He said, She said, God said?

October 9, 2008

When I moved back to D.C. after spending second grade in Israel, a couple of kids in my class once asked me if I “spoke Jewish.” After haughtily correcting them by pointing out that the language is actually called Hebrew, I replied that yes, I did, and that was that.

They probably didn’t know it, but the phrase “speaking Jewish” is disarmingly accurate. There’s a huge gap between the rote biblical phrases that we regurgitate on the High Holidays—like today, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), which was last Tuesday—and the Hebrew that modern Israelis speak in their real lives.

Secular Israeli life has done a commendable job of reviving and modernizing an ancient language. Miklat, the word used to describe the sheltered cities in which the Torah’s ancient Israelites sought refuge, is spray painted on concrete bunkers all over Israel—it now means bomb shelter. And Halkala, the prosperity that we pray for during these Days of Awe, is the title of the newspaper section that Americans call business.

But here in the United States, especially in the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements—which are more progressive and less observant than traditional Orthodox Judaism—it’s not always so easy to adapt an ancient language to contemporary conventions. In particular, as forward-thinking Jews have moved toward a gender-neutral conception of God, Hebrew’s gender-specific nouns have stubbornly refused to keep pace.

Last Tuesday, Jews here at Georgetown and around the world celebrated Rosh Hashanah by reciting one of the holiday’s most famous prayers, the Avinu Malkeinu, in which we pray for various blessings for the year to come. Avinu means “our father;” malkeinu means “our king.” In older editions of the prayer books, ones that you can still find lurking at the bottom of the stacks if you show up late to services, the English translation says exactly that: “our father, our king.” But in the more recent tomes, which strive for gender neutrality in their nomenclature, these words are noticeably absent.

So what’s on the page instead? The original Hebrew words, just spelled out in English letters (“transliterated”—a word I’ve never heard in any context other than Jewish prayer books). That’s better, certainly, than the awkward “our parent, our sovereign” that my hometown congregation tried for a few years. But for anyone who knows what the original words mean, failing to translate them doesn’t do a whole lot for gender equality. You’re still praying to a male deity, even if you pretend to trick yourself out of it by using a language you don’t speak all that well. To me, that kind of trickery doesn’t seem to be in keeping with the spirit of a holiday that’s supposed to be about cleansing yourself of your transgressions and dishonesty for the year ahead.

The Avinu Malkeinu isn’t the only casualty of political correctness; English translations of prayers throughout the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services are scattered with “He,” “His,” “Kingdom,” “the Lord,” and so on. It’s probably indicative of just how deeply the idea of God as a man is inscribed in both Jewish and secular culture that I didn’t even think of “Lord” as a particularly male word until the first time I heard a rabbi awkwardly trying to cut it out. That’s become the norm these days for reading aloud from a traditional prayer book: convoluted verbal gymnastics and ad-libbed word substitutions that make everyone, reader and listener alike, uncomfortable. Replacing every “He” with “God” sounds like a good idea until you listen to it for thirty seconds—that’s when you realize pronouns are a great invention.

Around the same time that I felt insulted to be asked about whether or not I spoke Jewish, I was bothered by the sections of the Yom Kippur service that required us congregants to recite our sins from the previous year. I knew we used the same book every fall, and it bugged me to be told in advance that there was nothing I could do to avoid being back in the same place next year, hungry from fasting and admitting that once again, I’d screwed it up. Much as there’s no way to live a whole year without committing any sins worth atoning for, there may not be a perfect way to adjust an ancient language to the equal-opportunity era. And I’ll admit that I don’t have any good suggestions. I’ll work on some for next year.

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