The Charedi custom of excise

On November 3, the Jewish Tribune could hardly contain itself. It reported that "A new Oxford English dictionary tailor-made for use in Charedi schools" had been launched through an initiative of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations.

The report explained that the original Oxford Dictionary for Schools contained "hundreds" of words that are "redundant in the context of the school curriculum." Parents and rabbis had apparently wanted for some years to "excise inappropriate content… in line with the ethos of Charedi schools. "To that end, "great efforts" had been expended negotiating with Oxford University Press for permission to publish a "shortened" version of the Dictionary.

These efforts had resulted in a "filtered version" - "a heartwarming achievement… [that] … puts the UOHC in the vanguard of chinuch [education] policy for the future."

When this story appeared, my smartphone went into overdrive. Some callers thought the entire story was a hoax. Others could not believe that OUP had collaborated in such a venture. The JC's shorter report the following day did little to dampen the speculation; indeed the JC's identification of some of the words that had been "filtered" seems only to have added to the air of shock and bewilderment.

The 'Oxford' dictionary will have an undeserved, respectable reputation

The Dictionary for Schools that was the subject of the Tribune report is not an "Oxford" dictionary. The Tribune report claimed that OUP's editorial team "were pleased to be associated with this venture." But I have it on record from OUP that the Charedi dictionary does not carry the imprimatur of OUP and OUP has further explained that "the editorial decisions were made by UOHC, not OUP's dictionary editorial team."

OUP routinely licenses its lexicographical data to a wide range of customers, who - within limits - are free to use the data to create dictionaries of their own. In this case, OUP was approached by the Beis Rochel D'Satmar Girls' School, with which an agreement was entered into enabling the UOHC to create- from OUP's data - a dictionary under its own imprint. This publication, available from next January, can be sold only to Charedi schools affiliated to the Union, and will not be publicly available.

But the matter certainly cannot end there. The Charedi dictionary is intended for young people studying for the GCSE - say, 14-16 years of age. In two more years, some will become adults - full citizens of the UK with the right to vote. I do not have a complete list of the words of the genuine Oxford school dictionary that have been omitted or modified in the Charedi version. But I have been told by various spokespersons that these words amount to "several hundred" and include "homosexual", "gay", and "prostitute". When I protested that the word "prostitute" occurs in the Hebrew Bible (it was, you may recall, in the "house" of Rahab the harlot that Joshua's spies were billeted before the assault on Jericho), I was told in no uncertain terms that the house was merely an inn, and Rahab merely an inn-keeper.

Well, what about "homosexual"? Sodomy is not only mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, it is expressly forbidden, and you can hardly forbid what you do not explain. Yes, came the reply, but it's explained in Hebrew, not English.

These seem to me lame excuses indeed, pitiable in fact. A young person aged 16, who will soon become a voter, needs to be educated for citizenship, and surely ought not to be kept in ignorance of matters which, however sensitive, are likely to feature in civic discourse. To confine the definition of "gay" to that which is "cheerful and bright" seems to me downright irresponsible - to say nothing of the fact that its contemporary use in this outdated sense could lead to some embarrassing and perhaps even violent public dialogues. (Paradoxically, I understand that the word "punctual" has survived the UOHC's rabbinical censors even though the concept of punctuality is quite alien to the Charedi world.)

But if we accuse the UOHC of irresponsibility for attempting to corset in ignorance those whom it purports to educate, I fear we must also point an accusatory finger at OUP. The licensing of its lexicographical data may well constitute a lucrative income stream but with this privilege comes responsibility. However much OUP may be legally distanced from the Charedi dictionary, the Oxford origins of this wretched publication will continue to be trumpeted in Charedi circles: the publication itself will thereby acquire a respectability that it simply does not deserve.

Last updated: 10:45am, November 23 2011