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  • Does Hebrew (Still) Matter?:Some Answers from a Hebrew Language Needs Analysis Study
  • Nitza Krohn (bio)

Hebrew and Conservative Judaism

As anyone familiar with the history of Conservative Judaism knows, the association between the Conservative movement and Hebrew dates back to the inception of the movement, when Zacharias Frankel broke with the Reform movement after rabbinic leaders voted at the 1845 Frankfurt conference to make Hebrew merely "advisable" instead of mandatory in the synagogue liturgy. In 1913, the Conservative movement again demonstrated the importance it placed on Hebrew when the platform of the newly-founded United Synagogue of America Federation included the resolution to retain Hebrew as the language of liturgy. And in the mid-1950s, Hebrew became a component of the Conservative movement educational programs in day schools, afternoon schools, and summer camps.1

Today, Hebrew is an integral component of rabbinic education at JTS and the AJU (American Jewish University, formerly, the University of Judaism), where—since rabbinical students are expected to study the Bible, Talmud, and their commentaries with little help from English language translations—an intermediate-level knowledge of Hebrew is a condition of entry into the program, and advanced-level Hebrew language classes are mandatory for those entering with an intermediate-level Hebrew language proficiency. Rabbinical students continue to study Hebrew during their [End Page 4] year in Israel; at JTS, they are also offered elective Hebrew-instructed content courses (in Talmud, Bible, and literature).

Over the years, leaders of Conservative Judaism have time and again reaffirmed the importance of Hebrew within their movement. Solomon Schechter invoked religious, historical, cultural, and ethnic reasons for why Hebrew must remain the language of the Jewish people, stating that "[T]ranslations are a poor makeshift at best and more often a miserable caricature . . . We must thus insist on Hebrew."2 In 1947, at a United Synagogue convention, when Mordecai Kaplan articulated the principles that unite the participants in the Conservative movement, he listed as the fourth principle "the maximum possible plenitude of Jewish content, including the use of Hebrew."3 And more recently, former JTS Chancellor Ismar Schorsch pronounced Hebrew the second of the seven core values of Conservative Judaism. Alluding to the movement's long record of support for Zionism and the State of Israel,4 Schorsch writes that "in a Jewish world of sundry and proliferating divisions, Hebrew must emerge as the common and unifying language of the Jewish people, and nothing would advance that vision more effectively than to redefine Zionism today solely in terms of the ability to speak Hebrew."5

How does this ideological and educational commitment to Hebrew manifest itself in everyday practice in the Conservative rabbinate? In other words, to what extent and in what contexts is Hebrew used by Conservative rabbis? What are the wishes and aspirations of rabbinical students for the use of Hebrew in their future careers? What do Conservative congregants expect from their rabbis in terms of Hebrew language knowledge and use? These were some of the questions I set out to answer in my recent study, which analyzed the Hebrew language needs of Conservative rabbinical students.6

The Study

Language-needs analysis, an established subfield within applied linguistics, is widely recognized as the necessary first step in second or foreign language curriculum design, as well as an essential component of language program evaluation. In order to design an effective language curriculum, [End Page 5] one must first look at the precise language skills needed to function in a given professional, vocational, or academic situation (known as the target language use, or TLU, situation).7 To determine the Hebrew language use needs of Conservative rabbinical students, I surveyed Conservative rabbis and presidents of Conservative synagogues in the United States and Canada and rabbinical students at JTS and AJU. In October 2007, I contacted a total of 2,038 potential participants, either electronically (students and presidents) or by mail (rabbis), and 533 individuals responded, including 330 rabbis (25.6 percent rate of return), 124 congregational presidents (21.6 percent rate of return), and 79 students (45.4 percent rate of return).8 The survey included three parallel questionnaires, which I had constructed based on interviews with rabbis, rabbinical...


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