The Teaching of Hebrew in European Universities
7th EAJS Summer Colloquium, Yarnton Manor, 18th to 20th July 2005
The 2005 Summer Colloquium, held at Yarnton Manor near Oxford, from 18 to 20 July, with generous assistance from the British Academy, was devoted to the question of the teaching of Hebrew in European universities. While a number of papers addressed aspects of the Hebrew language and its teaching, participants also discussed the present state of Hebrew in European universities. It very soon emerged that this is a timely, indeed urgent, subject for discussion. Speaker after a speaker painted a bleak picture of rapid and dramatic decline in the range and depth of Hebrew study available to students in different European countries (the sole exception being France). While not all European countries were represented at the Colloquium, there was no reason to suppose that the picture would be significantly different in the others.
Summaries of the various papers are given below, but the urgent concerns voiced at the colloquium demand to be given prominence at the outset of this report. The steep decline in Hebrew teaching was attributed not to a lack of interest but to reforms of university education, mainly stemming from the Bologna Accord, and to a funding crisis. Given the central place of Hebrew within Jewish Studies, the following manifesto was agreed by those present:
“We consider the teaching of Hebrew to be necessary for many central aspects of Jewish Studies, and therefore we call on the membership of the European Association of Jewish Studies to do all they can to ensure that in each country in Europe there is at least one centre where Hebrew is taught in depth.”
I shall come back to this manifesto at the end of my report. I have placed the text at the beginning to ensure maximum publicity and in the hope of stimulating an active debate and indeed some action.
The colloquium coincided with the publication by Peeters (Leuven) of the volume Jewish Studies and the European Academic World, edited by Albert van der Heide and Irene Zwiep, and containing the plenary lectures read at the VIIth Congress of EAJS in Amsterdam, July 2002. Albert van der Heide presented copies of the book to the three contributors present (Angel Sáenz-Badillos, Mauro Perani and Nicholas de Lange); the lectures contain a good deal of information about Hebrew teaching that is relevant to the discussions of the colloquium.
Turning now to the papers read at the colloquium, Mauro Perani (University of Bologna at Ravenna) began the proceedings with an illustrated lecture on “The Italian Geniza”, the name given to the extraordinarily rich discoveries of Hebrew manuscript materials reused in book bindings, mainly of notarial registers and cartularies of the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Over 8000 fragments had been discovered so far.
Mauro Perani also delivered a paper on “The teaching of Hebrew language in Italy: Bible versus Judaism”. After the Council of Trent the study of the Hebrew Bible was opposed by the Catholic Church, and Hebrew largely disappeared from the universities and from Italian culture for some four centuries. Such Hebrew study as existed in the universities during this period was limited to biblical exegesis, and was cut off from Jewish studies. In the 19th century, following the First Vatican Council, the faculties of theology within public universities were abolished and theological study was henceforth confined to religious seminaries. As for Jewish scholars, they were expelled from the educational system under the 1938 Fascist racial laws, and so the remaining link between Hebrew and Jewish studies was severed. From the 1960s and the Second Vatican Council, however, the climate changed again, and there was a dramatic upsurge of interest in Judaism, leading to a strong revival of interest in Hebrew finding exaggerated expression in what the speaker called the ebraico-latria of some ‘interlinear’ Italian translations of the Old Testament, embodying such calqued phrases as ‘sacerdotare’ or ‘nell’osso di questo giorno’ (‘in the bone of this day’ rendering be-etzem ha-yom ha-zeh).
After a period of renewal and expansion, Hebrew study is threatened again by the recent reform of the university system. Hebrew is only present in the undergraduate programme in the course ‘L-Or/08’, which contains Hebrew language and literature and every form of Jewish culture from the beginning to the present day. This course is taught in thirteen universities; however in only two of these (Turin and Venice) does the presence of a team of teachers allow students to follow an articulated curriculum including Rabbinic Hebrew. Seven universities teach Modern Hebrew with the help of native speakers. The new credit system marks a serious impoverishment: whereas previously pupils studied Hebrew for three hours a week over a whole year, a credit now represents 6 hours of study, so that a pupil with five credits in Hebrew will only have had 30 hours of teaching. Professor Perani mentioned plans for a new Masters qualification on the conservation and evaluation of the Jewish cultural heritage, to be taught in Italian and English at the Ravenna branch of the University of Bologna.
