacre in that German city. But the Hebrew doesn’t quite fit; in both cases, the final consonant would have to be a “sh,” and I’ve never met a Zaksh. It would make much more sense if the name were simply a reference to Saxony.

Not being a scholar of linguistics, or a historian, I could of course be wrong about all of this. But so could the author of this already suspect list of names. Without a single citation or a single explanation of where any of his information comes from, there is no way for me or anyone else to know.

“Jewish Surnames Explained” concludes, tellingly, with a perennial myth about American Jewish surnames: “Finally, there may have been Jewish names changed or shortened by immigration inspectors (though this is disputed).” This is like saying: “Finally, the lunar landing may have been faked to impress the Soviets (though this is disputed).” The idea that immigration officers at Ellis Island were a bunch of rent-a-cops scribbling down whatever names struck their fancy falls into the same category as Washington chopping down the cherry tree or the CIA killing Kennedy. Immigration officers at Ellis Island (and its precursor, Castle Garden) were accompanied by interpreters who were required to know at least three languages, while ancillary interpreters with knowledge of more obscure languages circulated to ensure competency—and in this context, Yiddish, German, Russian, and Polish were far from obscure.

None of this even matters, though, because immigration officers at Ellis Island never wrote down immigrants’ names. They obtained those names from ships’ manifests, compiled at the port of origin. Nor is it possible that the same mythic scenario was enacted on the European end. Ships’ manifests were recorded from passports and other travel papers, and the shipping companies were very careful not to make errors, because errors cost them money: inaccuracies were grounds for deporting improperly documented or unqualified people back to Europe at company expense.

True, European Jewish immigrants did have to render their names into Latin or Cyrillic letters to create passports, and yes, passports were sometimes forged—but those forgeries or name changes would have been generated by the immigrants themselves. It is also true that many immigrants chose new names for themselves in America, whether for expediency or to avoid discrimination. But that was after they left Ellis Island. I am not revealing state secrets here, or arcane information. Any school child who has been on a field trip to Ellis Island knows all this. But why use facts when rumors will do?

 

We all know that the Internet is full of unintended errors, not-entirely-unintended distortions, and outright malevolent lies. It has that in common with all human discourse. As Jewish content goes, moreover, “Jewish Surnames Explained” is benign compared with what you’ll find if you Google, say, “Jewish lobby.” (Hint: not the reception area of the King David Hotel.) Amid a sea of mendacity and hatred, complaining about this one article feels a bit like clubbing a baby seal.

And yet it is precisely that toxic sea that makes it all the more important to get Jewish history right. When so many, online and off, are hellbent on denigrating Jews, denying their history, and discrediting their traditions and their culture, mindless gullibility about these matters is in itself distressing. It shames me to think that American Jews, 49 percent of whom claimed in the recent Pew survey that an “essential part of being Jewish” was “being intellectually curious,” are so ignorant of their own heritage as to lay eager claim to the most questionable and transparently dubious fluff, and celebrate it as fact. This, to me, is almost as depressing as when someone tells you he’s sent his banking details to Nigeria.

In the end, and despite the number of true facts it contains, “Jewish Surnames Explained” explains little, and that badly. It is really nothing but a bobe-mayse—which, incidentally, does not mean “grandma story” but is rather a reference to the Bove Bukh, a wildly popular Yiddish romance of the early modern period whose hero, Bove, gets drawn into fantastic and utterly implausible adventures.

But don’t get me started.

__________________________________

Dara Horn is the author of four novels. The most recent, A Guide for the Perplexed, was published in September.

More about: Ashkenazi, Bennett Muraskin, Khazars, surname, Yiddish

 

An Israeli Writer’s Great American Novel

In his prize-winning new novel, Reuven Namdar asks whether American Jewry is a house on fire. His answer is. . . .

An Israeli Writer’s Great American Novel
Photo by Reuven Namdar.
 
Observation
March 5 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University, and the editor and translator of Letters to America: Selected Poems of Reuven Ben-Yosef (forthcoming from Syracuse University Press). He is a frequent contributor to Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books, and he also writes at the website Investigations and Fantasies.



Israeli reviewers have repeatedly invoked the word “ambitious” to describe Reuven Namdar’s Hebrew novel, Habayit asher neḥerav (“The House That Was Destroyed”), which in January won the Sapir prize, Israel’s equivalent of Britain’s Man Booker award. The term is richly deserved. In The House That Was Destroyed, Namdar, an Israeli of Persian descent who for the past fifteen years has made his home in New York, has given us, simultaneously, four kinds of novel. Each is worth describing in order to grasp what may be the book’s culminating, if most elusive ambition: to be read one day by the American Jews who are implicated in its pages.

