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Notes from a talk at UCL

Language, Religion and Identity in Israel

Dr Ghil`ad Zuckermann

"The greatest virtue of a new word is that it is not new."—Yechiel Michal Pínes, 1893


"It is absolutely impossible to empty out words filled to bursting, unless one does so at the expense of language itself."—Gershom Scholem, 26 December 1926

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed. If you are reading this post on Facebook, it will not lay out correctly; click on "View original post" at the bottom to view the original on my LiveJournal blog.]

Ben Gurion wanted Israel to have Jewish prostitutes, and Jewish thieves, and Jewish corrupt politicians. He wanted [lacuna] and Berdichevsky [lacuna] against Achad Ha-Am, who wanted it to be אוֹר לַגּוֹיִם. Begin was more on the side of Achad Ha-Am.

When Amos Oz was 12, he once sat with his father and grandfather at a speech by Begin. Like many right-wing politicians of the time, Begin spoke "Israeli"* with a classical layer. The front three rows were mostly intellectuals, but the majority of the audience was working-class mizrachim . They spoke street Israeli of the Jerusalem vernacular. Now, the word זַיִן zayin in classical Hebrew meant weapon; but in slang meant "penis", being derived from זָנָב zanav (tail) calquing Yiddish. Thus, the verb לְזַיֶן lezayen acquired the meaning "to screw." In Begin's speech, he atacked the power of the great powers to arm the Arabs. Eden and Eisenhower were amongst those in the audience. When he said מְזַיֶּנִים נָאצֶר בְּלַילָה "Nasser is arming (mezayenim) them by night," a stunned silence ensued. If I become PM, said Begin, everyone will be arming us. Whilst the first three rows were applauding, though, everyone else said "we have been screwed enough!"

* [Zuckermann considers the language spoken in modern Israel to be separate from the "Hebrew" language of old.]

Is it possible to have a language so much loaded with other connotations? Is it possible to empty it of these and come up with a secular modern language? Not according to the Cabbalah scholar Gershom Sholem. He wrote a letter to Franz Rosenzweig on 26 December 1926:

This country is a volcano. It houses language. One speaks here of many things that could make us fail. One speaks more than ever today about the Arabs. But more uncanny than the Arab people, another threat confronts us that is a necessary consequence of the Zionist undertaking: What about the "actualisation" of Hebrew? Must not this abyss of a sacred language handed down to our children break out again? Truly, not one knows what is being done here. One believes that language has been secularised, that its apocalyptic thorn has been pulled out. But this is surely not true. The secularisation of language is only a façon de parler, a ready-made phrase. It is absolutely impossible to empty out words filled to bursting, unless one does so at the expense of languae itself. The ghostly Volapük spoken here in the streets points precisely to the expressionless linguistic world in which the "secularisation" of language could alone be possible. If we transmit to our children the language that has been transmitted to us, if we—the generation of the transition—resuscitate the language of the ancient books so that it can reveal itself anew to them, must then not the religious violence of the language one day break out against those who speak it? And on the day this eruption occurs, which generation will suffer its effects? We do live inside this language, above an abyss, almost all of us with the certainty of the blind. But when our sight is restored, we or those who come after us, must we not fall to the bottom of this abyss? And no one knows whether the sacrifice of individual who will be annihilated in this abyss will suffice to close it.

What is he saying? Firstly, that it is irresponsible to revive the Hebrew tongue. It is too loaded with religiosity. Secondly, the words with revenge, a "lexical vendetta".

For example, the word תִּקוּן tikkun means "repair", but acquired mystical connotations in Cabbala. You take your car to the mechanic for a תִּקוּן, but one can imagine a rabbi retorting "Come to me at midnight and I'll show you what a real תִּקוּן is."

What is secularisation? Consider English. Shift happens; it's part of language. A "cell" used to be a monk's living place; it's now an autonomous self-replicating unit from which tissues of the body are formed; "office" changed from a church service to a bureau; "hierarchy" changed similarly.

In Hebrew, יוֹבֵל yovel meant a ram. Because of synechdoche, it came to refer to the shofar. Because Jews proclaim the fiftieth anniversary after seven cycles of שְׁמִיטָה‎, יוֹבֵל came to refer to this. This was then borrowed into Greek as yobilaios, which was then borrowed into Latin as jubilaeus, its vowel changing due to influence of the unrelated Latin jubilare, to shout for joy, entered English as "jubilee", and then was borrowed back to as יוֹבֵל—but no longer having any religious connotation.

