By Adam Kligfeld, Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles, CA
I share with you one iinsight stemming from a teshuvah (legal responsum) we discussed this week at the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards on the question of the heresh (one who is deaf) and to what extent sign language can, halakhically, stand-in for speech when creating rituals that permit the non-hearing community to be as fully enfranchised within Jewish life as possible. Many around the table got stuck on the matter of Torah-reading. Blessings can be recited in any language, according to halakhah. One may recite the Amidah in English. And so there is no reason a non-hearing person cannot "recite" blessings using signs. Does that extend to Torah-reading? What is the status of a Torah-service in which the congregation is non-hearing, and at which the way that the Torah is read is by means of a non-hearing person reading directly from the Torah scroll, but instead of chanting/articulating what s/he reads simultaneously signs it? Many agreed that while sign language is a/the primary language for the non-hearing community, the rendering of the words of the Torah into sign is, itself, a translation, a "targum" and not a direct recitation. Most linguists consider sign language to be a language in and of itself. American Sign Language differs from Hebrew Sign Language, and Hebrew sign language is not, itself, Hebrew. Nor is there any certain way to render biblical Hebrew into sign-language completely faithful to the nuance of the original. Therefore, we would encourage the non-hearing community to experience the Torah in this way, to engage in learning the Torah this way, but we may not be able to claim, halakhically, that was is taking place is fulfillment of the mitzvah of "kriat haTorah b'tzibbur"--reading the Torah in public.
What struck me in this exchange was the idea that, quietly, informed it: there is sanctity--unique, supreme, perhaps even mystical sanctity--to hearing our holy Torah chanted, perfectly, in the original. Think about it. For many regular shul-goers, Hebrew is not a fully, or immediately, comprehensible language. This is true for many Torah-readers! And so the exercise of reading Torah in our shuls often involves a non-Hebrew-speaker chanting Hebrew sounds/syllables to an audience that, mostly, does not understand the words. And yet we consider that ritual to be, in its pristine state, so sacred and unimpeachable that we would consider a rendering of the Hebrew text into a medium that would be comprehensible (ie, English for our community, sign-language for the non-hearing community) somehow less than authentic.
I raise this point not to question whether our association with Torah-in-Hebrew ought to persist; I believe it should. I raise it to have us consider what it means for the individual Jew, and the community of Jews, to pray and, quite literally, "hear revelation" every week in a foreign language. Religion pushes us beyond the rational, and engages the mystical. Whether we are full-blown kabbalists who impute to each Hebrew letter unlimited power and import, or Jews looking to taste and touch something of the transcendent, the Hebrew text, the Hebrew word and the Hebrew chant is our medium. Let that sink in this weekend as you recite the Shema, savoring each syllable, asking yourself why it is more meaningful articulating "Sh'ma yis-ra-el..." than "Hear O Israel." Consider it as you listen to the reader bring you in to Parshat Bemidbar in what is most likely not your natural tongue. Let the Hebrew enter into your soul, to a place where, we believe, only it can reach.