The founding of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem 100 years ago marks a turning-point in the modern revival of Hebrew, which until the late 19th century had no native speakers. No other language in history has been resurrected with such spectacular success.
As the first university with Hebrew as its language of instruction, the Hebrew University was the embodiment of a national identity, with room for an exceptionally broad spectrum of Jewish identities, their variety a sign of dynamic creativity, not inward- looking as in the past, but reaching out to the world of knowledge. It was the only institution in the world in which thinkers as diverse as Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, Gershom Scholem and Saul Lieberman could feel they were engaged in a common endeavour.
In defining Jewish culture primarily in terms of the secular modern world, the Hebrew University marks a revolutionary point of departure. The Orthodox Jewish world mostly rejected university education, not without cause.
Though rabbinics and Kabbalah were reviled in academia as part of the antisemitic contempt for Jewish learning, Hebrew as the language of Holy Scripture was blessed by the German academic world with status not inferior to Latin and Greek and, therefore, suitable as a vehicle for Jewish assimilation. But this was a secular status.
The traditional Jewish texts ceased to have sacred authority in a secular world. Hebrew was stripped by Enlightenment thinkers of its aura of reverence and cannibalised into a didactic tool by which Jews ignorant of European languages and learning could gain secular education and enter European civilisation. It was questionable if Hebrew as an essential part of Judaism would survive.
In the early 19th century, German Reform seriously considered eliminating Hebrew from the liturgy. What seemed most likely at that point was increasing secularisation, assimilation, patriotism, and social and cultural integration of Jews within their separate countries of citizenship. As Christians would give up Christianity in a rational, secular world, Jews would give up Judaism. Few imagined in a modern,progressive state, antisemitism had a future; yet antisemitism undermined assimilationist ideals and pointed Hebrew and Jewish education in the direction of secular nationalism and a revival not just of Hebrew but also of ancient Jewish militarism, to fight antisemitism.
The university became a reality, finally, through the astonishing changes the Hebrew language and literature underwent between 1881 and 1917, as a result of the two aliyot (waves of immigration) to Palestine, both set off largely by Russian pogroms; by the establishment of the Zionist Organisation; and the Balfour Declaration.
Under Ottoman rule, which gave limited support to Zionism, Jewish schools in the land of Israel adopted Hebrew as the language of instruction and the children spoke Hebrew among themselves.
A new form of Jewish education emerged, based on modern Hebrew, using Hebrew as the language of instruction, though greatly inspired by the ancient texts, particularly the Bible but also the Talmud and Midrash. These texts, no longer dismissed as irrelevant, were mined instead as sources of Jewish national-cultural distinctiveness, and devotion to and sacrifice for the nation. Among these was Bialik’s edition of talmudic legends.
In an age of violent nationalism, at the end of the most destructive war the world had ever known, the Hebrew University was conceived as a centre of pacifist culture, of intellectual excellence giving dignity to a persecuted people, demonstrating, contrary to the prejudices of many, that Jews had made a distinguished contribution to civilisation. If not for the loving preservation of Hebrew Scripture, the civilisations of Christianity and Islam, and of Europe in particular, could not have come into being.
Unlike the 19th-century Wissenschaft des Judentums, which sought to give Judaism “a decent burial”, the idea of the Hebrew University was a proud proclamation of the national rebirth of the Jewish people, parallel to that of other peoples, such as the Greeks, the Italians, and the Irish, all with remarkable cultures but who had known long periods of decline.
For the first time since the Bible, Hebrew poets sang of the land of Israel as the setting for actual experience. The poet Shlonsky, an ex-Chasid, now a socialist avant garde bard, describes working on the roads in the early 1920s in expressionist imagery of prayer: “My land is wrapped in light like a tallit./ Houses stand like tefillin boxes./ Like tefillin straps the roads sweep down.”
An extraordinary concatenation of past tradition and present realities made the Hebrew University possible. The university came before the creation of a Jewish army and for many Jews was the true fulfilment of Zionism, whose purpose was seen as cultural above all. Though the building was years in the future, the intellectual edifice was there from the start.
David Aberbach’s book, ‘Jewish Nationalism, War and Jewish Education: from the Roman period to modern times’, will be published later this year