Another example: the word in Hebrew for "oboe" is אַבוּב abuv. But this in Talmudic Hebrew was a kind of flute played in the Temple. מֶזְלַג was a sacred implement for picking up meat; now it just means "fork".

This talk is focused on ideological secularisation in Israeli. This involves deification of the state, and defying religion.

1. Deification of the state

In Biblical Hebrew, מִשְׁכָּן meant "dwelling-place" and "Tabernacle of the Congregation" (where Moses kept the Ark in the wilderness), "inner sanctum" (known as אהל מועד). Israeli מִשְׁכָּן הַכְּנֶסֶת, however, refers to the Knesset [Israeli Parliament] building. Translating מִשְׁכָּן הַכְּנֶסֶת as "The Knesset Building" is lacking. The word מִשְׁכָּן is loaded with holiness and evokes sanctity, as if MKs were at the least angels or seraphs.

עֲבוֹדָה in Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew meant ritual and cultic worship, usually of the Jewish G-d. Now, however, it means just productive work. The slogan of Bnei Akiva in Israel is תּוֹרָה וְעֲבוֹדָה. Here עֲבוֹדָה means just working the land, the Zionist ideal.

מִלוּאִים in modern Israel is army reserve duty. The מִלוּאִים in the Bible is between צַו and שְׁמִינִי; it's called [lacuna]): "You shall not go outside the entrance of meeting for seven days until the period of your ordination (מִלוּאִים) is fulfilled." It's a religious term; but in Israeli it's a secular nationalist term, referring to soldiers, not priests.

This is an example of supersession. Though the modern subjects replace the old ones, they do so with the layers of [ancient meaning]. This is an example of the ideological hegemony of Zionism. The Charedi community has waged a fierce polemic against this change. But for the ordinary Israelis they no longer see this [as an arena of ideological struggle]; they assimilate the pre-modern meanings into Israeli.


Allusion to religious concepts is a very effective rhetorical device, often used by politicians. Consider George W. Bush's use of "axis of evil", or Osama Bin Laden's use of "crusade". Through allusion, in which the new new meaning is heir to the older, while at the same time displacing it, socialist Zionists shredwly draw on earlier linguistic data without legitimising the exilic and religious sensibilities they encode.

There's a story that once Chaim Weizmann was introduced to the Regius professor of Hebrew at [somewhere in Europe]. He greeted him with מֶה נִשְׁמַע, meaning "how do you do?", which was a calque from European languages. The Regius professor, though, couldn't understand this; for him the root שׁמע brought to mind the שְׁמַע.

The modern song מי ימלל גבורות ישראל, is based on a line from the Psalms (106:2). Consider the shift from the religious cry of the Psalmist, "Who can tell the might acts of the LORD?" to the lyrics of Menashe Rabina's popular Chanukah song, "Who can tell the mighty acts of Israel?" By replacing "the mighty acts of the LORD" with "the mighty acts of Israel", the songwriter is consciously seeking to shift the focus from the worship of the divine to the worship of the national collective.

This model of appropriation of classical Hebrew sources bespeaks a Zionist ambivalence towards earlier strata of Hebrew. The clear allusion to the words of the Psalmist indicates an explicit desire to link the nationalist song to an ancient poetic model. At the same tie, the allusion to Psalm 106:2 involves an important shift: praise of God is replaced by the glorification of the nation of Israel. Indeed, the allusion serves to highlight the place of Israel—that is, of the nationalist ideal— as heir to the religious ideal regnant in the Psalms.

Another example: The memorial service for fallen soldiers in Israel features יִזְכּוֹר עַם יִשְׂרָאֵל, "Let the People of Israel remember", by Berl Katzenelson. But it is based on the mediaeval prayer יִזְכּוֹר אֱלֹהִים, "May G-d remember".

Thus Zionism used the Hebrew language to deify Zionist ideals. The first generation of Zionists were very educated people who knew the sources and would get their allusions. Current secular Israelis, however, never see a דַף גְמָרָא in their lives.

2. Defying religion

On the one hand Zionism wanted to deify the nation through allusion to Scripture. However, Zionism was a secular movement which negated Diasporism and the Diaspora Jew, whom they considered a feeble-minded, persecuted, [lacuna].

שְׁלִילַת הַגָּלוּת, negation of the Diaspora, was accompanied by שְׁלִילַת הַדָּת, negation of the religion. The anti-religious party, Shinui, was almost wholly Ashkenazi; but when Tommy Lapid was asked about Yiddish, he said he despised Yiddish, and anything which reminded him of the Diaspora. For him it was something to chastise, not something to embrace.

