Scholar Strike 3: Race in Biblical Interpretation

As I wrote in my post yesterday, race was not a concept that influenced the composition of biblical texts.

It has, however, deeply influenced their reception and use. Over the past 500 years it has been inextricably bound up in the practice of biblical translation, interpretation, and application. Biblical scholarship—both historical and theological—has been conducted in a world where racial concepts, hierarchies, and structures permeate life at every level, and biblical studies have not been immune to their influence.

The vast majority of biblical scholarship in these centuries was conducted by white, Christian men who sat at or near the top of racial, gender, religious, and class hierarchies, and their interpretations inevitably bear the marks of those social positions. Many read race into these texts where it was not originally present, and the character of these readings have skewed white supremacist (in the broader sense)—not universally and not always explicitly, but often enough and strongly enough to be undeniable.

A number of scholars—particularly scholars of color—are working to untangle the white supremacy that has become so deeply enmeshed with biblical interpretation, and I admit freely that this is not my area of expertise. So I’ll offer one illustration and then point to some work by other scholars that will provide a more comprehensive and detailed representation of the issues.

Early in my graduate studies, I sat in on a seminar session on Old Testament ethics. The professor was white, and if I remember correctly, all of the students were too. The topic of this particular session was slavery in the Old Testament.

In a pre-circulated paper, the professor had outlined his thoughts on the nature and ethics of the topic. To be fair, the limited Hebrew vocabulary for slaves and slavery (עבד [masculine], אמה and שפחה [feminine]) do refer to many different social arrangements and situations with what seem to be quite variable parameters. They apply to Israelites sold into debt bondage (e.g., Leviticus 25:44) and enslaved prisoners of war (Deuteronomy 10:16, 20:10–15), as well as high-ranking officials in the royal court (Exodus 10:7, 1 Samuel 22:14), and there is legitimate work to be done exploring the details and particulars of individual instances and the essential commonalities that bind them together.

The seminar paper, however, admitted to little of the diversity or ambiguity, and generally presented Israelite practices in the most sympathetic light possible. In fact, the professor suggested that the relevant Hebrew words should be translated “servant” in every case, and followed that practice throughout the paper. This was done in part to distance the practices of biblical servitude from modern race-based chattel slavery. While perhaps imperfect, biblical slavery was cast as a basically ethical arrangement, nothing like the fundamentally corrupt trans-Atlantic system.

One section of the paper was titled “The Advantages of Servanthood,” and it defended the pleasant ness and even desirability of Israelite servitude with a quote from a Chinese domestic servant in early 20th-century San Francisco:

I don’t know where being a servant came into disrepute. It is the refuge of a philosopher, the food of the lazy, and, properly carried out, it is a position of power, even of love…. A good servant has absolute security, not because of his master’s kindness, but because of habit and indolence…. My master will defend me, protect me. You have to work and worry. I work less and worry less.

As the professor admitted, though, this quote came from a work of fiction. It was spoken by the character Lee in John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. In effect, one white man was defending ancient servitude with words that another white man had placed in the mouth of a fictional non-white servant to defend modern servitude.

I should not have to point out that this is not legitimate evidence. There is no necessary connection between a real experience of subordination and the idea of it that exists in the master’s imagination.

Consider a rosy depiction from another era, in which servants are described as

hapy, contented…Lightly tasked, well clothed, well fed—far better than the free laborers of any country in the world,… their lives and persons protected by the law, all their sufferings alleviated by the kindest and most interested care..

Here we know that reality bore no resemblance to the pretty picture. The servants, in this case, were enslaved Black Americans, and the speaker was James Henry Hammond, who said this on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1836, as part of a two-hour speech defending race-based chattel slavery as a positive social good.

First-person narratives of race-based chattel slavery in the United States, of course, attest overwhelmingly to its brutality and inhumanity. The disconnect between reality and representations by Hammond and other  apologists could not be starker. Perhaps this should not be surprising, since most of them had a vested financial interest in its continuation, and thus in its moral justifiability.

Likewise, John Steinbeck grew up in a household with maids and servants, and so had experienced servitude largely from the master’s point of view. I do not know the professor’s history or situation, but in his treatment of the topic of Israelite slavery, he showed a naive and uncritical willingness to accept the master’s point of view that was undoubtedly conditioned by his position at the top of a racial hierarchy in a society where that position aligned him more often with masters than with servants.

Just as he accepted Steinbeck’s portrayal of servanthood as ethical a desirable, so he accepted and propagated an ethical and desirable framing of biblical servitude.