First, Habayit asher neḥerav is a campus novel. Andrew Cohen, its American Jewish protagonist, is a successful, fifty-two-year-old professor in the “department of comparative culture” at New York University. A popular teacher, he writes highly regarded academic essays in the fashionable postmodern mode; his current effort bears the provisional title “Woody Warhol and Andy Allen: Representations of Inversion or the Inversion of Representation.” When not hosting dinner parties in his elegantly minimalist Upper West Side apartment, he fills his social calendar with gallery openings, museum exhibits, and meals at fashionable Manhattan restaurants. Still, bad trouble looms: his standing at the university is challenged when his politically correct colleagues protest that a white male lacks the moral authority to chair the department. They also suspect him as a Jew who, while known to protest Israeli policies, does not display quite as great a passion as theirs for the Palestinian cause. Satire, or realism? It is fair to ask.

At the same time, Habayit asher neḥerav is a novel of domestic life or, more accurately, post-domestic life: a probing and somber depiction of divorce. Although Cohen seems to enjoy his bachelor life, and has acquired a girlfriend half his age, he dreams frequently, even yearningly, of his ex-wife, and slowly comes to comprehend the emotional damage his decision to leave has caused her and their two daughters, not to mention the psychic rootlessness to which he has consigned himself. Notes of sadness and loss creep in gradually, as when Cohen finds himself wondering what became of his old wedding ring:

The last time he saw it, it lay in a little box in the top drawer of the end table in the living room. Probably still there. You don’t throw out wedding rings, right? Antique stores are full of them: old gold rings, smooth or carved, studded with diamonds or inlaid with sapphires, engraved with old-fashioned names in scrolling letters, names whose bearers haven’t been among the living for a long while. Not worth melting down; the metal has minimal value. People will buy them, perhaps even use them as wedding rings. How strange, such ghost weddings, the living wearing the dead.

Third, the novel is a horror tale, its creepiness quotient lying somewhere between Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and a David Cronenberg movie. In what constitutes the book’s main plot line, Cohen is visited by increasingly hideous visions having to do with the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Our protagonist may be a third-generation American and an indifferent bagels-and-lox Jew, but his name—Cohens are descendants of the ancient Israelite priesthood—has claimed him with atavistic force. Initially, he suffers hallucinations of the Temple’s sacrificial rites; these soon evolve into an acute sensitivity—experienced as a series of skin conditions, bizarre allergies, and inexplicable mood swings—to non-kosher food, pagan imagery, and ritually impure bodily discharges. (One night, sensing a monstrous presence in the room, he awakes to discover the sheets stained with his girlfriend’s menses; even after she removes the offending sheets, the blood “was still palpable, frightening and repulsive, as if the entire room were tainted.”) By the end of the novel, now in the grip of mental and physical breakdown, he envisions ghastly images of Jerusalem ablaze, the heads of tender babes dashed upon its walls.

 

So far, the questions raised by Namdar’s novel seem to arise out of the anxieties and fragile condition of many an introspective urban liberal, Jewish-style. What has been lost in the rush to slough off or repudiate traditional forms of sanctity and community? Why are we yet haunted by phenomena we thought safely relegated to the attics and storage lockers of human experience? Among its many charred and smoldering rooms, the “destroyed house” of the title contains the desiccated yet doctrinaire thought-system propagated by the postmodern academy, the imploded state of contemporary marriage, the terror of living in a godless world. But in the end Namdar has more particular concerns, which fully inhabit the fourth and most important strand of his novel.

Above all, Habayit asher neḥerav is a keenly observed meditation on the failing inner resources of American Jewry at the dawn of the 21st century. What Namdar’s novel asks is whether American Jewry is another house on fire. To this, his answer is equivocal.

Before getting to that answer, we might briefly consider two literary parallels to the enterprise of this book. Almost inevitably, Habayit asher neḥerav recalls the work, and the temperament, of late-period Saul Bellow, and indeed it includes a telling reference at one point to Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Bellow’s fiercely unblinking threnody to Western civilization circa 1970. Yet its truer precursor may be another Hebrew novel that is also set in New York City: Shimon Halkin’s 1945 Ad mashber (“Before the Crash”). Halkin, a poet, novelist, and scholar who lived mainly in the United States from 1914 until 1949, when he was appointed to a professorship at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, similarly explores the psychic crises of his Jewish characters and, by extension, the American Jewish community. In another common feature, both Ad mashber and Habayit asher neḥerav offer lyrical paeans to Manhattan even as they grimly survey the crumbling topography of American politics, race, and spiritual and erotic life.

