By Rabbi David Jaffe
Language Liberation in Tevet
The month of Tevet raises up the importance of indigenous language, its vulnerability, and erasure by dominant languages of empire. While the month starts on a high point, during Chanukah, its main features are three fast days on the 8th, 9th and 10th of the month. Only one, the 10th, is a public fast day commemorating the beginning of the destruction of Jerusalem during first Temple times. The other two are lesser known personal fast days, the 9th remembering the death of Ezra and Nehemia, the prophets who reestablished the Jewish community in Israel in the 5th century BCE, and the 8th, the translation of the Torah into Greek. Why would the translation be cause for a fast?
In the 3rd century BCE, the Greek ruler Ptolemy Philadelphus forced the Jewish sages to translate the Torah into Greek. The Hebrew language is made up of a root system that enables each word to have multiple meanings. This translation project forced the sages to create a static, limited version of the Torah that settled on one meaning for each word. This produced a limited, stiff, version of what was usually experienced by the sages as a dynamic, infinitely deep communication from God. They referred to this experience in similar terms to the Golden Calf because, like the Golden Calf was a static, limited attempt to capture divinity, so this translation was a limited version of the infinite Torah.
I believe this forced translation has relevance to us as an example of oppression and a reminder of the importance of language liberation. Language liberation is based on the idea that language is an essential part of being human and each human culture produces its own language that expresses unique elements of that culture. Throughout history, dominant cultures suppress other languages and with it, the independence and beauty of those cultures. The costs are high. Our language is like a space; a space where we can be completely ourselves, can breathe, and express love and ideas. It is a space where ideas come alive and we can feel real, and at home.
Language liberation is based on the idea that language is an essential part of being human and each human culture produces its own language that expresses unique elements of that culture.
If you have a native tongue and have been assimilated into a dominant language like English, you may relate to this sense of power in language and loss. Our native language is the language of the heart. This is why Rebbe Nachman encourages talking to God freely in Hitbodedut in one’s mother tongue, to access the most soulful level of communication.
Language liberation is an important piece of overall human liberation. Some cultures have fiercely held onto their language despite intense programs of assimilation, while others are recovering their indigenous language. Jews held onto to Hebrew as a written language for thousands of years and recovered it as a spoken language over the past 150 years in a remarkable effort at reviving language. Over the course of the last 2000 years Jews developed a variety of indigenous languages based on where they lived, including Judeo-Arabic, Ladino and Yiddish, and more, which are all important to maintain. Native American tribes, including the Wampanoag, are undertaking efforts similar to the revival of Hebrew, through teaching and learning their tribal languages (https://www.wlrp.org/)
Whether or not we fast this year, let us use the 8th of Tevet as a time to raise up and honor indigenous languages and commit to learning more about our own and all language liberation as a part of the wider effort towards liberation and justice for all.