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COMMENTARY: Jews and Maybe Catholics Return to Ancient Languages

c. 2005 Religion News Service (UNDATED) I vividly remember a unique meeting a few years ago at the seminary for the Archdiocese of New York in Yonkers when a dozen rabbinical students spent the day studying together with a group of candidates for the Roman Catholic priesthood. The two sets of future clergy quickly discovered […]

c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) I vividly remember a unique meeting a few years ago at the seminary for the Archdiocese of New York in Yonkers when a dozen rabbinical students spent the day studying together with a group of candidates for the Roman Catholic priesthood.

The two sets of future clergy quickly discovered they had much in common, including similar concerns about pastoral care, family stability and meaningful religious education for members of their congregations. Of course, students being students, they shared complaints with one another about some of their teachers and seminary administrators _ things that always take place at such interreligious gatherings.

However, there were two major surprises.

Although the Catholic participants were aware women were studying to be rabbis, they were startled when over half of the Jewish visitors were female. And while the rabbinical students knew of the Church reforms inaugurated at the Second Vatican Council in 1965, they were stunned to learn that Latin was not a requirement for the Catholic priesthood.

“You mean you don’t recite prayers in Latin anymore?” one rabbi-to-be exclaimed. “And the services are only in the vernacular?” said another in amazement.

The Catholic seminarians were impressed that rabbis must intensively study original Hebrew and Aramaic texts as part of their curriculum, texts that include the Bible and the Talmud.

I was reminded of that seminary visit when I read a recent USA Today news story about the Vatican’s Latin expert, Reggie Foster, a 65-year-old Carmelite monk from Milwaukee. Foster is in charge of translating official Vatican documents into Latin, and his love of that ancient tongue is so great that he speaks in Latin and even dreams in the language of Cicero, Galileo, Horace and Ovid.

Until the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, generations of Catholics throughout the world said their prayers and devotionals in Latin, the universal language of the Mass. But the past 40 years have seen a sharp decrease in Latin usage and in the number of Catholics who even study the language.

As a result, Foster believes only 20 other people in the world speak, read, and write Latin as well as he does _ and 18 of them are above the age of 60. But for Foster and other Latin devotees, there is hope.

Pope Benedict XVI believes it was a mistake to throw out all the Latin from Catholic services, and according to Foster, the new pope speaks Latin quite well.

Unlike Latin, which was never an original holy language for Catholics, the Jewish people never relegated Hebrew to the linguistic dustbin of history. Reform Judaism, in its early years in 19th century Germany, did eliminate most Hebrew from its prayer books and worship services in an effort to be “modern.” But happily, today’s Reform movement has greatly increased Hebrew study and usage among its members, a trend applauded by both rabbis and laypeople.

Hebrew is the linguistic cement that solidified Jewish identity in every land and in every age. Every synagogue in the world houses at least one Hebrew language Torah scroll containing the first five books of the Bible. Well-known Hebrew prayers provide an emotional and spiritual entry point into worship services.

Even when biblical verses are elegantly and eloquently translated from Hebrew into another language, something of Isaiah’s prophetic power is lost, as are the profound laments of a grieving King David when his son dies. The sultry love poems of the biblical Song of Songs sound awkward in English translation.

Reading a classic, especially the Bible, in translation is like kissing through a handkerchief: it’s close, but not the real thing.

The Catholic and Jewish statistics are fascinating. There are more than 1 billion Catholics in the world, but only 20 people speak Latin as it was meant to be spoken. The global Jewish population is about 13 million, but more than 5.2 million Jews in Israel speak Hebrew, the largest number in history.

Words for jet planes and angels co-exist in Hebrew, as do words for olive oil and diesel oil, archaeological sites and Web sites. There are Hebrew terms for ancient kings and queens, and for contemporary presidents and prime ministers. Sadly, the vocabulary of modern Hebrew now includes painful words like “terrorism,” “suicide bombers” and “hostages.”

Brother Reggie Foster complains: “Latin is being lost, and because of that we are losing our history!” He may be overstating the case, but when a people or a community casts out part of its roots and tradition, a bitter price is always paid.

KRE/JL END RUDIN

(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s Senior Interreligious Adviser, is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Saint Leo University.)