Friday, December 20, 2013

Angel Sanez-Badillos: A History of the Hebrew Language

Over twenty years since its publication, Angel Sanez-Badillos’ A History of the Hebrew Language is still the go to book for laymen and specialists alike.

And the book is comprehensive.  The authors explores the roots of the Hebrew language as a Northwest Semitic language, to the Biblical period and its various stages, to Rabbinical, Medieval, and Modern Hebrew.  It contains technical language, so the material in this book is for the more devoted and informed lover of Hebrew, and not for those just starting out.

Despite its comprehensiveness,  after twenty years this book is showing its age.  For one, when you look at Sanez-Badillos’ sources, most are from the 50s, 60s and 70s, and rarely from the 80s and 90s.  Thirty years of research has been ongoing, and it is not reflected in this work.

Also he also spends a great deal of time on Medieval Hebrew, and important bridge between Biblical and Rabbinical Hebrew to spoken, Israeli Hebrew.  But he only devotes a few pages to the living, modern language, making this a far less comprehensive volume.

Despite its evident strengths, a scholar of Hebrew needs to update or create a new work that accomplishes what this book does, but with updated data and research.  Thirty years may not seem like a long time for a three thousand year old language tradition, but for living, breathing Israeli Hebrew, that has been several lifetimes.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Kabbalah: The Way of the Jewish Mystic, by Perle Epstein


Perle Epstein presents a fairly complete picture of Jewish mysticism in Kabbalah: The Way of the Jewish Mystic.  

She moves about from Abraham Abulafia’s system of breathing and visualization, to the Merkavah mystics of the first century, to the German Chassidim, or Pietists, who fasted and rolled naked in the snow. She is especially enamored of the Safed group of mystics who surrounded the Holy Ari in the fifteenth century, seeing it as a high water mark of Jewish mysticism never to be repeated. 
Espstein is especially harsh on modern Hasidism.  She has good things to say about the early years of the movement, but not much else for the last two-hundred years.  The book ends on this sour note.  Written in 1978, she despairs of how little Kabbalistic material there is for modern Jews to consume.  Of course, this has changed dramatically in the last 30 years.  She laments the paucity of materials, centers, movements in 1978; now she may not like the crass commercialization of Jewish mysticism.  It is hard to say.

Perhaps Judaism needs as much mysticism as it can muster.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Meditation and The Bible

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan lived a relatively short life, and when he died, he left a variety of books relating to Jewish mysticism that where and have remained immensely influential in bringing Jewish meditative practice to a wide audience.

In his Meditation and The Bible Kaplan performs the time honored method of getting at the “true” meaning of certain biblical passages and word definitions by subtly shifting their meanings.  He uses traditional religious sources to recover the etymology of certain words which, under the influence of new definitions, have connotations with meditation.

His results are not historical in the strict sense, but the kind of sacred fiction Jews have always performed with their holy books.  A twist here, and a turn there, and new meanings can be wrung from old texts.

And at the end, a new set of definitions are produced dressed in old garb.  

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Master and Margarita

Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic The Master and Margarita grows on you, so the reader should be patient and give the author at least 75 pages to lay the ground work of his masterpiece.

This book would probably not survive by today’s publishing standards.   The reader does not even meet Margarita, the main character, until Part II, page 186!  he would be forced to move her forward in the novel, thereby ruining the dramatic pace.  For she is worth the wait.   
Bulgarkov creates a world that is at once frightening and fantastic, at turns magical and mundane.  There is a bit of everything in The Master and Margarita for the patient reader.   And patience will be returned by the end, as this novel reaches a kind of transcendent crescendo.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Life of Language

In The Life of Language: the fascinating ways words are born, live and die, Sol Steinmetz and Barbara Ann Kipfer attempt to present linguists for a broad audience.  They succeed at this by explaining each topic with the barest minimum of jargon and profession terms (and linguists abound with both).

They handle such necessary topics “New Root Formation: The Birth of Words,” “Modification: How Words Grow and Thrive,” and “Generation:  Many Ways of Growing Words.” All this is done is accessible prose.  The average reader with no background in linguists can pick this book up and learn a great deal of the dynamics of language.