Monday, May 23, 2011

Modern Hebrew and L'shon Hakodesh

On Rabbi Adlerstein's excellent latest post at Cross-Currents, the question arose in the comment section regarding the relationship between לשון הקודש and Modern Hebrew. Here is my response there:

The distinction is technical, and really hits at a question of modern theory of linguistics. One hundred years ago and beyond, changes in grammar were seen as corruptions with grammars being viewed as proscriptive (see Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar as an example of this school of thought). Later theory maintains that any spoken language changes, and these are shifts, not corruptions. Grammars are essentially descriptive in that they describe how a language is used, and do not define how a society may use language. One generation’s mistake is another generation’s rule (See the history of the word “ask” in English, for example.)

Modern Hebrew (MH) is unique in that it is a revived language. It started as a proscriptive grammar which takes its rules virtually completely from descriptive examinations (grammars) of Biblical Hebrew (I assume that is what you mean when you say L’shon Hakodesh; parenthetically, “Loshon Kodesh” or Loshon Hakodesh is grammatically incorrect — לְשון is in construct form, vowelized with a shva, not a kamats). Although there are stylistic differences (using for example simple perfect as opposed to the vav-consecutive imperfect), these are not changes or differences, but choices of use — generally using a subset of what is possible in Biblical Hebrew (BH) to simplify MH. MH contains the same grammatical rules and thus the same possibilities as BH. A student of modern Hebrew will be able to fluently read the Bible, for example, and understand it at least on a basic, literal level (of course there are places where this will not be sufficient to acquire the meaning of the text).

That said, certainly there are new words and idiomatic phrases, foreign words, and new concepts present in MH. However, these are not changes, but additions. Furthermore, once MH came to be used as a language by Israeli society, its very grammar will shift as any living language’s does.

Compare this question to the situation in English. Would one say that Shakespeare was not writing “English”? Would one say that his English is ancient English as opposed to Modern? (If you did, Chaucer would require a new category, would he not?) Clearly usages and grammars change over time, and any grammar, even one resurrected and therefore initially proscriptive as Modern Hebrew’s, will immediately begin to shift and therefore become of necessity descriptive; however, this does not mean that learning one will not give you the ability to read and understand the other. One learns English to read Shakespeare, with an eye out for shifts in meaning and grammar.

I find that usually those who distinguish between לשון הקודש and Hebrew do so with an agenda. (I believe this agenda has to do with an unwillingness to concede anything of inherent value or holiness in the enterprise of Zionism and the modern State of Israel.) It is implied that one is holy and one is not. By this measure, distinctions of linguistic holiness would have to be made between the Torah, Nevi'im and Ketuvim, since the style and grammar does shift between them and even within them, as well (where does the word של appear in the Bible, for example? In Shir Hashirim, which Rabbi Akiva called קדש קדשים, incidentally. Why not earlier?). Furthermore, the implication is that Mishnaic Hebrew, Rabbinic Hebrew, and later Responsa are all holy (לשון הקדש), but they are even more different from Biblical Hebrew than Modern Hebrew (think of all the Aramaic)! Modern Hebrew was an attempt to revitalize the Hebrew of the Bible.

In fact, the very term לְשון הקודש does not imply a holy language at all! That would be הַלָּשׁוֹן הַקָּדוֹש — HaLashon HaKadosh. L’shon Hakodesh means quite literally "the language of holy things (texts)". Hebrew’s holiness is a function of what it was used to record (the word of God), the people who used it, and their self-perceived task in this world. (I am aware that this linguistic explanation accords generally with the view of the Ramban. In contrast, the Rambam views BH as לשון הקודש because it contains no indecent words of phrases. I do not entertain his view in this post because according to him, it is precisely the language used in T'nach which is לשון הקודש. If the vernacular of the times of Moshe were to contain "dirty" language, it would not be לשון הקודש to the Rambam. Hence, to him, it is a subset of ancient Hebrew which deserves the title לשון הקודש. It is less a linguistic explanation of the whole language that he presents, and more a description of the diction used, applying to the subset of the language (which, as a living language, almost certainly contained indecencies) found in the T'nach. Essentially, Rambam applies to part of ancient Hebrew, the part found in the Bible, and describes it as לשון הקודש.

Even so, the view of the Rambam is rational, in line with conventional linguistic theory. In Moreh 1:67, he points out that Hebrew, like all languages, is concention -"שכללי כל לשון מבוססים על רוב". See Kol Han'vuah (pp 28-32) by R' David Cohen for a more mystical view of the Hebrew language.)