In delineating the borders between the Jew and non-Jew in Roman Palestine, [lacuna] It was permitted to trade with pagans, but not immediately prior to pagan festivals. One could purchase food, but not wine.

This is also found in the realm of coiffeur. A Jewish barber can cut the hair of a pagan, but "as soon as he reaches the בְּלוֹרִית, he drops his hands." In Mishnaic Hebrew, בְּלוֹרִית referred to a "Mohawk, an upright strip of hair that runs across the crown of the head from the forehead to the nape of the neck", characteristic of the abominable pagan and not to be touched by the Jewish barber. But, defying religious values, secular Socialist Zionists use בְּלוֹרִית with the meaning "forelock, hair above the forehead", which becomes one of the defining characteristics of the Sabra ("prickly pear", a nickname for native Israelis, allegedly thorny on the outside and sweet inside.) Is the new Jew ultimately a pagan?

Naomi Shemer's classic song about two men who marched together in battle, uses this term. Also Chaim Guri's song הָרֵעוּת, which became associated with Yitzchak Rabin after his assassination.

This is two things. First, negation of religion: we will show them what we are going to do. Secondly, negation of the Diaspora. The Diaspora Jew was very "shevelled", yekkish. The sabras are Dionysian, Samsonite, with dishevelled hair.

Consider Tel Aviv, the secular capital of Israel. Its name derives from this verse:

Ezekiel 3:15 יחזקאל ג טו
Then I came to the exiles at Tel Aviv, who were dwelling by the river Chebar, and I sat where they sat, and remained there astonished among them seven days. וָאָבוֹא אֶל־הַגּוֹלָה תֵּל אָבִיב הַיֹּשְׁבִים אֶל־נְהַר־כְּבָר וָאֵשֵׁב הֵמָּה יוֹשְׁבִים שָׁם וָאֵשֵׁב שָׁם שִׁבְעַת יָמִים מַשְׁמִים בְּתוֹכָם׃

In the Bible this is the name of a place in the Diaspora. Nachum Sokolov translated Herzl's Altneuland (perhaps modelled upon altnailand—עַל תְּנַאִי-land—"a land on condition") as Tel Aviv. The idea is to take the Diasporic name and apply it to Israel. Israel supersedes the Diaspora.

Extreme amelioration

In modern Israel you see extreme amelioration of Biblical terms, ignoring their negative connotations. So, for example, you encounter Rechav`am as a name, ignoring the bad portrayal of the Biblical Rehoboam:

1 Kings 12:14 מלכים א יב יד-יב יד
He spoke to them after the counsel of the young men, saying, My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions. וַיְדַבֵּר אֲלֵיהֶם כַּעֲצַת הַיְלָדִים לֵאמֹר אָבִי הִכְבִּיד אֶת־עֻלְּכֶם וַאֲנִי אֹסִיף עַל־עֻלְּכֶם אָבִי יִסַּר אֶתְכֶם בַּשּׁוֹטִים וַאֲנִי אֲיַסֵּר אֶתְכֶם בָּעַקְרַבִּים׃

Rechav`am was not a popular name in traditional circles; but it has been revived in modern Israeli society. This is a Zionist name. The same applies to the name Omri—the name Ariel Sharon gave to his son:

1 Kings 16:25 מלכים א טז כה-טז כה
Omri wrought evil in the eyes of the LORD, and did worse than all who came before him. וַיַּעֲשֶׂה עָמְרִי הָרַע בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה וַיָּרַע מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר לְפָנָיו׃

Anat—one of the most [common names given to Israeli girls] was originally a bloodthirsty Canaanite goddess who slew her enemies and made a belt from their hands. Is giving this name to girls today ignorance, or deliberately ignoring the reference? "Ignorance is like an exotic fruit: Touch it, and the bloom is gone"—Wilde.

Consider this sentence of a recruitment poster for the IAF: "I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper"—implying it's as impenetrable as iron to its enemies. But this is remarkable considering its original use:

