Academic journal article International Fiction Review

The Embrace of the Rosebush: Anti-Hebraism in Modern Jewish Literature

Academic journal article International Fiction Review

The Embrace of the Rosebush: Anti-Hebraism in Modern Jewish Literature

Article excerpt

Among the consequences of modernization is an unprecedented tendency among Jewish writers, especially those writing in English, to denigrate or caricature Hebrew and generally give a limited and distorted picture of the Hebrew language and of Jewish education and culture. Until the nineteenth century Jews and Christians found common ground in their supremely high valuation of Hebrew as the Holy Tongue. With the rise of the secular Enlightenment, the devaluation of Scripture, and Jewish emancipation and civil rights, the traditional Jewish view of Hebrew was contested for the first time, in Germany then elsewhere, particularly in English-speaking countries. Jewish anti-Hebraism has more than purely historical interest and relevance in multicultural societies that aim to preserve minority languages and cultures. It warns that assimilation, however rational, just, and beneficial, can exact a high cost to the minority culture. Consequently, minorities are often right to be protective of their cultures, and cautious and critical of the education provided by the dominant culture.

Sources of anti-Hebraism may be found in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the rise of nationalism, especially in Germany. Enlightenment and the decline of religion led to a critical revaluation of the Hebrew Bible as of all religious texts. Hebrew for the first time became a target of controversy and confusion over Jewish national-religious identity. From the time of Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), the leading figure in the German-Jewish Enlightenment (Aufklarung or, in Hebrew, Haskalah), Hebrew bridged traditional Judaism with non-Jewish culture. As the language of Holy Scripture, Hebrew was blessed by the German academic world with a status not inferior to Latin and Greek and, therefore, became suitable as a vehicle for Jewish assimilation. But this was a secular status. Hebrew was stripped by Enlightenment thinkers of its aura of reverence and cannibalized into a didactic tool by which Jews ignorant of European languages and learning could gain a secular education. This was a revolutionary transformation: Hebrew, originally in Germany, but increasingly elsewhere, could be used somewhat like baptism in Heinrich Heine's (1797-1856) quip, as an "entrance ticket" to European civilization. In the nineteenth century, many educational works were written in or translated into Hebrew.

At the same time, secular enlightenment made Hebrew vulnerable to attacks as a best-discarded symbol of religious insularity and educational backwardness, a bar to emancipation, to desired assimilation, acceptance, and worldly success. In the first Hebrew journal, Ha-Me'assef (The Gatherer), founded by disciples of Mendelssohn in 1784, there were frequent articles calling for the elimination of Hebrew as the language of prayer: (1) German must now be the language of Jews in German-speaking lands. The trouble with the functional view of Hebrew was that once the function--assimilation into German culture--was achieved, Hebrew was like the stage of a rocket that had served its purpose and could be dropped. Assimilation generally led to the abandonment of Hebrew.

Political emancipation and cultural assimilation hastened the retreat from Hebrew. From the start, emancipation was a deeply ambivalent and flawed process, summed up in a debate in the French National Assembly on 23 December 1789 by the French advocate of emancipation, Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre (1757-1792): "The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals." (2) This idea that French citizenship was conditional upon renunciation of Jewish national interests had sinister implications for the future of the European Jews and their culture, including the use of Hebrew. When in 1807 Napoleon convened the Jewish Sanhedrin, he insisted that its members make the so-called National Affirmation, declaring exclusive allegiance to France. The preservation of Hebrew as the repository of Jewish national memories and hopes could thus be seen as unpatriotic. …

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