Learning a Foreign Language, Studying a Foreign Culture
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” – L.P. Hartley
One of the things often emphasized in liberal arts or humanities curricula is the importance of ‘broadening horizons’, and there are few ways more effective to do this than learning at least one foreign language. Such study provides the keys to learn about an entirely different culture, with aspects both similar and different from one’s own. This is to say nothing of the potential gains in learning ability from such study. It is a map to a ‘foreign country’, both literally and figuratively.
What most Orthodox Jews don’t recognize and admit is that the world of Chazal, the Rishonim and Acharonim is just such a ‘foreign country’. The vast literature of halacha, midrash and aggada was written in a largely unused foreign language and in cultural and historical conditions entirely different than our own. The entire structure of pre-Modern Judaism which informs our behavior and beliefs was not made by people who speak our language, in every sense of the phrase.
This is why the study and mastery of Rabbinic Hebrew is critical. Rabbinic Hebrew, that eclectic mix of Hebrew, Aramaic and other languages, was the lingua franca of the people who wrote our religious-cultural DNA. Translations of their work can help, certainly, but anyone who wishes to truly come as close as possible to ‘getting inside the head’ of our forbearers needs to ‘speak their language’. No other Jewish language – Yiddish, Ladino or Judeo-Arabic – is as critical to Jews who follow in the Rabbinic tradition (at least those who are not academics).
So what does this have to do with the study of gemara?
Well, that’s obvious – gemara is the largest collection of Rabbinic Hebrew and it is the most widely studied. There are few better sources I can think of for practicing and perfecting one’s knowledge of Rabbinic Hebrew. It’s generally a good idea to practice language skills by reading stuff you find interesting. Well, gemara has it all – stories and fables, legal analysis and mathematical calculations, ancient science and religious political intrigue. There’s something in it for everyone.
This isn’t to say that the ‘sink or swim’ way of teaching Rabbinic Hebrew is effective or can’t be replaced with other techniques. Gemara should, as I said, be the ‘real battlefield’, not the ‘training ground’ for studying language. Gemara instructors would do well to learn about the different methods of teaching language and apply them to Rabbinic Hebrew. Learning gemara – either in class or on one’s own – should not start before students have a command of the language. Otherwise it will be like sending someone to do laps in an Olympic pool when they only know to tread water – no real progress will be made.