translation notes – Hebrew – This land is a volcano

Linguist Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) believed in the power of the language to invoke supernatural phenomena. An authority in Kabbalah, he believed Hebrew was the only language capable of revealing the divine truth. Scholem considered the Kabbalists to be interpreters of a pre-existent linguistic revelation.

Scholem repeatedly posed to his listeners and readers the following question: “Can Jewish history manage to re-enter concrete reality without being destroyed by the messianic claim which [that reentry is bound to] bring up from its depths.” Scholem set down these words rather late in his career, but as early as 1926, in a letter written to Franz Rosenzweig and only recently published, he raises a similarly penetrating question regarding the renewal and “secularization” of the Hebrew language:

“The Land is a volcano. It provides lodging for the language…[But] what will be the result of the updating of Hebrew? Will the abyss of the holy tongue which we have implanted in our children not yawn wide? People here do not realize what they are doing. The think they have made Hebrew into a secular language, that they have removed its apocalyptic sting. But that is not so…Every word which is not simply made up but rather taken from the treasure house of well-worn terms is laden with explosives…God will not remain dumb in the language in which He has been adjured so many thousands of times to come back into our lives.” The “explosives” and “apocalyptic sting” are to be found in such classical expressions as memshalah u-mamlakhah (rulership and kingdom), kibbutz galuyot (the ingathering of exiles), yeshuah(salvation), shalom (peace), tzur yisrael (Rock of Israel), and ge-ulah la-aretz (redemption of the land)—expressions that have found their way into the modern Hebrew vernacular. Similarly, a “volcano” lies dormant in many terms whose original religious meaning has been radically altered or altogether lost in modern Hebrew. For example, bittachon, which now denotes military security, originally referred to trust in God; ha’apadah, which is used to refer to prestate “illegal” immigration, originally denoted a forbidden and catastrophic breakthrough (Num 14:44); keren kayemet, the name of the modern-day Jewish National Fund, is taken from a Talmudic reference to “credit” for good deeds accumulated for the afterlife; and one often hears in a secular context such antique phrases as zakhut avot(the merits of our ancestors). But that is not all. The very name given to the State of Israel, Medinat Yisrael, presents just such a phenomenon. Although not drawn directly from ancient sources, so that one might believe it to be free of historical and eschatological hopes, it too is encumbered by the freight of the past and the accompanying tensions between part and whole, the political and the theological.

from Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism, Aviezer Ravitzky, University of Chicago Press


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