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The Salutatorian speaks Latin (Bamidbar 06-08-19)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

The Salutatorian speaks Latin
Last Tuesday I attended my step-daughter’s graduation from Princeton University. The school has a custom that the salutatorian speaks in one of the languages of classic Western scholarship, either Greek or Latin; our graduate chose Latin. While his speech was printed in the graduation booklet, it was not translated, and from the select laughs it garnished, it seemed that only a small percentage of the attendees understood the speech.
I questioned my devoted Princeton Tiger, Judy, on the meaning of this ritual for it seems like a waste of everyone’s time, especially the salutatorian’s, when most people cannot understand what the speech is about. Judy quickly replied, “Well how is it so different from our reading of the Torah and multiple prayers in Hebrew and Aramaic that nobody understands?” I objected immediately, “How can you make such a comparison?” I hemmed and hawed my way out of her disconcerting reply, but indeed, it’s a good question.
Sometimes, when I’m giving a Bar/Bat Mitzvah lesson this query naturally arises in my mind. The Kaddish prayer is in Aramaic, which no Jew speaks anymore. It was originally written in Aramaic, the spoken language of the time, in order to be understood by the masses. Now that it’s not the vernacular, are we just perpetuating this essential prayer in a dead language for tradition’s sake? Does this practice, antithetical to its original institution, make sense? Is it sustainable?
This past Shabbat night, I posed these questions to our minyan of daveners, and I thought their answers were solid.
They differentiated between a speech and a ritual.
The salutatorian’s speech should have been said in English or at least translated, for what’s the purpose of a speech if not to educate or inspire? If no one understands the language, and there’s no translation, then the effort is lost.
On the other hand, the reading of the Torah and the recitation of prayers in Hebrew and Aramaic fall into the ritual category. Most religions emphasize the love of God and one’s neighbor, the importance of study and acts of kindness. It’s how the religion dresses these beliefs in its rituals and practices that makes it special and distinctive. Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish and Ladino prayers and rituals help define and characterize Judaism. Imagine if we said the “Mah Nishtanah” and “Dayeinu” in English; would it have the same feel? Would they impart the connectivity to previous generations and the sense of being part of something larger than ourselves if we sang them solely in English?
The vast majority of our minyaneers don’t understand Hebrew or Aramaic (not even enough to realize they were speaking Aramaic!), but they value the emotional and nostalgic connection to the languages. Since our siddurim contain translation, most people feel they get the gist of the prayers even if they don’t understand the words precisely.
Perhaps our minyaneers are very wise. A few years ago, I attended “Hava Nashira Songleading Workshop.” The retreat’s purpose is to update cantors and song leaders on all the new music, prayers and practices that are currently being formulated. I couldn’t believe my eyes, the campus swarmed with multitudes of young, talented musicians who were crafting new melodies and prayers in Hebrew.  Composing for the American Jew, these artists and song writers treasure our heritage and understand the rich value that Hebrew provides for our people. I think it’s safe to say that even in America, songs and prayers in Hebrew are here to stay.
While I won’t understand the next speech I hear in Latin, I will continue to teach my students the Kaddish in Aramaic. I’ll just scratch my head a little less.

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