Leviticus 26:1-26:100 ויקרא כו א-כו מו
But if you will not hearken unto Me, and will not do all these commandments; if you reject My statutes, or your soul abhors My judgments, so as not to do all My commandments, and you break My covenant: I will then do this to you: I will appoint over you terror, consumption, and the burning ague that consumes the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart. You shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set My face against you, and you shall be slain before your enemies: those that hate you shall reign over you, and you shall flee even when no one pursues. And if after even all this you will not hearken unto Me, I will punish you seven times more for your sins. I will break the pride of your power; and I will make your heaven as iron, and your earth as brass: Your strength shall be spent in vain: for your land shall not yield its increase, neither shall the trees of the land yield their fruits. וְאִם־לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ לִי וְלֹא תַעֲשׂוּ אֵת כָּל־הַמִּצְו&zwj ֹת הָאֵלֶּה׃ וְאִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַי תִּמְאָסוּ וְאִם אֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַי תִּגְעַל נַפְשְׁכֶם לְבִלְתִּי עֲשׂוֹת אֶת־כָּל־מִצְו&zwj ֹתַי לְהַפְרְכֶם אֶת־בְּרִיתִי׃ אַף־אֲנִי אֶעֱשֶׂה־זֹּאת לָכֶם וְהִפְקַדְתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם בֶּהָלָה אֶת־הַשַּׁחֶפֶת וְאֶת־הַקַּדַּחַת מְכַלּוֹת עֵינַיִם וּמְדִיבֹת נָפֶשׁ וּזְרַעְתֶּם לָרִיק זַרְעֲכֶם וַאֲכָלֻהוּ אֹיְבֵיכֶם׃ וְנָתַתִּי פָנַי בָּכֶם וְנִגַּפְתֶּם לִפְנֵי אֹיְבֵיכֶם וְרָדוּ בָכֶם שֹׂנְאֵיכֶם וְנַסְתֶּם וְאֵין־רֹדֵף אֶתְכֶם׃ וְאִם־עַד־אֵלֶּה לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ לִי וְיָסַפְתִּי לְיַסְּרָה אֶתְכֶם שֶׁבַע עַל־חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם׃ וְשָׁבַרְתִּי אֶת־גְּאוֹן עֻזְּכֶם וְנָתַתִּי אֶת־שְׁמֵיכֶם כַּבַּרְזֶל וְאֶת־אַרְצְכֶם כַּנְּחֻשָׁה׃ וְתַם לָרִיק כֹּחֲכֶם וְלֹא־תִתֵּן אַרְצְכֶם אֶת־יְבוּלָהּ וְעֵץ הָאָרֶץ לֹא יִתֵּן פִּרְיוֹ׃

This shift in meaning may simply be due to the graphic designer's ignorance.

The Political (Ab)use of Ambiguity

Many people deny that there has ever been an ideological secularisation within the Israeli language. Modus tollendo tollens, I would refer these sceptics to מִשְׁפָּט עִבְרִי—lit., "Hebrew Law", referring to the Jewish Law (an academic jurisprudence discipline)—a term selected by Israeli academics after long deliberations attempting to come up with a signifier eviscerated of religious connotations, as opposed to מִשְׁפָּט יְהוּדָה "Jewish Law", or halacha.

Ironically, the very same people who reject the notion of ideological—occasionally manipulative—secularisation and argue that Israelis can easily understand Hebrew,* often abuse the vagueness or ambiguity resulting from secularisation. They nourish grey areas of mutual intelligibility as a means of getting out of a legal or political quagmire. Consider the beginning of the concluding sentence of Israel's Declaration of Independence, construed to pacify both the religious and secular:

Placing our trust in the Almighty / Placing our security in the rock of Israel,
we affix our signatures to this proclamation at this session of the Provisional Council of State, on the soil of the homeland, in the city of Tel Aviv, on this Sabbath Eve, the fifth of Iyar 5708, 14 May 1948.
מתוך בטחון בצור ישראל הננו חותמים בחתימת ידינו לעדות על הכרזה וז, במושב מועצת הזמוית, על אדמת המולדת, בעיר תל־אביב, היום הזה, ערב שבת, ה׳ אייר תש״ח, 14 במאי 1948׃

If you were a religious person who was there at the time, you would have understood it as "Placing our trust in the Almighty." But if you were a secular Israeli, you would understand it as meaning "Placing our security in the rock of Israel"—the Israeli Defence Force.

In Biblical Hebrew, בִּטָּחוֹן means "trust, faith (in G-d)". The semantic range of its root בטח us not limited to "trust/faith in G-d" but this is certainly one of its main meanings. Indeed, in many instances the Biblical text promotes faith or trust in G-d over earthly persons or institutions. The psalmist exhorts "O Israel, trust in the Lord! He is their (sic) help and shield" (Psalms 115:9). Isaiah teaches "Trust in the Lord for ever and ever" (Isaiah 24:4). The phrase "Happy is the man who trusts in You" (Psalms 84:1£) is incorporated into the Havadalah liturgy. The question of earthly versus divine trust indeed comes to the fore in the nominal form בִּטָּחוֹן. When Hezekiah king of Judah (8th century BCE) rebelled against Sennacherib, the latter sent an emissary, Rabshakeh, to convince the Jerusalemites to lay down their arms. Rabshakeh sent the following question to Hezekiah: מַה הַבִּטָּחוֹן הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בָּטַחְתָ "What is this confidence you have?" (Isaiah 36:4), then asserts the futility of claiming "we are relying (בָּטַחְנוּ) on the Lord our G-d" (Isaiah 36:7). But of course the בִּטָּחוֹן was not misplaced, as G-d does turn back the Assyrians and Hezekiah remains on the throne.

