I have a dream. It goes like this. The day is coming when ancient Hebrew will be widely taught at the high school and college levels in private and public institutions.
By ancient Hebrew, I mean the Hebrew of the Bible, but also epigraphic Hebrew, the Hebrew of Ben Sira, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Talmud, and the piyyutim.
My focus is on seeing ancient Hebrew taught at the high school level. It could also be taught far more widely at the elementary, middle school, and college levels.
Ancient Hebrew is taught in orthodox Jewish settings from elementary school age on. How well and to what effect will depend on all kinds of factors. Surely everyone could learn something from the accumulated experience of this tradition. But my point is another. Languages like Latin and Greek are sometimes taught at the high school level in both public and private institutions. Wherever there is a demand for it, ancient Hebrew could be taught in the same contexts.
Is there a demand? There would be if it sunk in that learning Hebrew, the foundational language of the Bible and the Talmud, is a cultural priority.
There are people everywhere, people for whom the Jewish and/or Christian heritages are important, who are not completely overwhelmed by cultural amnesia. Wherever people believe the form of access to the texts of the Bible or the Bible and the Talmud is cognitive, social, and existential all at the same time, a harvest of interest in learning the languages of the texts is waiting to be reaped.
When I offered to teach ancient Hebrew to high school freshmen this fall, seven students signed up. Given their intellectual abilities and (still mostly inchoate) existential commitments, it was a natural continuation of their 7th and 8th grade confirmation class experience. Basically, every 9th grader within my immediate circle of influence with the aptitude for learning ancient Hebrew chose to take it. The dynamic of which I speak has potential analogues in a variety of contexts. It could be the same for others upon conclusion of the bar and bat mitzvah experience. Quite apart from religious or anti-religious leanings, learning Hebrew might just be a geeky thing to do.
Why Christian schools – evangelical, Lutheran, Christian Reformed, Methodist, Anglican, Catholic, and so on – do not offer biblical Hebrew (and Greek and Latin) to high school freshmen and above is absolutely beyond me. It would be a natural way to engage a segment of the student body – for whom the experience would be a steppingstone to other things, including ministerial vocations – in an intellectual adventure of the highest order. One thing would lead to another. To do so might be part of a larger endeavor to recover a level of intellectual intensity in contemporary Christian culture that by and large is sorely lacking.
Many public schools offer a variety of elective courses, and/or allow students to take college courses off-campus for high school credit. Allowing students to take a course of ancient Hebrew that earns them AP credit is in principle no different than allowing them to take a calculus or English AP elective course. College-level on-site and distance learning courses, or a hybrid of the above, are offered more and more often in public high schools in the United States.
In my next post, I describe innovative ways of teaching ancient Hebrew.