Unlike Halkin, however, Namdar gives his novel a partially redemptive ending, holding out the possibility of an American Jewish restoration. Several times, Andrew Cohen notices an Israeli who bears a more than passing resemblance to Namdar himself, and, though they never meet or speak, at one point the American professor is struck by the “absurd thought” that this anonymous Israeli “holds some kind of key to the perplexity lately filling his life.” Resorting to a different literary mode, Namdar also offers a charming faux-rabbinic tale of his own devising that renders Cohen’s tribulations as necessary but temporary payback for a sin committed by an ancestor 2,000 years earlier. In interviews, Namdar has explicitly voiced the hope that American Jews, including his own wife and children, might one day be able to read and heed the message of his book, if not in the original then at least in translation.

The hope is assuredly noble, if all but belied by the accumulated record of spiritual and psychic fissure that fills the 500 pages of Namdar’s novel. Indeed, it is difficult to put down this book without concluding that the troubles besetting American Judaism are in no way comparable to a residual attack of ancient bad karma that might pass like a breaking fever. Whether or not his intended readers will ever be able or willing to hear or heed his words, however, Reuven Namdar’s great Israeli and American Jewish novel shows that he has been listening with stunning fidelity to theirs.

More about: American Jewry, Arts & Culture, Modern Hebrew literature, Reuven Namdar

 

What to Do When the Lord Orders Vengeance

God wanted all of Amalek dead. Saul thought he knew better. What happened next?

What to Do When the Lord Orders Vengeance
From The Death of Agag by Gustave Doré. Wikimedia.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
Feb. 26 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


Most weeks, the haftarah—a reading selected from one of the prophetic books of the Bible—is chosen because it shares some theme with the weekly Torah portion. This Shabbat (known as Shabbat Zakhor) is one of the exceptions: since it’s the Sabbath before Purim, the reading, taken from the book of Samuel (I, 15:1-34), involves Agag, the king of the Amalekites and the ancestor of Haman.

But the haftarah isn’t really about Agag, and it isn’t at all like the plot-driven book of Esther. It’s a character study, in which two personality types are examined. Unlike the story of Jacob’s sons, Judah and Joseph, where the difference was one of what you might call “learning styles,” here there’s a straightforward contrast between what you might call inner-directed and outer-directed leadership.

The prophet Samuel is not altogether interested in what the people want. He warns them against this whole king business right off the bat. But they want a king, so he asks God on their behalf for a king. What they get is Saul. Saul cares rather too much about the people:

But Samuel said to Saul, me it was God sent to anoint you
as king over his people, over Israel,
and now obey the words of God.
So said the Lord of hosts: I will repay what Amalek did to Israel
That ambushed him on the way as he rose out of Egypt:
Now go and beat Amalek and eradicate all he has
And have no mercy on him
And put to death whether woman or man, from newborn to suckling babe,
From bull to lamb, from camel to ass.

And Saul called up the people and counted them using patches,
Twelve-hundred infantry and ten-thousand men of Judea.
And Saul came up to the Amalek camp and lay in wait at the river.
And Saul told the Kenites, Go, turn away, get down from Amalek-land
Or I’ll lay you to waste with them, whereas you dealt kindly
with all the children of Israel as they went up from Egypt,
and the Kenite turned away from among Amalek.

And Saul beat Amalek from Havila to Shur across from Egypt:
and he captured Agag king of Amalek alive
but all the people he eradicated by the sword.
But Saul and the people took pity on Agag
and on the best of the sheep and the cattle
and on the second-born and the horses and on all the goods
but all the livestock that’s scorned and melts away, that they eradicated.

Here, in a nutshell, is the problem with outer-directed leaders. They take their eye off the ball. They get distracted by what the people want or, to take a more charitable view, have bouts of compassion. Unfortunately, neither what the people want, nor compassion, is high on the agenda of the Lord of Hosts.

But the word of the Lord to Samuel was to say—
I regret having crowned Saul as king
For he’s turned from following Me and has not fulfilled My words.
And it troubled Samuel and he clamored to the Lord all that night.
But Samuel rose early to meet Saul in the morning
And it was told to Samuel to say, Saul is come to the Carmel
and here he is erecting himself an altar,
and he turned and he passed and went down to Gilgal.

