A recent article in The Forward reported on a project by Michal Shomer, a graphic artist, to add 12 new letters to the Hebrew alphabet in order to make it “more inclusive of both women and non-binary people.”
“As a feminist, and as a citizen, I am committed to using my skills and my education for social change,” Shomer said in the interview with The Forward. “That’s why I designed these letters.”
The project has garnered a lot of criticism and despite its claim to positive value motivations, it has been viewed by many as an attack against Jewish religious values one of which holds Hebrew to be “lashon hakodesh” (the language of holiness), a claim Shomer does not understand.
“I never thought so many people would object so strongly to my project,” said Shomer. “The letters are meant to make a contribution to inclusivity and equality in Israeli society. How can anyone be opposed to that?”
The article goes on to note that like many languages (and unlike English), Hebrew has genders, i.e. masculine and feminine forms. Like most of these languages, when referring to two or more genders or groups of people of different genders, the plural masculine forms are used.
Shomer objects to this grammatical rule.
“Women are supposed to get used to the idea that whenever we walk into a classroom, a public building — even when we read signs on public transportation – we are supposed to see ourselves as ‘included,’” Shomer said to The Forward. “The language says that if you are not male, you are not there, or are not supposed to be there.”
She stated her opinion that “language that makes male the default reinforces the idea that the male is standard and powerful.”
To rectify this, Shomer added 11 consonants and one vowel to Hebrew’s 22 letters and five vowels. Shomer’s revisions did not include any guide to the pronunciation of the additions.
“Anyone who reads these letters can visually identify both the masculine or feminine forms – but knows that, at the same time, they refer to all genders simultaneously,” explained Shomer.
This issue of implicit gender preference has been addressed by the Israeli government. Laws have been passed that require job ads to be written in a form that explicitly proclaims that the job is offered for both males and females. The separator “/” is often used, for example, דרוש/ה, d(a)rush/a, מזכיר/ה, mazkir/a (“wanted”, masculine and feminine, and “secretary” masculine and feminine, respectively).
Shomer’s script, incomprehensible to native Hebrew speakers, was adopted by the Knesset Committee for Gender Equality which put them on office signs. The new Aleph Bet was also adopted by the Israeli Air Force which began to use them on its bases.
As a language, Hebrew is remarkable and in many ways, an anomaly. With roots going back over 3,000 years, the beginnings of Hebrew are buried in the sands of time. Though Hebrew ceased to be a spoken language when the Jews were exiled from Israel in 70CE, it was preserved and studied continuously in sacred literature, most notably the Bible. It is the only Canaanite language still spoken and the only truly successful example of a revived dead language. After 2,000 years of being preserved in prayer and sacred texts, Hebrew was resurrected as a spoken language 150 years ago as a part of the Jewish nationalist movement. There are currently about 9 million Hebrew speakers worldwide, of whom 7 million speak it fluently. As lashon hakodesh, Haredi Jews avoid using Hebrew for everyday conversation, preferring to use Yiddish, an antiquated mixture of Hebrew and German.
Rabbi Avraham Itzkowitz, an educator and sofer stam (scribe of holy texts),
“The letters and their shapes in Ashuri script, which is used for all the holy texts, are precisely described and mandated by halacha (Torah law),” Rabbi Itzkowitz said, noting that the laws are set out in the Talmud in the tractate “Maseket Sofrim“. There are many rules concerning the proper formation of letters that must be adhered to if a written text is to be deemed religiously valid. “Transmission from scribe to scribe is very precise. The kedusha (sanctity) falls away if you alter the shape of the letters.”
The rabbi pointed out that holy writings are meticulously checked and rechecked and even the slightest defect in the shape of the letters may render the entire text pasul (ritually unfit or invalid). According to the Babylonian Talmud, the Torah was given by Moses in the Assyrian alphabet, later changed to the Paleo-Hebrew script, and, again, the Ashurit script during the time of Ezra.
The Ten Commandments were written by the finger of God (Exodus 31:18) and according to Jewish literature, the letters were inscribed, cutting entirely through the stone tablets. Nonetheless, the letters were miraculously legible from both sides. It is with these letters that God created the world.
It should be noted that Shomer’s Aleph Bet is based on Hebrew block script and not Ktav Ashuri implying that she did not intend to infringe on the rights of religious Jews to adhere to their tradition.
“Changing the letters and the words does not do any damage but it removes any kedusha the words have or any ability the words have of channeling God’s energy into the world,” Rabbi Itzkowitz said. “This project essentially makes Hebrew like any other language.”
“There are two words for language in Hebrew; lashon and safah,” the rabbi explained. “Safah means lip, which is the revealed part of the mouth. It refers to the revealed and mundane aspect of the language. But lashon means ‘tongue’ which is the hidden part of the mouth. Lashon hakodesh refers to the hidden aspects of the language, its ability to access the holy. Changing the language does not affect the safah, the spoken language, but it does affect the lashon represented by Ktav Ashuri.”
“Every word in Hebrew is assigned a grammatical gender. According to the Zohar, every aspect of reality is divided into male and female which is much more than gender. It refers to mashpia (something that affects) and mushpa (something that is affected). For example, regardless of their grammatic gender, all of the body parts are feminine except for the heart (לב, lev) which is masculine because it gives life to the rest of the body. The shamayim (heavens) is male and aretz (earth) is female, despite not having a grammatically female ending. sustenance.That is because the heavens influence, sending down sustenance, and the earth receives. God’s many names are all male except for shechina (heavenly presence) which is female because it is the aspect of God that receives our prayers, the only thing we can give God that is not originally from Him.”
“Neutering the lashon hakodesh removes the concept of giving and receiving which is an essential aspect of how we relate to God,” Rabbi Itzkowitz said.