Language Matters

Article excerpt

When the first letter was written in a book, the second face of the world was bom. God was worried about Destruction; therefore, He created the word.

--The Notes of Micah Yosef Berditschewski


English-speaking intellectuals continue to seek clarity about Hebrew within the life of the Jewish people, because an entire century hasn't satisfied the quest. (1) The struggle for Hebrew was at its peak at the beginning of our century, but it remains high on the agenda of academics, ideologues and practitioners. It seems appropriate to take another look at old arguments through new material, in this instance the language essays of Micah Yosef Berditschewski-Bin Gurion. The Berditschewski Archive in Holon, under the remarkable leadership of Avner Holtzman, has remedied inattention to Berditschewski's academic work and intellectual reflections. The scholars who have produced material for the series known as Ginzei Micah Yosef have paid attention to the four areas of Berditschewski's considerable oeuvre: belles lettres, research into Jewish sources, anthologies, and the scholarly and intellectual essay. Yet his thinking about language remains relatively distant from the general ideological discourse around the large body of his work. I suggest in this essay that Berditschewski's better-known positions on history and ideology were an intrinsic part of his understanding of the place of the Hebrew language within the Jewish future.

Language as an expression of human experience was, for Berditschewski, a concrete manifestation of the fact that culture found continuity through a measure of assimilation. Cultures established some stability through their interaction with other cultures and through their ability to be fluid ("MiLashon el Lashon"). While the idea was hardly new in the anthropology of his own day, that notion was not often discussed among the early ideologues in the Hebrew language revival, and few as early as Berditschewski grasped the relationship between cultural and linguistic assimilation. (2) Beyond the importance of Hebrew for the Jewish people as a collective ("Davar miDavar"), Hebrew was the personal vehicle for expression that simultaneously freed the individual from what Berditschewski saw as the sinking Jewish collective, even as it attached that individual to a past and to an anticipated future. Indeed, it was the new "Hebrew" person whom Berditschewski sought in the adoption of the language for the future ("Ivrit veAramit," among other essays). While his linguistic ideas had importance at various points within the early history of Zionism and while many of them are fresh even in 1998, these ideas are not adequately attributed to him, in either scholarly or popular circles. Berditschewski is better known for his influence on some of the rebellious passions of early Zionist thinkers. Avner Holtzman's splendid management of Berditschewski's internal conflicts over language priorities (as between German and Hebrew, Yiddish and Hebrew, etc.) cannot quite capture the intense ambiguities of Berditschewski's claims in this regard. (3)

In the Diaspora, Berditschewski's thought is known best because of his disagreement with Ahad Ha'am about the demands of history and due to his alleged "Nietzscheanism," and for the imposition of Nietzsche's thought and personal anguish in some of the literary characters he created. The essays I have translated could place Berditschewski's perspectives on language within his overall oeuvre and within the English speaking academic community. They certainly speak to some of our own conflicted commitments as intellectuals, whose discourse about Hebrew occurs amidst one of the most powerful language communities the world has ever known.

The language essays in "Inyenei Lashon" (Language Questions) are collected in the Devir edition of Berditschewski-Bin Gurion's intellectual and ideological writings, and make occasional reference to early essays in German. …