I speak English

This is a rant. Feel free to pass this one by if … wait, why do you need a warning or disclaimer? Let me get on with this.

It’s quite obvious, isn’t it? But I’ll say it again in a different way. My first language is English. That’s my native tongue. I know other languages to some extent, but I understand English the best.

When someone talks to me in another language and then they try to explain terms in English, being a native English speaker, I will understand that foreign terms based on the English explanation.

Because of the fact that my God-given obligations are found in the Jewish tradition, I tend to have to deal with Hebrew terms. For me, that makes sense. Many Torah-faithful Jews in history, for them their native tongue is either Hebrew or Aramaic. So they’re going to communicate, write whole books and commentaries in that language. I’m fine with that and am thankful for translations when they come.

But an irritation for me is when I’m dealing with someone who has enough mastery of English, sometimes wholly fluent in the language, who is either communicating with me or with an audience that is mainly native English speaking or who may find English more accessible than Hebrew, and that speaker or writer chooses to throw in Hebrew words almost at a whim. Either this person will speak out those Hebrew words in the midst of an English sentence or they’ll write such words. I’ve heard whole teachings where this happens throughout and it irritates me no end.

Why? If that person is talking to me or with me as an intended audience (although it make be in the format of a public forum), then it’s fairly obvious that I’m not a Jew and that I communicate in English. So there’s little sense in talking to me in Hebrew. Even if I know biblical Hebrew, as it’s not a conversational language for me, then it’s still inappropriate. It doesn’t fit; it’s not fitting or suitable. If a person actually wants to communicate with me hoping to make sure there’s as much understanding as possible, then please, reach me where I’m at. 

Is that too much to ask?

I can imagine the arrogant voice: “but I’m trying to elevate you; you should try harder to reach where I’m at and learn the Hebrew.”

But why? My world is mainly English. If I want to talk to the people around me, it would be unhelpful to talk Hebrew. I have to understand something at my level to incorporate it into my world and it be more palatable to those around me.

What makes the “Hebrew word dropping” phenomenon more odd is that usually there is an English word beside the Hebrew word to translate it or make it understandable. Now some may say, “well, isn’t that what you want, someone to speak at your level, in English?” It may seem nice to some, to translate the word for me so that I know what that person is talking about. And I would say “no.” Why? 

Firstly, placing the English word next to the Hebrew makes the Hebrew word redundant. What was the point in using the Hebrew then? If you can just replace it with an English word, then … (I’m sure you know where I’m going) why not use the English word in the first place??? 

Secondly, by placing that English word as an explainer, whenever I see the Hebrew word, I won’t see the Hebrew word; I’ll still be thinking of the English explainer, the English word. So again the Hebrew word is redundant.

Maybe the writer or speaker just has a poor grasp of English and needs to speak Hebrew for personal ease. But that doesn’t make sense when that person is speaking mostly English. It doesn’t make sense if they’ve added that explainer English word since that shows they know enough to use it! And if their English is so weak, shouldn’t that cast doubt on the English they are using, whether they are actually able to properly convey their foreign Jewish ideas?

Maybe some would complain that there are subtle nuances in Hebrew that a person would miss if they spoke English. But do you know what happens when that complainant explains the nuance? He uses English!

“Wait! So if you speak English, I’ll miss the nuance, but to understand the nuance … you … you talk in English?”

Am I missing something?

Maybe. Maybe.

I had a recent interaction with someone, a new someone. He just blatantly came out and referred to “sons of Noah.” No “bnei Noach.” No “noahides” or “noahites.” Just “sons of Noah.” It was something so simple. And yet I thought to myself, why had I continued to use the Hebrew phrase, bnei Noah, as if it couldn’t be translated? What’s wrong with saying “children of Noah?” Or “descendants of Noah?”

I notice the so called “gerrings” and their main two teachers, and the fact that they repeatedly speak of either “ger” or “ger toshav” as if the phrase cannot be translated into English, even though bible translators of all languages, including English, have been translating the term for centuries. But I guess there may not be as much interest in being part of the group if they called themselves “the foreign immigrants” or “the foreign residents.” I wouldn’t use “the strangers that sojourn” or “stranger in the gates” because that’s older english for what I’ve already said, “stranger” historically meaning, amongst other things, “foreigner,” “sojourning” referring to being a lesser resident (as opposed to a native), and “in the gates” referring to “in your cities,” as it is translated in modern translations.