And Samuel came to Saul and Saul said to him,
God bless you, I have fulfilled the word of God.
But Samuel said, And what is this sound of sheep in my ears
And sound of cattle I hear?
And Saul said, They brought them from Amalek-land
For the people took pity on the best sheep and cattle
In order to sacrifice to the Lord your God,
but the leftovers we eradicated.
But Samuel said to Saul,
Leave off and I’ll tell you what the Lord said to me tonight.
And he told him, Speak.

And Samuel said, If indeed you are slight in your own eyes
You are head of the tribes of Israel and the Lord anointed you king over Israel:
And the Lord sent you on your way and told you
But you shall eradicate the sinners, the Amalekites,
and fight until you have finished them.
And why did you not obey the Lord but rather fall on the spoils
and do what’s wrong in the eyes of the Lord?
But Saul said to Samuel, indeed I obeyed the Lord
And went the way the Lord sent me,
And I brought Agag king of Amalek, but I eradicated the Amalekites
And the people took from the spoils sheep and cattle,
the first of the offerings, to sacrifice to the Lord your God at Gilgal.

But Samuel said, Does the Lord want offerings and sacrifices
as much as obedience to the Lord?
Look, obedience is as superior to sacrifice
as obedience is to the fat of rams.
For a sin-offering is a rebellious charm: sin, and casting lots for pleading.
So you tired of the word of the Lord and he’s tired of you being king.

The other problem with taking your eye off the ball to listen to the people is that the consequences can be lethal and instantaneous. The commentators point out that from a legal point of view, Saul’s argument is perfectly valid: both he and the people took some spoils away to sacrifice at a more dignified time and place. But that’s not how Samuel understood it, and that’s not how the Lord sees it.

The crucial difference is in understanding the point of the exercise. The Lord wanted to exact a terrible vengeance for what He describes as an unprecedented and immoral attack on Israel at its time of weakness. There are many other tribes the Jews encounter in their journey from Egypt to the land of Israel, but Amalek is singled out because they attacked like bandits at a time of weakness, not like an army defending tribal territory and giving the Jews a chance to fight back. Neither Samuel nor the Lord regards this military campaign as mere business as usual.

But Saul said to Samuel, I’ve sinned for I transgressed what God said and his  words
For I feared the people and I obeyed them,
But now pray you forgive my sin and return with me and I’ll pray to the Lord.
But Samuel said to Saul, I will not return with you
For you tired of the word of the Lord
and the Lord is tired of you being king over Israel.

And Samuel turned to go but he gripped the tail of his coat and it tore apart
and Samuel said to him, the Lord tore the kingship of Israel from you today
and will give it to your friend who is better than you.
Though the victory is Israel’s, He will not lie and will not reconsider
For He is not a man to reconsider.
But he said, I’ve sinned, now, pray you, honor me before the elders
of my people and before Israel,
And return with me and I will pray to the Lord your God.

And Samuel returned with Saul and Saul prayed to the Lord.
But Samuel said, Hand me Agag king of Amalek
And Agag walked to him in delight
and Agag said, indeed the bitterness of death has gone.
But Samuel said, Just as your sword bereaved women
So shall your mother be bereaved among women.
And Samuel skewered Agag before the Lord at Gilgal. . . .

And Samuel didn’t see Saul again until the day he died
because Samuel mourned over Saul,
and the Lord regretted having crowned Saul over Israel.

The aftermath comes a few pages later in the book of Samuel, in a passage not read in the haftarah. We are introduced to David with three separate stories, beginning with Samuel going to look for him and finding him the smallest and least impressive of his father’s sons, yet still being told by God to anoint him though he’s not tall and impressive as Saul was. Then there’s another story where David comes to court as a rather talented harp player summoned to minister to Saul and make him feel better because he’s rather depressed (and I think we know why). That’s a great testament to David’s therapeutic gifts but still doesn’t explain why the Lord wants him to be king.

But then finally we have the story of Goliath coming to curse the entire massed armies of Israel and nobody daring to take his challenge. Goliath then repeats his challenge while David is bringing food from home for his older brothers and, the story notes, David heard him. Whenever I read that line about David hearing Goliath, I always imagine a sound effect of scary music. You get this definite feeling the text thinks there’s going to be trouble. But why should there be trouble from this puny harpist? When David offers to accept Goliath’s challenge, Saul tries to dissuade him:

But Saul said to David, you can’t go to this Philistine and fight him,
For you’re a boy and he’s a man of war since youth.
But David said to Saul, Your servant was a shepherd to his father’s flock
and the lion and bear came to carry away a lamb from the herd
And I went after him and beat him and saved it from his jaws
And he rose up against me and I held him by the bristles
And beat him and killed him. Your servant beat both the lion and the bear
And this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them
Because he cursed the armies of the living God.

