One of the most important steps in pre-statehood Zionism was the revival of the Hebrew language. In 2,000 years of exile the Jewish people has developed many languages of its own, but they do not serve an overarching national purpose. Yiddish and Ladino have an important cultural and historical place, but do not unify us as a nation. Only Hebrew has done that.
Bible study and Hebrew go hand in hand. Forty years ago the very idea of “translating” the Bible into modern Hebrew would have been unthinkable. Tanakh was once widely studied, as an important Jewish text, and the Hebrew language flourished.
Today, however, that has all gone by the wayside. A declaration that “we are all Pinchas” does not cause an uproar, because most simply do not understand the implication. Equality and mediocrity have taken the place of excellence. Dumbing down of primary education for the sake of a lowest common denominator is taking a serious toll on Israeli students. The most basic of grammar mistakes are extremely common. In fact, speaking proper Hebrew in Israel, of all places, is likely to elicit bemused looks.
This is not just an Israeli problem, but a global Jewish problem. One of the biggest failings of the American Jewish community is the refusal to incorporate effective Hebrew language instruction into the Jewish educational system. Even the average Orthodox Day School graduate can barely get by in Israel on Hebrew alone. Are they afraid that a stronger connection with Israel and Israelis will lead more to make aliyah, further weakening the American Jewish community?
Setting aside the questionable validity of Jewish life outside of Israel, Judaism without Hebrew is an incomplete entity. For thousands of years Jewish study was reliant on Hebrew. However, a break with that past occurred in the mid-19th century. The religious leadership of the diaspora no longer relies on Hebrew. What sort of Jewish identity does one have without a basis in Hebrew? How can a community rely on Rabbis who are not truly versed in the language of the sources?
If Jewish continuity is a real goal then effective Hebrew education is necessary. Halting the detorioration of the language is imperative for the continued existence, and thriving, of the Jewish people. Proper Hebrew must not be preserved in an encyclopedia, but be the common language of Jews everywhere. The loss of Hebrew and the inability to read primary Jewish sources will leave us with only a watered down cultural heritage, not a national identity.