Do I really need to learn Hebrew?
Hi Rabbi Jonathan
I was thrilled to find the course and information on conversion here in Australia. I was, however, concerned that I would need to learn Hebrew. I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome which affects my cognitive abilities, could you please explain further the level of Hebrew required in order to convert?
Rabbi Jonathan responds:
First, I am sorry to hear about your Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which I know can be a truly debilitating affliction. There is, however, no arbitrary level of hebrew required in order to become Jewish (indeed there are many Jews who cannot read hebrew!). What we are looking for is your best attempt to learn it. And actually Hebrew is much easier than English as it is phonetic. You just learn the sounds of the letters and vowels and put them together. My book 'Hebrew from Zero' makes it as easy and enjoyable as possible, and teaches tricks to memorise the sounds and avoid the common mix-ups between similar letters. If you wanted to be considered for conversion by the Bet Din, you'd have to have developed a relationship with a community and a Sponsoring Rabbi, who will have submitted your material showing your understanding of Judaism, and you'd have to have shown a serious attempt at learning to read (actually decode) hebrew. The reason we require it is so that you can join in with blessings etc, even though it is also written in English letters (transliterated) in our prayer book (Mishkan T'filah, World Union Edition).
Hebrew works in two ways, even if people don't understand all of it - they know the readings and prayers have been carefully composed, considered and adjusted to express Jewish prayerfulness and spirituality by our ancestors way back as well as our more recent Rabbis - so when we say the words of the Sh'ma, we are declaring God's oneness, just as Rabbi Akiva did almost 2000 years ago when he was being tortured to death by the Romans, as Jews did in the Holocaust, and as they will do, hopefully in happier circumstances, for generations and millenia into the future! That 'link in the chain of history' does not require complete understanding of every word (it is always translated in our prayer books anyway!). This first way might be considered vertical, through time.
The second way it works is 'horizontally', around the world. Jews live in almost every country of the world, and consequently speak almost every language. So if I go to our congregation in Brussels, their services may be in Flemish - and Hebrew. In France, in french and Hebrew. In South America, in Spanish - and Hebrew. Now my French and Spanish are almost non-existent, and I certainly can't read them fluently - though probably marginally better than my Flemish! I can't keep up in the service, and it doesn't sound familiar - until they switch to the Hebrew!
So yes, becoming as fluent and confident as you can with Hebrew really is one of the things that makes a confident, rounded Jew! But no, it is not an essential requirement to be able to read Hebrew fluently.
See alos the post 'Is there a Jewish section in Heaven?'