In this way, I don’t think he is unique. Sympathetic presentations of biblical slavery are common, even from those who would flatly condemn its counterpart in the last century. I don’t mean to condemn this particular professor as an especially bad actor, but rather to present this paper as a glaring example of a common interpretive orientation. All of us were born into this racial caste system, and our thinking and engagement with ideas and institutions have been shaped by aspects of our identity that we did not choose. As we grow and learn, however, we can gain a critical understanding of these received structures and work to change them.

It’s difficult to admit, but at the time of this seminar I wanted to believe this framing. I wanted to believe that biblical slavery was different in kind from all other kinds of slavery, because the Bible was different in kind from all other books. Unlearning this unconscious desire to gloss over the oppressive and unjust parts of the text required reading the work of scholars whose experience was informed by the other side of the arrangement—scholars whose family stories were of discrimination and oppression, whose ethics were formed in subjugated communities burning to live free. It took scholars who would not gloss over inconvenient facts in a rush to apologize for a broken and unjust system, even if it came from their sacred Scriptures.

Some slaves in biblical texts may have been treated well and prospered, but the laws regulating the practice also left ample room for abuse and degradation. Too often, the whiteness of academic biblical studies has obscured biblical slavery’s harsher realities and mischaracterized it as a gentle and humane social arrangement. This does a disservice to African American readers of the text, for whom the fundamental illegitimacy of forced labor is immediately apparent. This is one reason why it is necessary to broaden the engagement of historically underrepresented groups in academic biblical studies and to read and teach their insights alongside the work of white scholars.

Further Resources

This post covered just one small way in which white supremacy has influenced biblical interpretation. Its reach is not limited to issues of slavery, though. If you are interested in learning more, I would point you toward the following scholars, among other.

Dr. Wilda C. Gafney has made this short Scholar Strike video surveying the many faces of white supremacy in biblical interpretation. Go ahead and watch it right now:

She has also written two books, both of which are filled with interrogations of white supremacist readings and proposed alternatives. Go buy, Daughters of Miriam and Womanist Midrash.

In regard to specifically Christian uses of the Bible in support of racist policies and practices, I recommend Jemar Tisby’s must-read The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism and the accompanying video series on Amazon Prime (linked on the book page).

See also Dr. Nyasha Junior’s Reimagining Hagar: Blackness and BibleIntroduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation, and (with Jeremy Schipper) Black Samson: The Untold Story of an American Icon.

Please feel free to drop more resources in the comments!

Scholar Strike 2: Race in Biblical Texts

This afternoon, I’ll turn to my academic specialization: the Hebrew Bible.

What is there to say about race in the Bible? I’ll make two points:

1. There is no race in the Bible.

2. Thus, there is no racism in the Bible.

Class dismissed. Thank you for your time.

Ok, of course I can’t let you go without saying more. So let’s dig in a little deeper. What does it mean that there is no race—and thus no racism—in the Bible?

Obviously, people in antiquity had different skin colors, and the writers of biblical texts knew this. So we get verses like jeremiah 13:23: “Can Ethiopians change their skin, or leopards their spots?” This rests upon the assumption that Ethiopian skin tone differed from Israelite skin tone and was marked as different, but note the woman speaking in Song of Songs 1:5, who says

שְׁחוֹרָה אֲנִי וְנָאוָה

“Black am I, and beautiful.”

Thus, dark skin was known and admired, even if it was not the norm. Several other Israelite characters are described as אדמיני, “ruddy” or “earthy” (e.g., Esau in Gen. 25:25 and David in 1 Sam. 16:12 and 17:42). Though it is quite a bit later,the Mishnah provides support for the idea that the skin tone considered normal in Israel was a reddish mid-brown. In the 2nd century CE, Rabbi Ishmael said “The children of Israel (may I be atonement for them!) are like boxwood, neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.” (Mishnah Negaim 2:1). 1Thus, statements that crop up from time to time saying Jesus was white are not true either in a literal or a racial sense. Credit to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg for the reference.

Mid-brown seems to be the default for the residnts of ancient Israel, then, and darker skin tones were known, but no mention is made of white or light skin in any biblical text.

But, as I wrote in my previous post, race is not color and color is not race. The existence and acknowledgment of different shades of skin does not necessarily imply any concept of race.

To clarify this point, it will help to expand on what “race” is as a concept and what it isn’t, and how concepts of race developed. I say concepts of race in the plural, because the definitions and theoretical underpinnings of race have changed over the years, even as its function in creating a stratified social order has remained relatively stable.

