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The rabbi gave a sermon earlier this year about a deluge and I was confused. My whole life, I learned about the flood, the ‘mabool,’ and the rabbi was going off on some kind of water park ride sounding thing.
People later told me that the deluge was the flood, and I asked why the rabbi didn't just say 'the flood.' Once again, I was feeling like a fool, because my English comprehension was not good enough to understand another rabbi. My British friend was applauding the brilliant use of the language. I was stuck.
Why do they translate the Hebrew into English that is harder to understand than the Hebrew itself! This language of Pentateuch, imprecations, deluge, legumes, firmament, countenance, invoke, Ecclesiastes, sexton, phylacteries, benedictions...
Here are some of my memories of times I didn’t understand and hardships with the English of American rabbis. I bring them to you, because I don't want you to think you're the only one who was poorly educated.
A Childhood of Not Understanding
It was around the time of my Bar Mitzvah when the rabbi sprung a word on me I had never heard before. He said, ‘The synagogue is going to need you for a quorum.’ No idea what quorum means. I thought I was being punished. What did I do to deserve for a group of ten men to give me a quorum? I didn’t want anything to do with it.
I protested, and then he pulled out what he called ‘phylacteries.’ I was confused.
Growing up, I never knew what phylacteries were. I had an idea of what Tefillin were. It was at that point that I requested from my rabbi, ‘Please translate the English back into Hebrew, so that I can understand.’ My rabbi got mad at me, and said, ‘Throw a Yarmulke on your head.’ All I had was a Kippah. So I put that on my head, and all was good.
Sermon I Still Don’t Understand from the Same Rabbi
The rabbi began with his ‘Exegesis from Leviticus from the Pentateuch.’ I didn’t even understand the title of that speech. I was waiting for a sermon from the book of Vayikra, from the Torah.
After his speech, I said ‘Yasher Koyach,’ to congratulate him on his understanding of the English language. I didn’t wish him ‘felicitations,’ as I wanted him to understand what I was saying. I congratulated him in the simple Hebrew Jewish way. I didn’t want him to be confused. I was already confused enough from his speech.
Another Sermon I Still Don't Understand
It was on Sukkot that we started reading King Solomon’s Kohelet, and I was beginning to feel a strong connection to Gd, when the rabbi started talking about Ecclesiastes. He lost me. Kohelet is a beautiful book. He should have talked about that.
I am not Greek and I have always made it a point to stay away from what he called the Septuagint. To make matters worse, the rabbi decided to throw in this new idea of calling Sukkot, the Holiday of Tabernacles. Again, I didn’t understand a word of his sermon, as I am American and his speech was in English.
I am not the wisest of all men. I am not King Solomon. All I know is that if I was a botanist, I would have understood his Passover sermon about legumes.
I Was Lost in The Service
Until the added Musaf service of Shabbat, all was fine at shul. The issue began when they started with this prayer in English, for the United States. ‘He Who grants salvation and dominion to rulers…’ Salvation means redemption or liberation. If somebody would have told me that, I would have said ‘Amen.’ Instead, it turned into my silent protest against the country. Some people accused me of siding with the football players.
Then, somebody they called the ‘beadle’ came over to me to ask me to open the ark. If the Gabai had come over to me, I would’ve definitely ran to open the ark.
All I know is that penitent means to look serious. I was able to do that throughout the service. I was confused the whole time.
My Message to American Rabbis that I Respect
If you insist on giving Sermons in English, then use English words. Let’s move away from the language used in the 1930s and talk in an English the congregants can identify. A simple English. Not a pre-Shakespearian English that my English Lit professor can’t recognize.
I understand it is fun for you to create words like firmament, but maybe keep the Hebrew in Hebrew. Stop using words you created, like legumes, beadle, sexton firmament, countenance, quorum, tabernacle. Use words like beans and peas, shul helper, heaven, face, Minyin, Sukkis. Something that I can recognize. Vocabulary your congregants identify.
Maybe you are trying to add in a Hebrew flavor to your speech, using words congregants can’t grasp; thus, adding to the feeling of the Hebrew prayers that they are reading in transliteration. Maybe those are English words. Maybe you didn’t create them.
I am sorry. It was my English education. If I would’ve read more as a kid, I would’ve understood more of what the rabbis are saying in their exegeses. Maybe if I grew up in Britain, maybe if I grew up in the 1500s, I would comprehend.
I want to thank all of the rabbis who’ve taught me how to wrap my phylacteries, put on my tassels, place my yarmulke. You have been the inspiration. Because of your exegeses and pedagogy, I have the ability to pass on imprecations. I now see the firmament, and invoke every day for rain in Israel, but no deluge.
Sorry for this rant. I didn’t mean to take it out on the sexton.
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That is how the punchline of a Jewish joke should look. Like you're questioning something, dealing with serious stomach issues, or giving a sermon.