August 23, 2007
Shmuel of Arabia
It must have been quite a scene in that little courthouse in Jerusalem. Rav Qapah, a Yemenite Jew who sat on the Jerusalem Beit Din (court of law), was hearing a case involving a commercial dispute between a Jew and an Arab.
At one point, the beit din heard testimony from an Arab judge who was serving as a witness. Rav Qapah asked his first question in Arabic. The Arab judge did not answer. Rav Qapah asked again. The Arab judge just sat there, speechless.
Rav Qapah wondered if the Arab judge could not understand his Arabic. After a long pause, the Arab judge said no, that was not the problem. He was speechless because, as the story goes, Rav Qapah's Arabic was so pure, so perfect, so luminous, the stunned Arab judge thought he was hearing the voice of the prophet Muhammad himself -- from a Jew, no less.
That was many years ago. Today, here in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, Rav Shmuel Miller cracks up when he tells that story. He's got a whole bunch of them, stories that speak to the ancient connection between Jews and the Arab language.
In fact, Rav Miller has more than stories. He's an expert in Arabic. He can learn Torah in Arabic, and often does. In the pristine shul that he built in his backyard, he teaches his sons and others how to study Jewish texts in Arabic. If it were up to him, there'd be many more Jews learning Arabic.
It's not obvious why this Jewish man would have a passion for a language that today is too often associated with suicide bombers and radical Islamists. Here is a French Orthodox rabbi who has studied at the top yeshivas in Europe; an expert in Talmud, philosophy and mysticism; a lover of Jews, Torah and the Hebrew language; a sofer who writes mezuzahs and Torah scrolls in perfect Hebrew calligraphy; and yet, when the subject of Arabic comes up, his eyes light up like he's one of the kids at the Munchies candy store on Saturday night.
I know the emotional arguments. I've been hearing them for years from my parents, aunts, uncles and their friends who grew up in Morocco. They have nostalgia for the past. They love Arabic music, and they're crazy about the language. It's a little like my Ashkenazic friends who wax about the joys of Yiddish. There are words in the Judeo-Arab dialect spoken by my parents that light up the heart like no word in French or English can.
I remember this one word I was particularly fond of: "Shlemto." If one of her kids would do something wrong, my mother would use that word to convey that "I really love this kid, but I really wish he wouldn't do that, but at the same time, I want everyone to know how much I still love him even when he does something that really annoys me."
That's with one word. There are many others.
In the Morocco that I remember, Arabic was the daily language of emotion.
But what about for Rav Miller, a rabbi who was born and raised in France? His first language is French, then Hebrew. Where does his mad love for Arabic come from?
If you see him, you get some clues. There's a regal, Lawrence of Arabia quality to him. Short beard. Piercing eyes. Always upright. He looks like he'd fit right in with the romantic mystics of the Middle Ages.
But beyond that, after hanging out with him for the better part of a year since I moved to the hood, and seeing him give classes at my place on everything from the patriarchs to Spinoza, I have a simpler explanation for his Arabian passions.
He loves Arabic because he loves Judaism.
Take his love affair with Maimonides. He wanted to read "The Guide to the Perplexed" in the language in which it was written, so he studied it in Arabic. He says this gave him a deeper, "more palpable" understanding of Jewish ideas. For example, the word in Arabic that Maimonides uses for the Hebrew daat (knowledge) is eidrak, which refers to a knowledge that you "apprehend" or "take in." It is a union between the modrak, the one who understands, and the modrik, the one who is understood. Whereas the Hebrew daat denotes something external and impersonal, the Arab eidrak defines a knowledge that is more personal and contemplative, one that ultimately becomes part of you.
Similarly, by studying Rabbi Yehuda Halevi's Kuzari in the original Arabic, Rav Miller got a more subtle take on the problematic notion that Jews are the "chosen people." Looked at superficially, the idea of being "chosen" can easily offend other groups by suggesting racial superiority. In Arabic, however, the notion of the Hebrew segula (chosen) is more layered. The Arab term khassuss speaks to a one-to-one intimacy with God. In the original Arabic text of Rabbi Halevi, Jews are more likely to be the "particular, singular, private" people, rather than the more blunt "chosen" people. It's about intimacy, not superiority.
How's that for a disconnect? The language of Osama bin Laden and Hamas can teach the Jews some important subtleties about their own faith.
That does take a little getting used to.
Maybe that's why Rav Miller has no illusions about Arabic classes ever catching on in the Jewish world. Of course, that won't stop him from continuing to give his own classes to his inner circle, and from spending long nights poring through ancient Arab texts written by Jewish sages.
One thing he won't do is talk about politics. That's not his trip. He did make a slip the other day, however, when he made an offhand remark wondering what it would be like if Jewish leaders started talking to Arab leaders in Arabic.
I have no idea if that would help the peace process, but I am sure of one thing: More than a few Arabs would be left speechless.
Click here for the traditional Pesach song 'Who Knows One?' ( 'Echad mi yodeiyah?') in Arabic sung by Joseph and Heftsiba Elbaz of Meknes, Morocco, recorded in Jerusalem in 1973. MP3 1.02MB streaming. Listen closely and you'll hear Moshe and (the Arabic 'wa' instead of Hebrew 'v') Aharon as number two, and then Allah (God, Elohim) as One.