What ties concepts of race together is the idea that the global human population can be divided into a small number (usually 3–5) of subpopulations according to meaningful (i.e., biological) criteria. Different theories of race have rested on varied historical models—most involve early branching of the human family tree into distinct populations, but some have held that different races were the result of separate acts of divine creation (polygenesis).

These theories began to emerge in the context of European expansion and conquest in the 15th century, most directly as justifications for slave trafficking. In Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi locates the first attestation of a racial theory in Gomes Eanes de Zurara’s biography of Prince Henry of Portugal, published in 1453. The prince had sought to enter Portugal into the European slave trade in earnest at a time when the traditional source of slaves—Eastern Europe—was building up defenses against Westerners. Prince Henry had shifted his efforts to the west coast of Africa, sailing south to avoid paying the premium charged by North African Middlemen who trafficked slaves across the Sahara.

In his presentation, de Zurara referred to all Africans as belonging to a single people, from the light-skinned Tuareg to the dark-skinned Ethiopians and sub-Saharan populations. They were all members of an inferior race, whom Prince Henry, according to de Zurara, had undertaken to enslave in an altruistic act of evangelism.

The reality, of course, was not so benevolent. Prince Henry had grown fabulously wealthy trading slaves, and de Zurara had laundered his reputation with assertions of his Christian charity and the Africans’ natural savagery.

Thus, the racialization of Africans arose as justification for a strategy of domination and exploitation. This is perhaps the most important thing to realize about race—it has never been disinterested, but serves always to organize groups of people into hierarchies of domination and subordination. Race did not emerge from the studies and laboratories of careful, objective scholars, but was created to defend oppression and justified with science only afterward. Even as the biological arguments for its validity have changed and finally evaporated, therefore, it has continued to serve its function stratifying society.

Thus, the statements above that race and racism do not appear in biblical texts is interesting, but it does not quite reach the heart of the issue. Biblical texts provide evidence for many kinds of oppression and exploitation.In some cases they are condemned and resisted (e.g., slavery in Egypt in Ex. 1–3, economic predation throughout the Law and Prophets, and the unaccountable power of kings in Deuteronomy, Judges, and 1 Samuel); in others they are accepted or even celebrated (e.g., rape marriages to war widows in Deuteronomy, slavery in the laws of the Torah). In each case, acts of oppression were justified by existing or invented social, legal, or political structures supported by appeal to tradition or divine mandate.

Biblical texts contain many faces and types of oppression, racism just isn’t one of them. There are several lessons to learn from this. For one, race is not eternal. It was invented and it can be dismantled. But dismantling racism will not necessarily bring about the end of systemic oppression. Racism is just one manifestation of a pernicious and persistent human drive to dominate others, to gain from others even at their great expense.

In our contemporary context, combatting racism is an urgent and necessary part of building a world that allows for the freedom and flourishing of all. Yet we ought never forget that other vectors of oppression persist alongside systemic racism—discrimination according to class, disability, sex, gender, and sexual orientation. A fully-realized anti-oppressive ethic must approach all of these in their distinct forms and logics, never imagining that there is only one vector of oppression or that more cannot be contrived.

And regardless of how oppression is enacted and justified, it is also important to remember the biblical texts that confront and resist it in any form—the calls to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18), to break the bonds of oppression (Isaiah 58), to avoid theft, exploitation, and excess wealth (Amos 8:6, Proverbs 30:7–9)), to care for the needs of orphans, widows, and immigrants (Deuteronomy. 27:19, Jeremiah 22:3, Zechariah 7:10), and to speak up for the rights of the poor and destitute (Proverbs 31:1–9). These ideals contain the seeds of resistance against unjust systems in any form, in any time, place, or society.

Who was Mrs. Harry A. Cole of Cleveland? A Tale of Academic Sleuthing and Recovering the Name of a Braille Pioneer

For the past two days, I’ve been on the hunt for a name. I’ve been looking for it for months, actually, but this week I got serious. I’m writing an encyclopedia article on the history and development of Hebrew Braille and I want to make sure to credit the women who made important contributions, as well as the men.

So I have been frustrated that the woman who transcribed all twenty volumes of the first Braille Tanakh (=Hebrew Bible) is identified ever and only as “a Mrs. Harry A. Cole of Cleveland.” I wanted to credit her by her own name, but this is how she was referenced in every written source I could find. I read the preface to the Braille Tanakh, newspaper articles about its publication, even bulletins from her congregation at the Euclid Avenue Temple in Cleveland. But everywhere she was simply “Mrs. Harry A. Cole of Cleveland.” I even called the temple, and while they could confirm that she had been a member and was now deceased, they had no record of her first name.

