From the Newsletter | Can Hebrew Be Gender-Neutral?

Holy or not, Hebrew has always been an evolving language.
By | Aug 11, 2022
From the Newsletter

This piece is adapted from Moment’s flagship newsletter, Moment Minute. Sign up here.

I remember in college my Hebrew professor explaining how in Israel it had become fashionable among the “progressives” to address groups of people in the female plural, instead of the male which is how it was traditionally taught. It was a way to draw attention to the absurdity of having male pronouns be viewed as the default. As someone who was flummoxed when assigning objects such as chairs and tables genders in Hebrew, I was all for it. But I couldn’t help but think that while it pointed out a problem, it didn’t really solve it.

That’s why I was interested in The New York Times article earlier this month about the push for more gender-inclusive language in Hebrew. The article details several efforts, including addressing groups of people in both masculine and feminine pronouns and even creating new characters and symbols to create a multi-gender Hebrew alphabet.

The conversation around gender inclusivity in Hebrew is also occurring in America. A few years ago, Moment covered the rise of gender-neutral language in Jewish spaces. Most interestingly, many of those interviewed cited youth groups and camps as places where much of this language was being developed. In one Jewish-American youth group, Habonim Dror, according to the article, “leaders have adopted the gender-inclusive plural suffix, chaverimot, in their camps and youth groups and created a new gender-neutral singular suffix, –ol, which has its roots in the Hebrew word kolel, meaning ‘inclusive.’ Now, a camper who identifies neither as a male camper (chanich) nor female camper (chanichah) is a chanichol.”

These discussions are also occurring in religious settings. Options for gender-neutral “b-mitzvah ceremonies” or gender-inclusive chevra kadisha rites for bodies before burial abound. In May, the law committee of the Conservative movement approved gender-neutral language for Torah honors. This includes calling people to the Torah using the words na la’amod (“please stand”) instead of ya’amod for men and ta’amod for women, as well as using language such as mibeyt/mimishpachat, meaning “from the house of” or “from the family of” instead of the traditional ben or bat (“son” or “daughter”). This is similar to what has already been used by the Union of Reform Judaism, and it is also something that many other congregations, including independent minyanim, have put into practice.

Of course there are critics, from those who view it as changing Lashon HaKodesh (holy language) to those who see these additions as cumbersome and unnecessary. But Hebrew has always been an evolving language. Every year the Academy of the Hebrew Language approves and coins new words to be added to the Hebrew dictionary. If this can encourage more people to learn and speak Hebrew and engage in both modern and ancient Jewish texts, isn’t that a win?

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