Tuesday, March 27, 2012

We're all ancient language scholars

A guest post by Philo

Ever wish you could read the Iliad in the original ancient Greek that Homer wrote in?

What about Beowulf? Can you read the old English?

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,

Do you wish you could?

There's a well known Assyriologist in my neighborhood that I've gotten to know. He & I both attend a Shabbat afternoon study group, where he can be depended upon to mention obscure ancient texts that are relevant to the chumash we're discussing. And he's read these texts in their original languages.

Last week I was thinking how cool that would be. If only I could read Akkadian too. It's a remarkable thing to be able to comprehend an ancient text as it was written, without the veil of translation standing in the way.

Then I realized that I do have that skill. Tanach, roughly contemporanous with Homer, is an ancient document and I can read it in the original biblical Hebrew. I can (and do) actually spend time with the text and look for patterns and anomolies. It's called studying the Torah and anyone with a Jewish education has that skill.

I may not be able to read Beowulf, but it's roughly contemporanous with another ancient text, the Talmud, which I do have the ability to read (though sometimes I need Rav Soncino or Rav Artscroll's help.) I understand what's going on in that Hebrew/Aramaic mix and can see the intricacies of the legal and Aggadic language used. That's pretty darn cool.

My Yeshiva education left me with a lot of things I strongly dislike. Lack of critical thinking, blind faith, and numerous disturbing prejudices, which I've thankfully shaken in adulthood.

But the ability to read certain ancient texts in the original is a pretty amazing thing, which in other disciplines is usually part of PhD work. The fact that I, and most of you with day school or Yeshiva educations learned this AS CHILDREN is a pretty amazing thing, and makes me realize that along with my resentment, I also owe my chilhood Yeshivot a huge debt of gratitude and hakarat hatov.

Search for more information about Jewish Babylonian Aramaic at 4torah.com

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