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Why Hebrew?, Part Three: Hebrew Competes With Greek

Read Part One Here
Read Part Two Here
Competing Features
Now, consider possible ways in which Hebrew will compete with the Greek heritage, and vie for the dominant eye. For some things there cannot be two masters; one, and only one, must be granted superiority.
In The Republic, Plato identified three classes of citizens in his ideal society:
1) the merchants and artisans, or the makers of the marketplace,
2) the soldiers and defenders of the civil order, or the doers of the community, and
3) the guardians and philosopher-kings, or the elite knowers, the final class held in highest esteem.
This implicit and pervasive ideal permeates our modern schooling. Bestowing of awards, giving scholastic grades, and granting degrees celebrate the accomplished knowers; while the makers are similarly rewarded in the marketplace for bottom-line results and net profits. Pragmatism reigns supreme.
Well, what of the doers—those who serve and protect?
Knowing, making, and doing are important in every society and culture. It may be tempting to declare them all of equal importance, but not so. Education is vastly different for one who emphasizes knowing or making, rather than doing. Knowers and makers seek to build monuments. Doers seek to build community.
There is a story timelessly fostered in human culture: Man is born, nurtured, and raised in a safe place…his home, his place of origin, his point of departure. As man grows the time eventually arrives when he must leave his home and venture out to make his way in the world, to embark on a journey.
He seeks a gift with the intent to find it and bring it back home to share with others. The journey is risky. The unknown must be faced and fear must be conquered. Timely help arrives along the way, the gift is acquired, and the return trip is endured.
He returns a changed man. This is an adventure, an adventure in learning and refining. To miss the journey is to live a life unfulfilled.
This quest narrative is pervasive. It is easily recognized in almost any culture from primitives to our “modern” societies. However, there are two very different versions of this story. One version is clearly Greek. It is the path of the hero’s journey. The other is Hebrew.
It communicates a completely different set of values. The Hebrew is a pilgrim, a stranger in a strange land seeking to find the way home. The Greek hero is embodied in the image of the lonely individual. Odysseus, Promethius, and Achilles come to mind.
The hero’s journey is generally characterized by reckless courage, cleverness, and individual ability, with a defiant attitude—a chip on the shoulder. Success lies in finding a way against all odds to gain the prize and return as victor. Requiring no stretch of the imagination, this pattern is clearly seen in our modern race to self-fulfillment.
Any barriers standing in the way of our achieving personal power, recognition, and wealth must be stepped on, blasted through, around or over…at any cost. Intellect, heroism, competition, and perfection are all part of the game.
The Hebrew path, in contrast, is a search for and a response to a calling—a personal mission of service. The pilgrim’s journey is characterized by very different qualities than those exhibited by the classic hero. The dominant paradigm is not the lonely, masculine hero, but marriage—man and woman standing side by side.
Think of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel: two people working together to somehow survive the journey and pass the test.
Marriage as a metaphor is repeatedly used by the prophets to convey God’s love and concern for his people. He loves them passionately, is jealous of and hurt by them, yet always faithful to the covenant.
Mission, submission, and commission are keywords. The strength to endure the journey is found in voluntarily submitting to God and relying on His timely directions. Power, glory, and recognition are deferred.
Contribution, rather than achievement is the desired end; rendering humble service, rather than public recognition. These two different views of the human journey foster very different forms of education.
They foster different values and create different types of societies.
Why study Hebrew?
The 22 characters of the Hebrew alphabet are consonants. There are no vowels, per se. Vowel sounds are indicated by small marks above and below the text to aid in pronunciation.
Unlike English, which is a very literal language, each character can be thought of as having multiple dimensions.
Each character not only has a corresponding sound (b, g, d, etc.), it is also a pictograph (ox, house, door, etc.), has a numerical equivalent (1, 20, 100, etc.), and an associated set of mystic symbols from the Kabbalic tradition.
This means that the same passage in Torah can be read and interpreted differently, according to which dimension of the character is applied. It could be read literally one time and then read as a series of numbers the next.
Some Jewish traditions have spent hundreds of years manipulating characters through gemetria, notarikon, and temurah, seeking for esoteric meanings in the text.
Unlike English, one can rearrange the characters in a Hebrew word and still end up with a sensible word or phrase.
Granted, this practice is somewhat controversial. Are there really hidden truths to be found in the scrambling and unscrambling of letters? Maybe. Maybe not.
The real value of the exercise is to train the mind to read between the lines…to seek meaning beyond the literal reading of a classic work. What are the implicit assumptions?
What general principles can be extracted? Are there answers to contemporary challenges lying in wait, ready to be discovered and applied?
With practice, one can begin to see lessons in forms of free government in Genesis, in just and equitable law in Exodus, in prosperity economics in Leviticus, in administration and leadership in Numbers, and in family, community, and local government in Deuteronomy.
I study Hebrew to remember.
Remember to experience life, not just observe its passing.
Remember the beauty that lies beyond appearance.
Remember humility, while striving for nobility.
Remember to hear and feel in the quest to see the truth.
Remember to be, in the journey to become.
Remember to do rightly, while seeking to know rightly.
I study Hebrew because it demands I make a choice:
1) What is the primary end, or purpose, of my education: to know, to make, or to do?
2) Which path will I follow, that of the hero or that of the pilgrim?
Allow me to conclude by returning to Monticello College. Why teach Hebrew? If Greek is the language of knowledge and Latin is the language of power, of what is the language of Hebrew?
Preserved in Exodus is the great liberation epic, the story of a people freed from the bonds of slavery. In the backlash of the revolution against Britain, Hebrew was proposed as a replacement for English as the official language of the new American nation. Hebrew was once considered a cornerstone of liberal education.
Newly founded Ivy League schools required Hebrew of incoming freshmen and it was heard during annual commencement addresses.
The foundation of the “greatest experiment in freedom” in the history of the world was laid by a generation who were Hebrew literate. Hebrew is the language of liberty. In its truest form, liberty encompasses both the knowledge of the Greeks and the power of the Latins. To knowledge it adds the wisdom of right action.
For power it reveals the crucial, and oft misunderstood, distinction from force.
The mission of Monticello College is to foster self-sacrifice, induce moral character, emulate courage and foresight, and guard the principles of liberty. To this end, our students rely on the guiding hand of Hebrew.
For New American Founders, the Torah returns to take its place as a crucial part of the curriculum…and Hebrew is its language.
Suggested Reading:
The Old Testament
Great Books of the Western World, Vols. 4-11 (The “Greeks”)
Great Books of the Western World, Vols. 12-15, 18-21, 23 (The “Latins”)
Learn to Read Biblical Hebrew by Jeff A. Benner
Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek by Thorleif Boman

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Comments (4)

  • boyd

    I’ve actually felt it might be important for all of us to learn this language. Prophecies in the bible discuss how important this might be in our future.

    November 23, 2011 at 2:07 pm
    • Shanon Brooks

      Both Latin and Hebrew are both a part of our curriculum at Monticello College.

      November 23, 2011 at 2:14 pm
  • Forrest Brown

    I keep studying a little Hebrew, but I can’t find other who want to do the same. Again, people don’t see value in it plus it is hard.

    December 10, 2011 at 8:22 pm
  • Demar Bowman February 21, 2012 at 12:06 pm

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