The following is the text of Mishael Caspi's Presidential
Address delivered at Bates College:
e think of language as a communicative tool and as a means for people to understand each other. The communicative aspect does not solely define language, but more importantly language defines a culture that conveys all phases of life in a given culture. Through language, members of a culture can live, think, act, and develop ideas that can be passed down to the next generation. Language is the ring which joins people together.
Hebrew language was in our early history a living language. For several centuries Hebrew was only used ritually. But it has now flourished to become, once again, a living language. In our time, the Hebrew language should assume a new role: Hebrew should carry on the message of Jewish tradition.
Our Association is striving to revive Hebrew in secondary and higher learning institutions. By doing so, we are trying to keep the flame burning. We should also strive to fuel the flame and bring it not only to every institution of learning but to every home. The Hebrew language of our time should unify us.
Not long ago, A. B. Yehoshua, whom I consider the most important author of modern Israel, began a "crusade" to promote Hebrew language in what we anachronistically call the "Diaspora." Using the French cultural centers as a model, Yehoshua passionately advocates that Israel should play a leading role in sending teachers and intellectuals to teach Hebrew language and culture throughout the world. We should introduce the old culture to the new. Yehoshua states:
Jews were for centuries busy with themselves. Now, after the establishment of the state of Israel, it is time to actively introduce and promote our culture throughout the world. This can be achieved by patterning our mission after the French cultural centers.
We should pay careful attention to A. B. Yehoshua's idea. All fields in Jewish studies-from Biblical studies to contemporary Jewish thought-as well as Jewish languages such as Ladino, Yiddish, or Judeo-Turkish, are rooted in Hebrew-the essential language of Jewish experience.
Our Association should herald the importance of Hebrew language and culture. But we cannot do this alone. We should find ways to attract the support of Jewish institutions in the United States, as well as the Ministry to Education and Culture in Israel, in order to promote the idea of making Hebrew a common language of all people. Those of us who toil today in promoting Hebrew language, culture, and literature can sow the seed of our future; we can influence the lives of the next generation by promoting Hebrew.
If we continue to engage in nothing but the routine without searching for new teaching challenges, we will not be able to bridge gaps within our culture. We will unwittingly weaken the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. We will increase the gap between "us" and "them." Jews in the Diaspora will lose their identity; Jews in Israel will come to live like people who "dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among nations" (Num 23:9).
Our Association should champion Hebrew in two ways. First, we should promote Hebrew language and literature (Hebrew culture), and thus Judaism. This requires that we seek excellence in teaching. The criteria for excellence ought to be knowledge of Hebrew (needless to say knowledge of Aramaic is also important, but that's a topic for another essay). Second, our Association can champion Hebrew culture by collaborating with Jewish institutions in the United States and Israel to organize conferences, summer schools, and special programs. It is critical for our sake to initiate contact between the religious and secular sectors of our culture.
Our identity as a people, as a culture, is found not only in museums but in texts. For this reason we must return to texts, read them and understand them, whether according to modern interpretations or through that given at Mt. Sinai. That is only possible if Hebrew is promoted.