1. Hebrew is the deep structure of Jewish civilization. Hebrew accumulates meanings in an alluvial sense, never becoming depleted. The disused meanings of terms are retained and held in potential simultaneity with the meanings that have usurped them. When Zionist farmers needed terms for their agricultural work, the realia of Mishnah were there to be mobilized. Ve’ahavta contains the arc of divine love as mandated in the Sh’ma as well as the psychological reticulations of the modern experience of love. The fact that bitahon can turn in the direction of either trust in God or military security tells us something about the protean potential of Hebrew. In short, Hebrew provides a plastic medium in which the contradictions and subversions of Jewish culture can be negotiated.

2. Hebrew, in far more than a figurative sense, is the unitary key to Jewish culture. It is the incredible — one might say miraculous — fortune of the Jewish People that its ancient language and its modern language lie within close conversational distance from one another. A Jew who can read a poem by Yehuda Amichai can understand large sections of Genesis, and vice versa. It is the “vice versa” of Hebrew that makes it such a powerful tool. The fact that one key can open so many doors is a strong argument for concentrating our resources on finding ways to make the acquisition of this key more widely attainable.

3. “Knowing Hebrew” is a modular, rather than an all-or-nothing, enterprise. Even if one knows some aspects of the language, there are great gains to be derived in access to the treasury of Jewish texts and cultural referents. So, for example, if one has not mastered the Hebrew verb system but has learned to recognize the permutations of some of the key three-letter verb stems — say, ts.d.k, or y.ts.r., one is in the exciting position of suddenly seeing how the permutations of these roots interlace to create the fabric of Jewish thought.

4. The enormous outpouring of translations from classical Hebrew sources is cause for both celebration and consternation. On the one hand, this phenomenon represents an admirable democratization of Jewish learning; on the other, it conduces to a belief that the Hebrew original is simply an obstacle to be overcome as well as a medium for messages that can be better, or at least more rapidly, understood in English. There is virtually no sense of the sacrifice and renunciation — however necessary they may be — inherent in the reliance on translation. Translation that acts as an adjutant to understanding the original is a far cry from translation that effaces the original.

5. Hebrew is a potential bridge between the observant and non-observant communities. This proposition is self-evident in Israel, where Hebrew is the shared linguistic medium; even in the Haredi world, Hebrew has increasingly become the standard for daily life. To be sure, this commonality often serves only to underscore the radically divergent experiences of the two communities. At the same time, however, as a portal of return and reconnection for Israelis who wish to explore their Judaism, Hebrew provides the kind of automatic access that is largely absent in Diaspora Jewish life. Yet even within the parameters of American Jewry, Hebrew remains — and is gaining ground, especially as manifest in textual proficiency — as a key marker of professional achievement in Jewish education, the rabbinate, the cantorate, and academic Jewish Studies across all denominational lines. Lay leaders increasingly recognize that knowing Hebrew is an essential goal, even if they often regard it as one beyond their attainment.

6. Hebrew is a potential bridge between Israel and the Diaspora. The asymmetry is stark: Almost all literate Israelis know English; very few literate American Jews can manage a sentence in the Jewish national language. Yet anyone who has learned even some Israeli Hebrew knows that it goes a long way toward granting access to the inner struggles of Israeli society beyond the media — and fundraising — images. There are possibilities of reciprocity, as well. The Hebrew of American Jews tends to be a mixture of the Hebrew of the prayerbook and Torah study and Israeli conversational practices — so that when we speak our Hebrew, however haltingly, we enact the richness of our Jewish identities in conversation with our Israeli brethren.

7. Hebrew, finally, is a point of consensus among the contentious and divergent parties in Jewish life. It is protean in its prestige, being not necessarily religious and not necessarily secular and definitively fused with Israel. Even if this prestige is often only lip service, the unexploited potential of this moral capital is enormous. For there are so very precious few sancta of Jewish life that cut across so many boundaries and maintain such a high level of acceptability. The protean nature of Hebrew is no conceit. Hebrew is the joystick of Jewish life, and it can be pushed in a number of directions to enrich and accelerate substantive Jewish identity.

Alan Mintz, Ph.D., is the Chana Kekst Professor of Hebrew Literature and chair of the Department of Jewish Literature at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Among several other works, he is the author of Translating Israel: The Reception of Hebrew Literature in America (Syracuse University Press, 2001), and editor of Reading Hebrew Literature (Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England, 2002).