One thing you do not need to worry about with David, as this lyrical evocation of his days back on the farm makes clear, is that he’ll have mercy on somebody the Lord asks him to kill. David does not even think Goliath is human—just  another critter out there in the field, and he’s already killed plenty of critters. David, we see now, has been nominated as king because the Lord looked inside his heart and found him both spiritually gifted and entirely ruthless. As the high-holiday service notes, the Lord may be my shepherd, but sometimes the shepherd has to decide which sheep has to die.

What Samuel shows Saul at Gilgal when he hacks apart the king of Amalek is what happens to kings who don’t obey their inner voice, the still, small voice that cries in the night—let alone the voice of their prophet. David eventually sins and pays a terrible price for his unbridled appetite in private life, but he always obeys the Lord as King and never loses sight of his function. Even if he falls victim to his own passions, he never falls victim to the passions of the mob. That is why he remains the one wielding the sword. Obedience is better than any number of offerings. Those who don’t obey but let themselves be ruled by the people may find themselves crossing the line from sacrificer to sacrificed.

More about: Amalek, King David, Samuel, The Monthly Portion, Torah

 

Sorry, NYTimes—There Are Actually Five Hebrew Words for Debate

A common and dismaying misconception.

Sorry, NYTimes—There Are Actually Five Hebrew Words for Debate
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Kobi Gideon, GPO
 
Observation
Feb. 25 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.


Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

“Until a few years ago,” wrote the New York Times’ Israel correspondent Jodi Rudoren in a recent dispatch commenting on the lack of substance in the current Israeli election campaign,

there was no Hebrew word for debate. Then in 2012 linguists adopted the term “mamat,” whose root meant “confrontation,” which Yoni Cohen-Idov, an international debating champion, sees as symptomatic of what ails his nation’s political discourse. “Debate, the English word, consists of two elements—one is confrontation, the other is discussion,” he said. “If you’re rivals and you only shout at one another and make slogans, and you don’t discuss them in depth, that is not a debate.”

About the dismaying triviality of the politicians bidding for Israelis’ ballots on March 17, I couldn’t agree with Rudoren more. Nor would I blame her for her faulty Hebrew, even though had she bothered to check, she would have known that the neologism in question is ma’amat, not mamat, from the root ayin-mem-taf, found in the Bible in l’umat, “across from” or “facing.” Ma’amat was indeed adopted as a term for debate several years ago by the Academy of the Hebrew Language, an official body of linguists and scholars entrusted with coining new Hebrew words.

No, the real culprit here is Cohen-Idov—and the Academy. The first is ignorant, the second misguided.

No Hebrew word for debate? This would be passing strange if true, since debate lies at the very heart of the Talmud and of the rabbinic tradition that is based on it. One would as much expect Hebrew to lack a word for debate as one would expect Arabic to lack a word for sand or Inuit a word for snow.

And in fact, it’s completely untrue. Hebrew has, quite apart from ma’amat, at least five words meaning “debate,” some going back 1,500 years or more.

The oldest of these is plugta, an originally Aramaic word deriving from the Aramaic/Hebrew verb palag, to divide or be divided from. Plugta is regularly used in the Talmud to denote a running argument between two rabbis or schools of thought and yields bar-plugta, a debating partner. This term is applied, for example, to Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon in the tractate of Bava Metsiya, in which the two take opposing sides on a series of questions pertaining to the return of stolen property.

A second word for debate with ancient roots is pulmus, which comes from Greek polemos, “war.” In the Talmud, where it appears as polmos, it actually means war, but in later ages, like its English cognate “polemic,” it took on the meaning of a war of words. For the early rabbis, polmos Adrianus denoted the Bar-Kokhba rebellion against the Roman emperor Hadrian; in contemporary Hebrew, pulmus Bar-Kokhba refers to the ongoing scholarly debate over that rebellion’s causes and justifications.

Next comes nitsuaḥ, from the verb natsaḥ, “to triumph over.” In an oft-cited talmudic story about Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who performs a series of miracles to prove he is right in a halakhic dispute, the forces of nature that collaborate with him are scolded by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who tells them: “If rabbinical scholars are debating [menats'ḥim, literally, "striving to triumph"] in a matter of law, what business is it of yours?” From this comes the noun nitsu’aḥ, a debate, first found in the Middle Ages. In modern Hebrew, it has been joined by its synonymous reflexive form of hitnats’ḥut.

“But,” Cohen-Idov might counter, “none of these words designates a debate in the sense of a formal contest held in the presence of an audience and judges.”

