Jew in the Christian world
Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer
Try to explain the Yiddishisms chutzpah, shlimazl, or nu in English and you’ll quickly perceive the challenges of translating the nuances of language from one culture to another.
This isn’t just an academic curiosity. “Language, any language, is always specific to the culture which gave birth to it and which it serves,” writes Ronald Brauner in Being Jewish in a Gentile World. “Language is developed precisely in order to enable that culture or civilization to communicate its values, concepts, identity, its very soul, to its constituents.”
This specificity explains why the Bible in its original Hebrew often conveys a different message from that in an English translation.
Religion as understood in English today — a distinct set of beliefs and practices for worship or ritual observance of faith — is a 17th-century invention, writes Brent Nongbri in Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept.
“Ancient texts like the Bible…did not have a concept of religion in the original languages and neither did the people or the cultures in which these sacred texts were written.”
Every aspect of life reflected a particular people’s religious worldview, from its gods, beliefs, and rituals to its government, cultural practices, and wisdom literature; religion was not separate and distinct.
The word later adopted into Hebrew to mean religion, dat, comes from Persian and means law or decree, sometimes suggesting custom.
Because Judaism is distinguishable in part by its observance of biblical law, dat was appropriated into the Hebrew language to express the Jewish “way of life or customs” and later to connote “religion.”
However, both being borrowed, neither the English religion nor the Persian dat truly reflects the breadth of Judaism’s worldview.
Christianity’s doctrine of linking faith alone to personal salvation has led to the erroneous characterization of Judaism as legalistic, focused on performance of myriad laws to the same end, a kind of bribery through good works.
Judaism, on the other hand, views the law — halachah, meaning walk or pathway — as a partnership with God, divinely designed to foster the morals and ethics that lead to personal improvement and communal repair irrespective of personal salvation.
The significance of the law is not its exacting performance, but its transformative effect on the individual and the community and its potential for bringing the message of ethical monotheism — one God who demands ethical behavior — to the world.
From the Latin meaning to ask or entreat, the word prayer is described in Christian sources as personal “communication with God” to develop a closer relationship through conversation. The Hebrew for prayer is tefillah (tefillot in plural), meaning look inward, judge, or assess oneself.
It implies standards — divinely inspired and woven into the tefillot themselves — against which to examine one’s qualities and needs, role in the universe, relationship to God, and fulfillment of God’s expectations.
Tefillah is about getting in touch with the Divine through self-evaluation for the purpose of improving relationships with others and the world in which we live.
From the Greek and Latin meaning to protect or guard, the English term phylactery means safeguard or amulet.
In the original Hebrew, however, tefillin (a pair of leather boxes worn on the forehead and arm containing scrolls inscribed with biblical verses) is linguistically related to tefillah.
Their purpose is to motivate awareness: to remind the wearer to connect the head, hands, and heart for holy purposes when acting in the world. Clearly, they are not amulets.
From Latin, Greek, and Old English we acquired love, variously meaning fondness, adoration, passion, and eroticism.
The Hebrew equivalent, ahavah, is used in the same manner, except in the context of a relationship with God as in this familiar prayer: “You shall love (v’ahavta) God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”
In this setting, ahavah means to show one’s loyalty by doing God’s will. Loving God in the Jewish Bible is about behavior, not sentiment.
The biblical Hebrew lev, heart, is the organ of thought, of the intellect. The v’ahavta prayer commands thoughtful demonstrations of loyalty — not blind obedience or expressions of adoration.
From the Latin caritas meaning love or affection, charity is an act of generosity or caring when one’s “heart is moved.” The Hebrew idea of caring for the poor and needy — tzedakah — is very different in nature: its connotation is justice, equity, and righteousness and is a legal obligation of the Covenant.
To safeguard ethical and moral behavior, Judaism relies on the law rather than trusting fickle sentiment.
The cultural specificity of language explains why Jews and Christians — despite a perception of a Judeo-Christian tradition — are often not on the same wavelength. We can’t assume words have same meaning.
Literature to share
Let There Be Water by Seth Siegel. Did you know the word water is mentioned 600 times in the Hebrew Bible? In easy-to-read prose that combines stories of water’s significance from daily life to diplomacy, this book is highly recommended for a layperson’s understanding of increasing water crises around the world, and how Israel is the source of solutions for our increasingly water-starved world.
Never Say a Mean Word Again: A Tale from Medieval Spain by Jacqueline Jules. Inspired by a legend about the medieval poet Shmuel ha-Nagid, this beautifully illustrated wisdom tale captures both the historical setting and the ethical message about how to resolve conflicts. Highly recommended for early elementary ages.