W.J. van Bekkum (Groningen), in his presentation entitled “The drama of Hebrew Studies in modern European society: the case of the Netherlands”, discussed the dangers facing Jewish studies in the Netherlands and in Europe generally. The speaker singled out problems over funding, and the difficulty of finding an adequate definition of Jewish studies within the local academic context. On the credit side, a growing interest within Dutch society in Islamic and Arabic issues could potentially provide an opportunity to expand the teaching of Judaism.
In the first of the two keynote lectures Ora Schwarzwald (Bar Ilan) spoke of “The linguistic unity of Hebrew: Colloquial trends and academic needs”. She began by sketching briefly the different periods of Hebrew, and considering the place of earlier phases of the language, particularly Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew, in Modern Hebrew, as well as the input of foreign languages such as Arabic and English. After discussing in detail some linguistic features of Modern Hebrew, Professor Schwarzwald commented on the prevalence of so-called ‘thin’ or impoverished language (lashon razah) in Israel today, which she explained with reference to a number of factors: a feeling of power after the 1967 war; American influence; television; secularization; and changing educational programmes and methods. She went on to discuss two approaches to language teaching, the ‘textual’ and the ‘communicative-pragmatic’ methods. The prevalence of the latter contributes to the impoverishment of the language and to a poor knowledge of the classical Hebrew sources. Hebrew has also lost its previous dominance in Jewish studies: a comparison of periodical articles listed in 1970 and in 2000 shows that whereas in 1970 42% of articles were in Hebrew and 33% were in English, in 2000 the respective figures were 24% and 48%. Professor Schwarzwald concluded her presentation with some instructive and entertaining examples of contemporary spoken and written Hebrew.
Yishai Neuman (INALCO, Paris), in his paper “A lexically creative approach to the teaching of Modern Hebrew as a foreign language”, explained a method of teaching Hebrew grammar that he has been developing. Hebrew’s morpho-syntax and morpho-semantics are much more transparent in Modern Hebrew than they were in pre-modern Hebrew. Modern Hebrew, because of its greater morphological regularity, should be used to facilitate the acquisition of lexicon, in preference to Biblical Hebrew, which is still the starting-point for many students because of the orientation of many of the teachers.
A discussion on European issues in the university teaching of Hebrew was dominated by the bleak picture painted by Mauro Perani, confirmed for Spain by Angel Sáenz-Badillos (Complutensian University, Cambridge, Mass.). Semitic philology, he explained, which had previously brought Hebrew and Arabic together under the same roof, had now been divided up, and the valuable link with Arabic had been lost. Meanwhile Modern Hebrew was being weakened since, for budgetary reasons, lecturers were no longer brought from Israel. A link with comparative religion has not solved any internal problems, and numbers are threatened by a shortage of employment opportunities for graduates. The greatest concentration is in Madrid, with five full and five associate professors. Granada has four associate professors. Most of the four Semitics professors in Barcelona are working on other Semitic languages, not directly on Hebrew, and in Salamanca both professors who teach Hebrew are historians. The state-funded research institute CSIC does not provide teaching, but conducts high-level research, including biblical Greek and Judaeo-Spanish. The Bologna Accord imposes a move of Hebrew away from a Jewish Studies major towards Asian languages, where it will probably attract fewer students and will be cut off from the Jewish cultural context.
The Dutch situation was reconsidered, and some positive points were tentatively put forward. The watering down of subjects could potentially be an opportunity to introduce more students to some elements of Hebrew and Jewish studies. Even if there is a lowering of standards at BA level under the Bologna system, the MA is more specialised (although it is hard to introduce a language at this stage)
Nicholas de Lange (Cambridge) sketched the position in the United Kingdom. While a number of universities have introduced courses or even centres of Jewish studies, most of these do not offer Hebrew language. This is clearly deeply unsatisfactory. In London, SOAS offers only Modern Hebrew, taught by a lector; University College, the only British university to have a department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, teaches Biblical, Rabbinic and Modern Hebrew. Outside London, only Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester offer the full range of periods of Hebrew. All British universities that teach Hebrew rely on very limited state funding or private benefactions, and the outlook does not look very bright.
