There’s a question that’s been routinely posed to me as of late: “Why Hebrew?” I spent summer of 2017 at Middlebury College, a liberal arts school in Vermont whose summer language schools are globally-renowned for their rigor, efficiency, and most notably, their famous (and often frustrating) “Language Pledge.” The language I chose to study was Hebrew, and in this post I’d like to write a little bit about that.
To start, I think that learning another language properly and effectively is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself. Aside from the utility of bilingualism, there is also a therapeutic and empowering feeling that comes with being able to articulate your words through different tongues. In addition, lots of articles have been written about how being bilingual makes you experience time differently; how knowing a second language can benefit democracy; and how it can expand your capacities for self-awareness, rationality, and empathy, all of which further illustrate the importance of learning one.
However, these tremendous benefits can just as easily apply to learning any second language, so why Hebrew specifically?
I’ll start with the academic and/or professional answer that people would expect to hear from me when asking the question, i.e., the “utility” answer: This fall I start graduate school as an incoming M.A. student in New York University’s Near (Middle) Eastern Studies program, which requires that I reach an early-advanced level proficiency in one language of the region. I could probably have waived this requirement knowing both Arabic and Urdu (though Urdu is not a Middle Eastern language, my program allows it to pass), but chose not to. I wanted to learn something new.
I enjoy learning about the intersections between religion, politics, and law, and in my program, I would want to examine the historical trajectory of Islam and Judaism by exploring how these two faiths negotiated complex communal, philosophical, legal, theological, and political issues in relation to their traditions, leading up to the modern, contemporary era. I want to know how these communities imagine[d] themselves through their own eyes, in their own languages, and on their own terms.
Because part of my program necessarily entails “area studies,” I would want to look at Israel/Palestine as one of my models (both pre- and post-1948), because of its centrality for both faiths, its location as the epicenter of both religion and politics (historic and contemporary), and its symbolism of both fear and hope, anxiety and comfort, and peace and war, whether imagined or real.
At the same time, I’d like to become an academic of the modern Middle East, the history of Muslim societies, and of the Islamic tradition; one who is able to keep a sharp and critical outlook toward all of these broadly defined fields, with a focus on subfields within them. I haven’t specified a focus yet, but I think that’ll become clearer very soon. Thus, to have Hebrew as part of my linguistic repertoire would frankly give me the edge toward being a more versatile scholar.
The second reason follows my first: I want to use my studies to advance advocacy work. As American Muslims gain a foothold in the mainstream fabric of American life, they will begin to grapple with an assortment of complex issues from political engagement to intermarriage to institution-building to denominational disputes. On what terms will these conversations take place, who will dictate them, and what will be their outcome?
For me, I think it would be interesting to dig deeper into how American Jews dealt with these issues and if Muslims can — or will — follow that same path. While I’m not sure that knowing Hebrew is a requirement to explore these things, it’d certainly be a huge plus if one day I want to study the Hebrew Bible in order to understand how Jews negotiate[d] traditional texts with modern challenges, as a model (or, to be objective, as a caution) for Muslims.
In my Statement of Academic Purpose, I wrote that, “[a]s an aspiring scholar, I would synthesize my informal training in Islam and my formal training in social work with my graduate school research to reify the theoretical concepts and develop an Islamic social justice praxis. My goal is to produce scholarly work that promotes Islam within a social justice-centered framework, through an interdisciplinary, human, and moral lens that is both well-rooted within traditional scripture but also well-attuned to contemporary norms. Through my research, I hope to make a direct impact on policy both domestic and foreign as it pertains to the Muslim community.”
The ultimate goal is for me to be a better advocate for Muslims; one who synthesizes practical experience with academic training in order to produce tangible outcomes for communal betterment. I do not believe this is possible without me having an eclectic background, interdisciplinary training, and a comprehensive understanding of the history of Muslim societies and the societies they’ve interacted with.
But there’s a deeper meaning behind why I picked Hebrew, and when thinking of my decision in a more abstract way, I can’t really answer it with the same prepackaged answer. My first real exposure to the language — and probably the most visceral — was in Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, where I was interrogated for hours on end before being allowed entry into the country, after which I went directly to Hebron, Palestine, and didn’t engage with the language further (with the exception of hearing it at the checkpoints).
While I was there, I taught English to Palestinians while learning, for the first time, an Arabic dialect (I am familiar with classical Arabic because of my childhood Qur’an study sessions). I soon became fascinated with the language in a way that I never was before, because acquiring it enriched my appreciation of a culture, a history, a story, and a narrative. Suddenly, I saw language as more than just a different way to express the same things. This experience soon led me to dig deeper into the power of human connection and its ability to break down barriers and build meaningful relationships, and I immediately fell in love with the transformative power of language to do exactly that.
Hebrew, being the language of a religion, a people, and of prophets, may just as well end up enriching my understanding and appreciation of Arabic and Islam, but I feel that it would also enhance my capacity for building profound connections. And as someone involved in interfaith work, Hebrew acquisition would make it easier to build those connections with those that I work with.
This brings me to my final point about language: If you see it exclusively for its utility or material benefits, you will never fully grasp it. Think of language as more than just a different way to express the same thing, but as a key which opens the door to explore wholly new frontiers which teach you, challenge you, and transform you into a new person who is appreciative of the subtleties of the human condition and the nuances of life. I fully believe that if a new language is pursued with a noble and higher intent, it will make you a more loving person.
And that’s what I want to be.