True enough. Yet Cohen-Idov has apparently never heard of various medieval religious debates between Jews and Christians in which precisely such conditions prevailed. Probably the best-known of these took place in Barcelona in 1263, at the court of King James I of Aragon, between Naḥmanides or Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman and the Jewish apostate Pablo Christiani. Remarkably for the times, a panel of Christian judges ruled Naḥmanides the victor and awarded him a monetary prize. In Hebrew this event is traditionally known as viku’aḥ Bartselona, the Barcelona debate or disputation, from the biblical verb hitvake’aḥ, “to argue,” and other similar disputations were called vikuḥim, too.

“Surely, though, Hebrew deserves to have two separate words, one for an argument and one for a debate!” one imagines Cohen-Idov persisting, and the Academy of the Hebrew Language would clearly agree. Let viku’aḥ mean “argument,” let ma’amat mean “formal debate,” and we can all sleep better at night.

But we should have been sleeping well already. No two languages have identical semantic fields, and the fact that there are distinct words for W and X in Language Y is no reason to require them in Language Z. If Hebrew uses the verb lavash for putting on a coat and ḥavash for putting on a hat, does this mean that English needs different words for putting on hats and coats, too? And if Hebrew speakers do want to differentiate more explicitly, they have the option of saying viku’aḥ tsibburi, “a public vikuaḥ,” just as one speaks of “a public debate” in English.

Of course, English is a world-dominating language and Hebrew is not—and implicit in the Academy’s coining of ma’amat when viku’aḥ is available is the assumption that while English needn’t behave like Hebrew, Hebrew should and must behave like English. This is the truly objectionable part of it. If Hebrew speakers knew their own language better and took more pride in it, they wouldn’t think a new Hebrew word was called for every time an old one was not a precise equivalent of a word in English. It’s not only Cohen-Idov who is suffering from a linguistic inferiority complex. It’s the Academy of the Hebrew Language, too.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Hebrew, Medieval disputations

 

Is the Hebrew Bible a Jewish Book?

What does the underread text of the ancient Hebrews have to do with the Jews of today?

Is the Hebrew Bible a Jewish Book?
Photo by Josh Evnin/Flickr.
 
Observation
Feb. 12 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Alan Rubenstein is the Hanson scholar of ethics at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.


Is the Hebrew Bible—the Tanakh—a Jewish book? At first glance, the question is absurd. The Bible is written in the language of the Jews, sections of it are read aloud, year in and year out, in synagogues and prayer groups, its words and thoughts permeate the Jewish liturgy, and its laws and commandments, its festivals and holy days, form the axis of the traditional Jewish way of life. So it has been for millennia.

But there are large parts of the Hebrew Bible that do not get read in the synagogue or in religious schools. Are these parts “less Jewish”? And more than this: does the Hebrew Bible, as a whole, play a role in shaping the character and formative ideas of the living, breathing Jews of today, their ambitions, their loves, their notions of the good? Or is it simply a gift to humanity from the ancient Hebrews, and in that sense no different from the gifts bequeathed by the ancient Greeks?

 

This question became important to me because of some accidents of my own history. I was raised in a Jewish home but not afforded much of an education in Jewish sources. I did not really pay attention to the Bible until I encountered it as one of the “great books” of the Western tradition that I and my fellow students read diligently, not to say reverently, at St. John’s College in Maryland. There, it took its place in the syllabus after we’d already encountered Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and Tacitus, and before we moved on to Augustine, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Kant, Hegel, and the rest.

Reading the Bible in this context meant, in one sense, treating it with profound respect: it was wisdom-rich literature of the highest order, every bit the equal of Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, and Kant. But this also meant regarding the Bible as something much less exalted than its “religious” readers took it to be: for us, after all, it was a creation of human genius—and nothing more. True, at St. John’s we were spared the vices of historicist and deconstructionist approaches—we took the Bible seriously and as an artistic whole, with important things to say about enduring issues of human life. But we were given no clue about the people who wrote it—or, as they would have said, received it—and what it meant to them. And we certainly never asked the question that would later become extremely important to me: what did those ancient people and their text have to do with the Jews of today, and to me as one of them?

Later on, I had the opportunity to acquaint myself somewhat more fully with the Jewish textual tradition and to learn the basic contours of Jewish history. Here I discovered something commonplace for learned Jews but remarkable to me. The “people of the book” are really the people of the bookshelf—the shelf in question being primarily the vast corpus of rabbinic writings, primarily the Talmud and its many later commentaries and supercommentaries devoted mainly to issues of halakhah, or Jewish law. Other works on the shelf belong to the category of midrash—homiletical narratives explicating or elaborating upon the biblical text; still others may be philosophical or mystical in nature; and works of biblical exegesis abound. All look instinctively to the Tanakh and cite it as the ultimate source of authority. But seldom is a Jew encouraged to encounter the Bible as we were encouraged to encounter all great books at St. John’s: in a spirit of unmediated, literary-philosophical inquiry.