In later strata of literary Heberw, the specific sense "faith in G-d" is the dominant, almost exclusive meaning. Thus, Shlomo Ibn Gabirol (11th century AD) devotes a chapter in his ethical treatise The Improvement of the Moral Qualities (תִּקוּן מִדוֹת הַנֶּפֶשׁ) in Yehudah Ibn Tibbon's translation of the moral attribute (בִּטָּחוֹן). The opening statement of the chapter is "This is the exalted trait by which an individual comports himself according to his faith in G-d and his reliance on Him."

In Israel, however, בִּטָּחוֹן no longer derives from G-d but rather from military power: The שַׂר הַבִּטָּחוֹן, the Minister for Security, does not pray to G-d.

* Which is a myth: not only can they not understand it, but they misunderstand it without realising that they misunderstand it. For example, Israelis believe that in the Bible there is past, present and future, whereas in fact there is perfective and imperfective. This distorts their perception of the whole.

Concluding remarks

Israeli society is riven, ironically, by its language. As well as being a highly symbolic modern language, it comes to highlight the absence of a unitary recidivic culture. The nexus which binds all these segments of society together is a myth. Mutual suspicion is present in both camps.

Avi [lacuna] claimed that since in Israel you can find a Jew who doesn't eat pork, but drives on Shabbos, or one who doesn't eat shrimp but does eat pork, etc; this mitigates the divide. Zuckermann disagrees. The fact there is a spectrum does not mean that there is not a high yawning divide, as Scholem put it in his letter.

In line with the prediction made by the Kabbalah-scholar Gershom Scholem in a letter to Franz Rosenzweig (Bekenntnis über unsere Sprache, 1926), some ultra-orthodox Jews have tried to launch a "lexical vendetta": using secularised terms like "dormant agents", as a shortcut to religious concepts, thus trying to convince secular Jews to go back to their religious roots.

The study of Israeli cultural linguistics and socio-philology casts light on the dynamics between language, religion and identity in a land where fierce military battles with external enemies are accompanied by internal Kulturkämpfe.

As long as there is a conflict between Israel and the Arabs, it might defer the Kulturkämpfe between the religious and the secular.

About which:

A rabbi 'phones G-d from Israel (which as you know is only a local call). G-d says "shoot", which stands for שאלות ותשובות. "Will my daughter ever marry?" asks the rabbi. "Yes, but not in your lifetime," replies G-d. Undeterred, the rabbi goes on to ask, "Will the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever end?" "Yes," says G-d, "but not in my lifetime."

Jewish learning notes index

Re: Mi Yemalel

Date: 2009-02-24 04:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] zsero.livejournal.com
Precisely. The song as written is a deliberate cry of defiance against God and Judaism. Which is why I refuse to sing it as written. But just four changes make it singable for the believer:

Mi yemalel gevurot haKel, otam mi yimneh?
hen bechol dor yakim hagibor, go'el ha'am.
Shma! Bayamim hahem bizman hazeh, Elokim moshia ufodeh;
uvyamenu kol am Yisrael yit'ached yashuv veyiga'el.

Date: 2009-02-24 06:10 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] grumpyolddog.livejournal.com
It's actually a rather fun language to decipher as part of a text but christ, it's bloody ugly to try to use in everyday speech.

Even Arabic flows better.

Date: 2009-02-24 06:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Try using the Biblical pronunciation; see if that helps. ;^b
From: (Anonymous)
Thank you for your blog, Lethargic man. I remember listening to Ghil'ad Zuckermann twenty years ago at the United World College of the Adriatic (before he went back to Israel to join the IDF). He was a brilliant speaker already then. I can never forget a joke that he told us at the end of the 1980s. Let me share it with you.

What's the difference between a Frenchman, a German and a Jew?.......... The Frenchman says "I'm tired and thirsty, I must have wine". The German says "I'm tired and thirsty, I must have beer". (Musical Zuckermann imitated the French and the German accents very authentically.). The Jew says "I'm tired and thirsty, I must have...... diabetes".

Zuckermann is the ultimate Jewish genius.


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