Tuesday, September 15, 2009

English Torah

26 Elul 5769

At first glance it would seem that the proliferation of Torah literature in English is a blessing for those lacking a background in Jewish learning in general and the Hebrew language in particular. One can find books in almost every area of Torah learning in English. You can even learn Gemara in English.

When I became acquainted with Torah Judaism, about 26 years ago, there were not nearly as many Torah oriented books available in English as there are today. I can tell which English books I used the most. They are the ones that fell apart: the Ganzfried-Goldin Abridged Shulchan Aruch, "A Tzaddik in our Time" (about Rabbi Arye Levin zt"l), the Chabad Siddur, and Art Scroll Zemiroth.

Looking back, I am glad that there were not that many books in English. It forced me to work hard to learn Hebrew and Aramaic! I had to look up words in the dictionary, I had to ask a lot of questions. Little by little, word after word, my vocabulary grew. The entire gamut of classic Torah literature, in its original Hebrew or Aramaic, is now accessible to me. How much I am able to learn and understand is a matter of how much time and effort I devote to learning and how much help I receive from Above.

Today I see people that have been learning Torah for years but have not weaned themselves from the English translations. Personally I think this a pity. While these English versions of Torah classics are an important first step for the beginner, one must move onward. The authors of these works never intended them to be a substitute for learning the originals. I would venture to say that without a good understanding of Hebrew, it is impossible to really understand Torah, it is impossible to really understand Chazal.

This dependency on English translations is particularly disturbing here in the land of Israel. The Hebrew language lives here! Even one who chooses to surround himself with English speakers cannot remain totally unaffected by his surroundings. Hebrew is everywhere! Hey guys, wake up and smell the Hebrew!

On the other hand one can understand those that prefer their mother tongue. If I see a street sign that is written in both Hebrew and English, even today my eyes are usually drawn to the English. People naturally prefer to remain within their comfort zone. Breaking one's teeth learning a new language is not easy. However, one must understand that when it comes to Torah learning, those that stick to English are paying a very high price for their lack of effort.

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