And so I was still left seeking an answer to my question: is the Hebrew Bible a Jewish book—and therefore my book as a Jew?

 

Last December, I took this question with me to a seminar I led in Jerusalem on the theme of “The Hebrew Bible and Jewish Excellence.” The seminar’s faculty, all of them Israelis, included Micah Goodman, a highly acclaimed public intellectual who has written books on Maimonides, Yehuda Halevi, and, most recently, the book of Deuteronomy. The other faculty members were also of the first order: Asael Abelman, head of the history department at Herzog College; Aryeh Tepper, author of a recent study of Leo Strauss and Maimonides; and Rabbi Chaim Navon, a prolific writer on Jewish law, philosophy, and related topics.

With Goodman as chief exegete, we spent roughly half our time looking closely at episodes from the Bible that touch on God, human nature, politics, and the self-understanding of the Jewish people. The other half was spent looking at the works of some of the great men of 20th-century Jewish history, especially David Ben-Gurion, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Ahad Ha’am, the poet Saul Tchernichovsky, and Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Joseph Soloveitchik. Where we could, we asked how each of these men read the Bible, how that reading may have informed their personal excellence, and how that influence contributed to their distinctive impact on Jewish history.

Looking at the lineup, one quickly notes a pattern. With the exception of Soloveitchik, the story of these men forms part of the story of Zionism. And with the exceptions of Soloveitchik and Kook, all are (broadly speaking) secular figures. The focus on Zionism was heightened by the fact that, although the participants were a mix of Americans and Israelis, and the seminar was conducted in English, there we were, sitting in ancient/modern Jerusalem, studying with an Israeli faculty. And here, in the real Jerusalem, I learned to read the Bible like a Zionist.

Now that the state of Israel has been around for over six decades, it is easy to forget what a radical and revolutionary movement Zionism was. A part of this revolution entailed a revolutionary way of reading the Bible. In the eyes of men like Ben-Gurion, Tchernichovsky, Ahad Ha’am, Jabotinsky, and, perhaps most significantly, Kook, the Zionist approach to the biblical and indeed the entire Jewish past, and to its proper interpretation, represented a revolution of life against text. Consider this passage from a 1950 letter written by Ben-Gurion:

Not one biblical exegete, Jew or gentile, medieval or modern, could have interpreted the [biblical] book of Joshua as it was done by the deeds of the Israel Defense Forces during this past year.

The paradox is striking: Ben-Gurion is here rejecting the tradition of Jewish biblical interpretation even while claiming that interpretation itself remains the key to Jewish existence. But interpretation now takes a new form: not the accretion of additional text but the performance of exegetically-inspired deeds. The actions of the IDF, of the halutzim (Zionist pioneers), and of the other builders of the new Jewish commonwealth are themselves to be understood as interpretations of the Bible—though a Bible that had been lost and was in need of being recovered and experienced afresh within its reclaimed geographical and historical environment.

In an essay entitled “The Bible is Illuminated by Its Own Light,” Ben-Gurion makes this explicit:

I do not understand the denigration of the natural history and geography of the Bible. [The Hebrew literary critic and poet A.Y.] Kariv . . .  wants to know about King David only what is written about him in Psalms, chapter 89: “I have discovered David My servant; I have anointed him with My holy oil.” From this we see that “David was a discovery of God.” But this isn’t the only verse written about David in the Bible. The end of 1 Samuel, all of 2 Samuel, and the beginning of 1 Kings deal with the life of David and his actions, and they say what they say, and no midrash of yours or Kariv will expunge these words. The authors of the Bible wanted us to know the entire truth; let us, too, be respectful of that truth.

The “truth” about David that Ben-Gurion is alluding to is that he was more of a Mafia don, albeit a deeply humane one, than a talmid hakham, or Torah scholar. (And one might note in passing that the “entire truth” about David is that the Bible is also severely censorious of him, and not just of him alone.) Yet Ben-Gurion was right: raw and unadorned encounters with the Bible of the kind he was advocating—and in particular with the “historical” books like Samuel—had been, with certain scintillating exceptions, a rarity in the Jewish textual tradition. For the young revolutionaries of the Zionist movement, here were Jewish tales of men engaged in the rough and dirty business of life itself—the same business, many felt, that Zionists had to deal with every day while building and defending the new Jewish community in the land of Israel. The Bible was, effectively, a treasure hidden in plain sight.

