Haskalah, enlightenment

Leshon Ima, Mother Tongue with Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer

The school year is ending, and for those who are leaving the formal educational system, this is a time of inner searching, a time to look toward the future. In honor of our graduates, let’s discuss the Hebrew word haskalah, a term in which education, knowledge, intelligence and enlightenment coalesce.

The modern term haskalah is rooted in the biblical verb sakhal, which appears 61 times in the text, with several meanings.

Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin
Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin

In the story of the Garden of Eden, for example, the word lehaskil means source of wisdom. In the Book of Proverbs the root sakhal means success or insight. In Psalms, sakhal variously means perceive, consider, be prudent or be enlightened.

In the Book of Daniel, the word maskil means proficient or wise. And in the prophetic literature, lehaskil means succeed (Josh 1:7), thinking abilities (Isa. 44:18) or skill (Jer. 3:15).

It becomes obvious that already in the time of the Bible, the verb sakhal received wide meaning connected with wisdom, intelligence and acquired knowledge.

In Modern Hebrew, in addition to all the above meanings to the verb sakhal, we find the word haskalah, which means enlightenment and education.

Haskalah is also the name of the intellectual and social movement of 18th-century Europe, known as The Enlightenment, which fought for freedom of expression, civil rights and freedom from religious oppression.

This movement had a very strong influence on Jewish culture, which continues to this day. Civil rights for Jews were advanced because of this movement. Jewish education broadened beyond religious studies and the Hebrew language became again a spoken living language.

Indeed, Haskalah brought the revival of Jewish and Hebrew literature, and secular studies blossomed within the Jewish milieu.

As a result, to this day, anyone who peruses studies to further one’s education is called in Hebrew maskil (m) or maskilah (f) and one who attains a university degree is described as baal haskalah gevohah, literally, owner of a high haskalah, higher education.

To end, let’s look at two phrases in Hebrew that are used today but have roots in the sagacity of the past.

Based on the verb sakhal, the writer of Proverbs coined the phrase musar has-kel, meaning moral lesson.

Using the same verb, the writer of Psalms coined the phrase, mikol melamdye hiskalti, which originally meant, “I became wiser than all my teachers (Ps.119: 99).”

However, with rabbinic influence, the meaning of the statement changed to infer that wisdom is gained by learning from all people: teachers, colleagues, and particularly students (Ethic of the Fathers 4:1; Ta’anit 7a).

The musar haskel, the moral lesson, of this shift in meaning is that ideas are fluid and learning brings wisdom and intellectual growth.

I wish all our graduates a happy and fruitful journey in the pursuit of haskalah, enlightenment.

Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin is a professor of biblical literature at Spertus College in Chicago and an adjunct professor of Bible and Hebrew at New College of Florida.

To read the complete June 2015 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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