When the Authority Figures Improvise

If a person doesn’t know, should he improvise an answer, or should he admit that he doesn’t know ?

Here is an example from the field of Jewish studies, one in which I am not expert at all. It concerns a problem I have encountered in the Hebrew prayer book, and I have made an effort to consult a number of experts with whose help, and that of books they recommended, I found what I believe to be the correct answer.

The problem arises from the daily Amidah prayer, part of which I reproduce here:

(Text, transliteration, and translation courtesy of a Christian group).

Now here is the problem. In the first line shown above, the prayer addresses G’d twice, each time asking, rhetorically, “who is like you ?,” each time using a personal, second person pronoun-suffix. The first time the pronoun-suffix is used,  in “khamokha,” G’d appears to be addressed as a male, but the second time, in “lakh,” G’d appears to be a woman.

How is this apparent inconsistency to be explained ?

Ask people charged with being knowledgeable about such things, and you will get one of three answers:

1) I do not know.

2) Since G’d is neither male nor female, the writers of this prayer here indicate the gender neutrality of the deity by alternating the grammatical gender indicators. Some variation of this is the most commonly elicited answer. It happens to be ignorant, wrong, and unacceptable from one whose professional responsibility is to either know better or, at least, to understand the limitations of his own knowledge.

3) The correct answer, which I will not fully give away here, can be found by consulting a work on pausal forms in the history of the Hebrew language, for example pp. 96-98 of Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, Second English Edition, 1910.

The problem with improvising knowledge about materials that come to us from the past is that this improvisation tends to be in the direction of what is now, currently, fashionable. In the case at hand, the improvised interpretation looks at the ancient text in the light of current, fashionable “gender fairness.” Historians call this error one of anachronism.

Why is this kind of error so bad ? To put it most briefly, it robs us of understanding the text at hand. It suggests meanings to the prayers we utter that these prayers do not contain. In short, in this case, it reduces the actual Hebrew text to a mumbojumbo of phrases that are recited by rote without understanding.

For a stimulating discussion of gender in Jewish prayer, see the article by Lois C. Dubin

Hat tip:  Professor Alan F. Segal

2 thoughts on “When the Authority Figures Improvise”

  1. I am involved in Jewish genealogy research, and subscribe to a discussion group run by the dominant internet site for Jewish genealogy.

    I take my research seriously and have learned a great deal over the past 11 years about a broad range of topics in the field.

    There are, in particular, 2 self-described experts (joined by a rather large gang of dilettantes) who persist in making “educated” guesses and presenting their findings as fact…they are often quite wrong.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *