Ever since she was a little girl in Catholic school, Hilary Giaccardi had questions about God. These would often land her in the principal’s office. Now at 60, she’s still on her quest and is learning biblical Hebrew online in order to read scripture in its original form. This involves not only learning to read the language but learning a culture, Giaccardi, an American living in France, told Haaretz by Zoom after her weekly lesson on Monday.
The Israel Institute of Biblical Studies was established about 20 years ago and now has thousands of students from over 100 countries, taking its Zoom classes in biblical Hebrew, Jewish studies, Holy Land studies, and also Yiddish, modern Hebrew and even biblical Greek and Aramaic. The courses are accredited by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the vast majority of students, who range in age from their early 20s to over 90, identify as Christians.
Hearing God from the source
Renee Hines, 50, of Pennsylvania says she joins the classes to “understand God better. … I felt that learning things in the original form will help me better understand who he is and how to have a better relationship with him,” she says. “I love the Bible, I love God and I’ve always seen him through my Western perspective – and he’s not that,” she adds. “That puts limits on him and I don’t want that. I want to learn him without the limits. I want to learn him from who he is, his heart and why he created us, what we can give to him, what he is looking for from us.”
For Darvin Hill, a retired police officer, learning from the original source is key. He always found it difficult to read the Old Testament, but says the online classes he takes at the Israel Institute for Biblical Studies have expanded his understanding.
“I began seminary a couple of years ago, and you always hear teachers and ministers refer to the original translation,” he said from his home in Texas. “Well, being a cop for 30 years, I don’t always trust what they’re translating, so I decided: let me start learning myself.”
Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, the institute’s academic dean, told Haaretz on a Zoom call last week that there has been a growing trend in the last 30 years or so of Christians taking Jewish studies, on the grounds that both the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament are incomprehensible without understanding the Hebrew nuance, the history, the context and the culture.
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When reading the Hebrew Bible, or even the New Testament in English, Christians feel like they are half an hour late for a movie: they understand the words “but they’re like ‘What’s going on?’” he says.
Presently, around 95 percent of the institute’s Christian students, like Giaccardi, Hines and Hill, are studying biblical Hebrew in order to read scripture in the original form, Lizorkin-Eyzenberg says.
While the institute puts an emphasis on biblical Hebrew and many Christians find the language “exotic and inspirational,” Lizorkin-Eyzenberg – who studies the intersection of Judaism and Christianity – explains that students are also given an understanding of Jewish culture and Israel.
Without this, he believes, they would not be able to understand the Bible as it was initially intended.
“If they are serious about their Bible, they’re going to want to know Jewish tradition. If they are very serious about their Bible, they’re going to want to know Hebrew, they’re going to want to know Jewish culture,” he explains.
Among the institute’s student body, Lizorkin-Eyzenberg estimates that three-quarters are evangelical Christians. Some, he says, have begun to treasure the idea of tradition and feel that Christianity has been “de-Jewishized, changed, gentilized.
“They want to go back to its source, and they are to be commended for that,” he says. “I have seen people’s faces when they either hear Hebrew for the first time or are actually able to read the beginning of the book of Genesis in Hebrew, the first sentence. It’s like something lights up, there is passion there.”
As students tuned into Tuesday evening’s class, they greeted each other and their Israeli professor Sigal Zohar in Hebrew: “Shalom.” The class material covered the meaning of certain words commonly found in the Bible, how to pronounce reduced vowels, and reading and translating full verses from the book of Genesis.
Learning Hebrew opened up a whole new world for Laura Mathis, 67, who joined the session from North Carolina. She knows American sign language and often interprets church services for deaf members of her community. She feels that learning biblical Hebrew is helping her become more “literal” in her signing because the concepts are not an “abstract” anymore.
Mathis always “longed for a deeper understanding of my Bible,” she says, adding that with the internet, she can gain it and learn about the culture too.
‘Backdoor’ Israel advocacy
Despite the common perception that Christianity and Judaism drifted apart throughout history, they still have elements in common, Lizorkin-Eyzenberg says. Not rarely, “the Christian community finds itself speaking in the same voice with the Jewish community,” he says.
Studying biblical texts in their original language, and Jewish culture, influences the students’ relationship with the Jewish people and with the State of Israel, he believes.
“One way that I look at what we are doing is sort of ‘backdoor’ Israel advocacy, because people are connecting to the people of Israel and also to the State of Israel through studies of the Hebrew Bible,” he notes.
To be clear, the students shouldn’t expect to become fluent in biblical Hebrew. “Learning biblical Hebrew from scratch and then being able to read it freely is a very difficult task that will take many years of study,” Lizorkin-Eyzenberg says. He adds that the institution’s work does not denigrate the important work of Bible translators. “Instead, it allows for their accountability and further insight. Most of our students will still read the Bible in their mother language translation, but now they will be able to check the Hebrew text available to the translators as they made their many translation decisions,” he explains.
Also, advanced-level graduates would be able to appreciate nuances lost in translation, and of the challenges the translators face in the process, he adds.
Giaccardi has visited Israel, and it left a lasting impression. She has since been contributing to the country in her own way, including by subscribing to a service sending her monthly packages of products made in the Holy Land, and donating money to plant trees on Tu Bishvat (Jewish Arbor Day). “If I could do more for Israel, I would,” she says, adding that she feels the classes enable her and other students to get a sense of who the real Hebrew people are.
In addition to his language class, Hill also takes classes on the ancient land of Israel, which helped debunk his preconception that the Middle East and Israel are nothing but sand, he says. He feels it is “tremendously helpful” for his Bible studies to learn about the actual place.
Joanna Dixon, 54, a Nigerian who moved to Britain 30 years ago, stresses that feeling closer to the Jewish people does not necessarily mean she agrees with Israel’s actions. “As a Christian, to a certain extent, if you’re following the word of God, you pray for the salvation of Israel,” she says. “Nobody is perfect, I will not side with the Jewish community to the detriment of others. Disagreeing with your brothers and sisters does not mean you don’t love them,” she adds.
If anything, the coronavirus crisis has seemingly played to the institution’s strengths. Beforehand, it had been growing year by year, Lizorkin-Eyzenberg says. But now, with the pandemic, "we had to recruit new staff like crazy because there has been an amazing amount of new students joining.”
Why? Possibly because people have more time to pursue an online class, and because of hunger for community during lockdown. And they share their opinions, Lizorkin-Eyzenberg points out. “All of a sudden, everyone is talking about it, everyone is online – and what is the best advertisement? It’s word of mouth.”