The best time to learn a language, or more than one, is not when you are in your mid-twenties, or mid-thirties, and about to embark on a degree program that will prepare you for ministry. The claims one has on one’s mind and time are by that time overwhelming. Plus, one’s brain is not necessarily very absorbent any more.
The best time to learn a second language is with your mother’s milk. I see this every day because my children, who have heard Italian in the home and English everywhere else since birth, speak Italian without an accent and understand it just as easily as they understand English.
The second best time to learn a language is a little later, for example, when you are eight or nine or whenever it is that Orthodox Jewish boys start learning Hebrew and Aramaic. Ever wonder how Hebrew is taught today or a lesson in Talmud structured for someone that age? For delightful examples, go here and, especially, here, here, and here (don’t miss it!).
The third best time is when you are a teenager, the younger the better, for example, 12 or 13, when Reform and Conservative Jewish boys and girls take a crash course in Hebrew in preparation for bar/bat mitzvah. Better-organized Conservative and Reformed synagogues have Hebrew after-school programs and summer schools for younger children as well.
A drawback of this system is that bar/bat mitzvah, like confirmation in many Christian traditions, is in effect a graduation such that the next ten, twenty, or more years are spent as much as possible far away from regular religious practice. What’s the good of learning Hebrew if you are going to go about forgetting it in the years that follow? The pattern is reminiscent of that current in Christian denominations whose seminaries require Hebrew and Greek. One survives the experience, whereas the goal should to be to cherish the experience, and built on it for the rest of one’s life.
I began learning Hebrew and Greek at 15, while a sophomore in high school. How that came to pass will take a bit of explaining. Bear with me.
At that age, I attended a “school without walls” in Madison, Wisconsin, a joint venture of the public school system and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At City School, students designed their own curriculum in consultation with a mentor. As a freshman, the courses I took had titles like “Nature and the Naturalist Writers,” “An Introduction to Psychology,” “Russian Novels” (we read The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, and The First Circle), and “Limits to Growth (The Club of Rome).”
Now you might be thinking: those are not appropriate courses for first-year high school students. Maybe so, but no one told us that. We did fine. In fact, we had the time of our lives.
A couple years before I began high school, a revival swept through a United Methodist Church not far from where I lived. The youth of that church started a Bible study to which I was invited. It was there, in the midst of prayer and praise and reading from the Good News Bible, that I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. That is code, so to speak, for a conversion experience which involved my whole being. Of course it was only the beginning of what has been a long and fabulous journey.
As I matured, my interests shifted from math and the hard sciences to literature and history and the study of the Bible. The desire to learn Hebrew and Greek pressed upon me. My high school mentor obliged, so, at 15, I began learning (modern) Hebrew from one UW grad student, and (biblical) Greek from another.
Despite raging hormones and what have you, it was a fine time of life to learn languages. The desire was there, the zeal of youth. The brain was more receptive to learning a second language than it became a decade or so later. At 16, I was studying Hebrew and Aramaic with a great teacher at the university, Menachem Mansoor, who, more than any other person, is responsible for making Hebrew and Semitic studies the passion of my life.
My proposal for language study and seminaries takes my life-experience as a point of departure. Now, I don’t imagine the public school system will return to the “school without walls” approach, not even on an experimental or “magnet” basis. I wish it would, but it’s not going to happen.
I noticed last year, among my eighth grade confirmation class, a number of boys and girls with excellent grades in school who really caught on to the subject matter of confirmation class. Furthermore, they seem to have some spiritual gifts that might make them suitable to be pastors someday. As a graduation present upon confirmation, I offered to teach them Hebrew. A number of them have shown great interest. Through a UW-Madison extension program, they will earn college credit for it. Not bad for first year high school students. It looks like I will have a sizeable class.
The drift of my proposal will already be clear. The last best hope I can imagine for equipping future pastors and laypeople with the biblical languages is in parish-based programs of the kind I just outlined. If this became a widespread practice, it would the change the shape of sem and pre-sem education in a radical and, I think, very positive way.
In conclusion, I want to address an issue raised by Bob MacDonald, Peter Kirk, Claude Mariottini, Tim Bulkeley, and Suzanne McCarthy, albeit in diverse ways. To paraphrase Suzanne, isn’t what really matters is that a minister ministers to the spiritual needs of those she or he is entrusted with?
I could not agree more: see 1 Corinthians 13, which subordinates knowledge to the practice of love.
Still, the biblical notions of Spirit and the work of the Spirit are more extensive than ours, and deserve consideration. Divine spirit, ability, and intelligence are correlates in biblical thought: cf. Exodus 31:3 as translated, correctly, in NRSV.
The underlying notion of “spirit” in a text like Exodus 31 is closer to that of the equivalent term in German than in English. Geist in German gives rise to the concept of the Geisteswissenschaften, which means, roughly, the humanities, or the sciences of culture.
1 Corinthians 13 notwithstanding, the divine spirit in the sense of ability, competence, and intelligence ought to be ardently desired and highly valued in the church. Surely we can all agree on this.
Does that mean that all pastors, like all rabbis, need to be competent in the biblical languages?
No, but I would urge readers to meditate on Matthew 13:51-52.
Maybe my position, from a formal point of view, is not that different from that of Claude Mariottini. He remarks that seminary students with a profound interest in biblical studies ought to pursue a specialized course of study (after they finish their M. Div.?). But I don’t see Claude’s position working itself out in practice in a satisfactory manner.
One model might be the Pontificio Istituto Biblico, run by Jesuits, which I attended in Rome Italy to my profit. That’s the place where bishops from around the world send priests under their charge who show aptitude and zeal for biblical scholarship. The goal seems to be to have top flight biblical scholars in every diocese, though not in every parish.
But I would like to see the biblical languages cherished and taught at the parish level, and young people in particular, and those who might become pastors especially, encouraged to learn them before seminary, not during. That way, when they get to seminary, they can learn the skills of which Marottini speaks. And, I hope, be fast-tracked there into learning how to do spiritually sensitive and critically honest exegesis in the service of the church.
No, Iyov, I do consider critical honesty a must, not an optional. I don’t know about Judaism, but Christianity has suffered long enough, and continues to suffer, from the hot winds of obscurantism.
But I appreciate your clarion call for an end to the dumbing down of the Christian mind. Preach it, bro.
 And before birth! I loved to sing to my kids while they were still in their mother’s womb. I imagined they could hear me and that when they moved about, it was because they heard my voice. Is this wishful thinking on my part, or does it have a basis in fact?