Sonia Barzilay (Paris 8, Centre National de l’Hébreu) gave a much more rosy account of the situation in France, the one European country where there is still a large and thriving Jewish community. Jewish children study Hebrew either in private Jewish schools or (in the case of state school pupils) at Talmud Tora. Hebrew is available as one among a choice of foreign languages in schools, and is examined in the baccalauréat, and indeed in the competitive examinations for teachers, the CAPES and agrégation. Several universities and theological colleges (whose degrees are recognised as the equivalent of a university degree) teach courses in Hebrew, and in addition a Modern Hebrew is offered in a number of others. There is a significant student demand for Modern Hebrew.
It was agreed that the brief sentence on European universities in the article on Hebrew language in the recent Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies edited by Martin Goodman did not do justice to the subject, and several participants felt that there should be a “European Handbook” in which the specifically European dimensions of Hebrew and Jewish studies could be presented.
In a session devoted to Modern Hebrew literature Albert van der Heide (Amsterdam) spoke on “Agnon in class. Revisions and the development of modern literary Hebrew”. Taking examples from Agnon’s own revisions of his work in successive editions, he showed how the changes could be used to teach about the nuances of the language. Glenda Abramson (Oxford), in “Language and intimation in Mul Haya‘arot by A. B. Yehoshua”, demonstrated some ways in which close study of the vocabulary of a literary text (in this case particularly words indicating fire, flame, burning, etc.) could be used to enhance the teaching of the language. She also gave other examples of works in which the authors’ linguistic games and devices have proved helpful in the selection of literary texts for study, particularly for beginner students, without sacrificing the texts’ aesthetic principles.
In the second Keynote Lecture, Angel Sáenz-Badillos spoke on “The teaching of Hebrew language in Europe and America: a comparative approach”. Professor Sáenz-Badillos described courses and resources at sixteen American universities known for their Hebrew or Jewish studies teaching. Almost none had a department of Hebrew: Hebrew was mainly taught in the context of Near Eastern Language and Civilization or Near Eastern Studies. With just a few exceptions, Hebrew was not taught as a Semitic language, or from a linguistic or philological viewpoint, but as a tool for the understanding of texts. It was generally accepted that texts could be adequately studied in translation, with study of the original reserved for specialists. There was a clear focus either on Biblical or on Modern Hebrew; Rabbinic and Medieval Hebrew were only rarely available. In the case of a field like medieval Hebrew poetry the emphasis was exclusively on literary, historical or cultural aspects; there was almost no research on critical editions or linguistic studies. The students were mainly Jewish, or in the case of some Biblical Hebrew programmes, members of Christian churches. Several associations existed to aid the university teaching of Hebrew. Summing up the differences between Europe and the United States with regard to Hebrew teaching, Professor Sáenz-Badillos spoke first of the different historical background, sociological situation and academic traditions. The student body was different too (and in particular with the exception of France there was not the same preponderance of Jewish students in Europe). There was a greater linguistic interest (in philological study of Hebrew as a Semitic language, or in the history of the Hebrew language and of the philological study of Hebrew), and a more conservative approach to the study of methodology. In recent times Europeans had discovered the contribution of the Jews to the culture of the European countries and saw it as part of their own culture. There was a much greater interest in the medieval period than in America. Jewish studies had grown in Europe recently, but not to the same degree as in the USA; Israeli Hebrew was being taught increasingly in European universities. It remained to be seen what the effect of European convergence would be.
Sonia Barzilay treated participants to a demonstration of two CD ROMs for the teaching of Biblical and Modern Hebrew with which she had been involved in preparing (the former in conjunction with Mireille Hadas-Lebel). Both are available in Hebrew and English. [See www.yodea.com]
Finally, Rachel S. Harris (Oxford/SUNY Albany) spoke on “Cultural negotiations with the audience: the case of Haim Gouri’s Hanishkahim”. She spoke of the different versions in which the poems had been published and of different possible ideological interpretations; and presented her own English translation with comments.
The colloquium concluded with a summing-up of the discussions, and an attempt to draw some lessons for the future. This final session again noted the urgency of addressing the negative current trends, as described above. It was judged important for the membership of EAJS to engage actively in this debate, and to do their best to ensure the survival of Hebrew study at a serious level in each country, as mentioned in the manifesto cited at the beginning.
Nicholas de Lange