In our week’s study in Jerusalem, the life-versus-text distinction, in its Zionist iteration, was a recurring theme. I’ll describe just one other instance because it comes from Rav Kook, a man with a radically different set of “first principles” from the politically-minded and theologically agnostic Ben-Gurion. Could any Orthodox rabbi have endorsed the idea that a renewed Jewish national life could involve a return to the Bible without a return to Jewish observance, and without rabbinic intermediation? Well, no. But Rav Kook came close.

In an essay entitled “The Road to Renewal,” written in his customary philosophical-mystical mode, Kook criticizes “the excessive focus on the study of texts” that had become necessary once the truly healthy conduit to the divine light—namely, the influential personality of the ancient prophet—became obstructed. After walking his readers through a dialectical history of the Jewish people, Kook reaches his own time:

The psyche of the nation is showing signs of renewal. At first she tends to be drawn to the external trappings of the nation’s life, without embracing the inner essence of the nation, her divine soul. At first she is content with the revival of the language, the land, the knowledge of history, and an undefined nostalgia for the past. But without a divine light shining, the soul will grow troubled.

This is Kook’s complicated take on the secular settlers whose vitality and attachment to the nation he admired and lauded publicly to the point of seeming a heretic to other religious leaders. The way these pioneers embraced life over texts made them, at this historical juncture, true agents of Jewish spiritual renewal, even if at some point they would have to see the error in their rejection of Jewish law and “the divine light.” As Kook put it, “The inspiration of an active spiritual influence”—that is, the spirit of Zionism—“exerts its effect on practical life more than the method of studying texts.” In the end, though, “the functioning of spiritual inspiration will restore to the nation its ancient honor by restoring the patriarchal dignity of Israel’s princes, who were distinguished by a personal spiritual quality of a higher order.”

If secular Zionists like Ben Gurion saw the ultimate goal as a return to the vital humanism that one finds exhibited in the historical narratives of the Bible, Kook saw the ultimate goal as a return of biblical Israel’s prophetic leadership. But, for all their differences, the two were united in their embrace of Israel’s national destiny as conveyed in passages of still-urgent immediacy in the Tanakh.

 

Here, then, we have an emphatically Jewish way of reading the Bible: that is, a way emphatically committed to seeing the text as a lever that can change the course of Jewish history—of Jewish life. When we began planning the seminar, we did not envision its main theme to become the Zionist revolution in reading the Bible. By the end, though, I couldn’t help wondering what it might be like to stage a similar seminar except this time with Diaspora figures in the foreground. How can the Bible be read for the sake of the life of non-Israeli Jews, and Jewish communities, that (to borrow from Rabbi Soloveitchik) seek to transform their fate into their destiny? What are the innate potencies of Judaism, of the Jewish spirit, that can become actualized as historical circumstances require? What does Judaism have “in it,” so to speak?

Admittedly, the Zionist case is easier. Who would have known, 100 or 1,000 years ago, that Judaism had within it the resources to create so vivid, dynamic, humane, and modern a Jewish state? Micah Goodman’s lectures were particularly inspiring in this respect, showing how only now, in the context of a modern Jewish state, several ideas in the Bible have revealed themselves as live options for an actual polity. Thus, the central thesis of his forthcoming book on Deuteronomy is that Moses’ final oration offers, in the form of a midrash-like retelling of the Exodus and wilderness story, a significant source of ideas for the managing, and moderating, of religious and political power in a Jewish state.

This would not be the sort of “Jewish excellence” one would expect to discover by creatively reading the Bible for the sake of Jewish life in America. But might not some visionary thinkers find alternatives equally inspiriting? If one is sold on the idea that Jewish history is really happening today only in Israel—as many men and women of learning and intelligence believe—then the quest is by definition futile. Still, a number of non-Israeli thinkers have in fact devoted themselves to studying and explicating the Bible as moderns and with the dilemmas of modern Jewish life in mind. One thinks, for example, of Leon Kass, Robert Sacks, Leo Strauss, Robert Alter, Aviva Zornberg, and rabbinic leaders like Joseph Soloveitchik and Jonathan Sacks. Can their and others’ investigations point to some program for Jewish life that might complement and even enrich the transformation accomplished by Zionism?

That, as I say, is a matter for another seminar.

More about: Hebrew Bible, Liberal arts, Micah Goodman, Religion & Holidays