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Why Hebrew captured the American imagination

In an extract from his new book The Story of Hebrew, Lewis Glinert explains the importance of the language to the American colonists

    Some believed the native American Indians were descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel (Getty Images)
    Some believed the native American Indians were descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel (Getty Images)

    The history of 17th-century England is above all the story of a struggle for religious and political liberties. Modern histories often portray this struggle as one of secularism versus religion. But in fact, as the historian Eric Nelson has shown, much of it was anchored in the Hebrew Bible and its rabbinic interpreters.


    In the midst of an extended social and political crisis, English jurists and political theorists turned to Judaism and the Hebrew Bible as a source of wisdom. This new fascination led to such works as Uxor Ebraica (“The Jewish Wife”, 1646) on the theory and practice of Jewish marriage and divorce law, and — shortly after the execution of Charles I — De synedriis et praefecturis juridicis veterum Ebraeorum (1650–1655), on the ancient rabbinic supreme court and its authority to control the ruler.


    The author of these works was John Selden (1584–1654), hailed by John Milton as “the chief of learned men reputed in this land” . The first talmudist in England since the expulsion of the Jews — and, more surprisingly, a philosemite — Selden recognised the humaneness of Jewish marital law and found in Deuteronomy and the Talmud a model for the proper relationship between the judicial and executive branches of government. 


    Selden and his circle represented the high-watermark of humanist Hebrew-Aramaic  erudition. Among the beneficiaries were Ben Jonson and Milton, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.


    But in England (as across Europe) the ideal of a trilingual humanist culture in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew rapidly waned. A major factor was the educational system; until the late 19th century, the curricula of elite schools and colleges revolved around Latin alone (plus Greek for advanced students). There were also religious prejudices and distaste for an alien Semitic tongue. Hebrew studies retreated to the religious seminary and the ivory tower.


    But the English Protestant spirit lived on in the unique circumstances of Puritan New England. There, Hebrew entered the Christian public domain in an  unprecedented way. 


    The settlers who built New England saw themselves as latter-day Israelites brought by Providence to a second promised land, where the “new heaven and new earth” foretold by the prophets would unfold. In this drama, the Old Testament took centre stage and with it, Hebrew.


    The Hebrew of the Bible supplied the colonists with many of their personal and place names: Ezra, Nathanael, Abigail, Goshen, Salem. Names of Christian saints were a rarity. The Old Testament itself was unceasingly studied; the New England meeting-houses, like synagogues of old, were houses of study.


    The first book printed in America embodied the powerful symbolism of American Hebraism: the Bay Psalm Book (1640) was the Massachusetts Bay colonists’ own translation of the book of Psalms, directly from the Hebrew. 


    In New England public schools and meeting-houses, a reading knowledge of biblical Hebrew was for a time widely imparted — the only such attempt in the history of Christianity. Although familiarity with Hebrew never became widespread among the masses, it was quite common among the intelligentsia and the better-trained of the clergy. 


    At Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the seven other colleges created to train these educated ministers and God-fearing gentlemen, all students had to devote substantial time to Hebrew (not always willingly), a distinction reserved in Europe for Latin.


    Harvard’s first two presidents were Hebrew scholars, as were the first president of King’s College (later Columbia) and the first president of Yale University, Ezra Stiles. A world-renowned intellectual, Stiles was also the leading American Hebraist of the era. He was also a prominent supporter of the American Revolution. This epitomises the fact that the study of Hebrew marched hand in hand with the Enlightenment principles of the American founding — a tradition going back to Milton and Selden.


     Like Selden, Stiles was a philosemite, even if he still hoped for the conversion of the Jews. But unlike his intellectual forebears, he counted Jews among his friends. He learned much about Hebrew and Judaism from his friend Rabbi Hayim Carigal. In an elegant Hebrew letter to Carigal describing the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill, Stiles beseeched him for a reply in Hebrew: “May I hope for one in answer to my long Hebrew letter of 1773.” And oh yes, his son, Ezra, was taking Hebrew at the University of Connecticut.


    Of altogether loftier significance — for some — were the native Indians. Could they be the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel? Were their languages descended from Hebrew? Elias Boudinot, president of the Continental Congress in 1782–1783, a revolutionary and later a member of Jefferson’s administration, certainly believed so. 


    Persuaded by the linguistic and cultural evidence of James Adair’s History of the American Indians (1775) that the Indians were Jews, Boudinot in Star in the West assigned them a central role in the millennium, which he believed imminent. They would, he predicted, return to the land of Israel with all other Jews. Jefferson and Adams thought otherwise.  Little more was heard of the Jewish Indian theory, until the Book of Mormon. 


    Even as revolution stirred, school curricula were becoming noticeably more secular. After the defeat of the British “Pharaoh,” millenarianism faded; so did the Puritan vision of a new Canaan. By 1800, the Harvards and Yales were no longer turning out men of the cloth but graduates in the arts and sciences. And Hebrew henceforth would have little place in the American public domain.

    From The Story of Hebrew, Lewis Glinert, Princeton University Press, £22.95