Sometimes I think couching a term in a foreign language (foreign to me, as Hebrew is) can give a false sense of allure and also leaves it open to reinterpretation and spiritualization or allegorizing, as can be seen by keeping “ger” in its Hebrew form, and then claiming that people who still habitually live in their homelands or lands of nationality or something like that, lands outside of Israel, that these people are foreign residents in Israel???

What about the word “halakhah?” How many times have I heard that word? Again, for me, it’s treated like a word that cannot be translated. “Well, it means the way you should go or walk.” What, you mean like an instruction? “No, it’s more authoritative than that.” What, like a legal instruction?

You know, maybe it’s just that people think that, like with the Jewish festival of Sukkot (they say it like a name, so, I don’t tend to translate proper names … or I tend not to … hmmm), people think that they’re trying to practice for the time when the prophecy of Zephaniah 3:9 is fulfilled and the whole world speaks in a pure language, which people interpret as being Hebrew. Hmmm … I need to figure out the reasoning of that. “God prophesied it was going to happen, so I’ll practice.” Does that mean that in the times before the Babylonian captivity, Jews would move to Babylon to practice for the coming captivity? I’m sure someone could help me see what is meant.

The fact is that in the here and now, many people speak languages and have cultures other than Hebrew. And the message can be brought in the various languages, along with explanations. If an individual chooses to learn Hebrew for practical reasons, like fact-checking claims, then it’s fine. But for ease of communication, shouldn’t it be that the lessons are just given in the vernacular or the message given in the language of the audience?

This is why I appreciate the Divine Code from AskNoah, Secular by Design by Alan Cecil, Torah for Gentiles by Elisheva Barre and many other books out there that actually cater for the audience … and, yes, they write almost wholly, if not wholly, in English! When I’ve heard rabbi Weiner of AskNoah speak, he’s just talks English without repeatedly dropping Yiddish or Hebrew. The same with my communications with Dr Schulman or Mori Shelomoh bar-Ron. 

Personally, from now on, I’m going to try to keep my language approachable. That means that, as I naturally speak English, I’ll write English. I just leave Hebrew words in if I have to, if I feel it’s necessary and only with explanations. But if I don’t have to, I won’t repeat it too often in an article. 

Hey, this is about me and my approach. I’m not dictating to anyone else to follow me. The more I learn, the more I understand the importance of embracing what I am and distancing myself from what I’m not, and doing these things for the right reasons. I do see Israel as set apart from the other nations and the other nations having their gifts and roles. I’m gonna respect the divide, the boundary to honour the one who set them, and maybe be a more effective communicator with my “fellow” Gentiles.

Hmmm … rant over?

I think so.

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6 Comments

  1. I am guilty of one those who have written the English with the Hebrew. i do so out of habit than anything. I find biblical Hebrew fascinating, I have learned this week, that much of the story is hidden from us.

    I think for us your rant/story is spot on, we that study a lot need to consider our audience and write or speak from there, You do well in this and we have a lot to learn from this.

    • Actually, E.T., (lol) your recent article is a great example of how to do it. There is no repeated Hebrew words. You manage to actually get a great message out in understandable English (and I liked it so much I shared it on every group I could). You may say you’re guilty, but I get a lot from your articles because you seem to speak from your heart to the “common man” not with many transliterations of Hebrew words.

  2. Hrvatski Noahid

    “The good nouns are the thousands of short, simple, infinitely old Anglo-Saxon nouns that express the fundamentals of everyday life…words that are in our bones, words that resonate with the oldest truths.”
    – Writing English as a Second Language by William Zinsser
    https://theamericanscholar.org/writing-english-as-a-second-language/#

    To use Hebrew words in English is a stylistic nightmare.

  3. As one who has come out of southern USA Christianity, I don’t like to use the English word ‘lord’, for many here it denotes the jman, even in my writing I try to make a distinction.

    • I understand the reluctance. Most words we can use can have ambiguous or negative connotations, even “master” (from slavery). But being careful with words and giving a clear context can help reduce misunderstanding, even the word “lord.”

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