This morning, I called the headquarters of JBI International (formerly the Jewish Braille Institute), the organization that had commissioned the development of the International Hebrew Braille Code and the publication of the first Braille Tanakh. I wasn’t sure how far I’d get. They might have nothing, or I might have to wait for Beth, the Director of Development, to search through piles of dusty correspondence in JBI’s archives, but I didn’t even get halfway through my question before she had an answer:

“I’m curious about the woman who transcribed the Braille Tanakh—“

“Oh, Belle Cole?”

And there it was. Belle Cole.

The name sprang so easily to her mind—how had I not found it?

Quite reasonably, as it turned out. Belle Cole’s given name was never used in print materials, but it appears in a hand-written note that sits on display at JBI headquarters. In 1950, Leopold Dubov, JBI founder and chair of the committee that designed the International Hebrew Braille Code, gifted a first edition of the Braille Tanakh to Mrs. Cole, with the following inscription on the flyleaf:

“Presented gratefully and inscribed to Belle Cole, the First Lady of Hebrew Braille Land, to whom, thousands of years after the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, was given the priceless privilege of translating the full Hebrew text of our ancient Holy Bible into the miracle script known as Braille. Surely, a unique and heaven-blessed ‘mitzvah,’ an achievement of matchless worth and enduring significance.”

Several years ago, her family returned the Tanakh to JBI for preservation, and this page sits displayed under glass in their collection, in the same building where Beth works. She offered to walk over and take a picture for me:

A photo of the inscription by Leopold Dubov to Belle Cole. Photo by Beth Rudich of JBI

I have since found further verification in a congratulatory notice in a bulletin from the Euclid Avenue Temple. The main text of the notice still refers to her as Mrs. Harry A. Cole, but it quotes the text of Dubov’s inscription, in which her given first name appears. This bulletin hadn’t turned up in searches because the process of scanning had mangled the text. It had elided the s and Google had indexed it as “Mr Harry A. Cole.” Quite a step in the wrong direction, but when I searched by her first name, it turned right up.

It is important to remember all of those who worked to bring Braille to Hebrew speakers, and sacred texts to the blind, especially those whose names are in danger of being lost to history. My sleuthing was a testament to the power of high-tech tools and to the necessity of good old-fashioned low-tech methods. I am glad I found the name of Belle Cole, and I will be happy to recognize her in print, by her own name, for the first time since her “unique and heaven-blessed ‘mitzvah’” was completed.

Notes on Traveling Blind from SBL 2017

A photo of the City of Boston from a very high vantage point.

That special time of year has once again come and past, when 10,000 scholars of Bible and religion gather for a long weekend of research presentations, nerdy conversations, and drinks with friends and colleagues who are scattered across the globe.

This year, the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature met in Boston. Since it was just a stone’s throw from my former home in Waltham and Brandeis University, where I’m getting my Ph.D., I came in a few days early. It gave me a chance to stay with excellent friends, mete with my dissertation advisors, practice yoga with my first teacher, and eat pancakes at the best breakfast spot in town. Then I found my way into downtown Boston for four very enjoyable days of conference.

Between Waltham and Boston, it was a great opportunity to test and assess my orientation and mobility skills.

You see, in addition to its value as a professional conference, SBL gives me a regular chance to reflect on how my declining sight affects my ability to navigate unfamiliar locations and situations (see last year’s entry here). Most of the year, my life is pretty routine. I take familiar streets and familiar trains to familiar places—not a great challenge. And on most other big trips, I’m accompanied by my family. SBL turns that all on its head, as I find my way solo through busy airports, navigate public transit systems, and search for rooms in cavernous and labyrinthine conference centers.

Last year, the big transition was using my cane throughout the conference, even though I only felt I needed it for safety at night. This year, I can’t imagine having gone without it. Boston is a city of confusing streets, more confusing subway stations, and entirely oblivious speed-walkers—the only downside to my cane was how often sighted people tripped over it.

Overall, though, I’d say this year was a navigational success. I got everywhere I needed to go—perhaps with an extra wrong turn or two, or three, or…

But my point is, I got where I needed to go.

The biggest new challenge this year was balancing my desire for independence with getting help when necessary. Most of the time, I like to figure things out on my own. And most of the time, this is a good thing. I find that bumbling through a confusing route helps me internalize it better than if I’m guided through, and that makes navigating it the next time much easier. Sometimes, however, the time I’d spend finding my own way is just not worth it, and it makes more sense to ask the nearest person where I am and which way to go.

But asking for help is like that proverbial box of chocolates. Or maybe more like a box that’s part chocolates and part over-bearing strangers who just grab right on to you and start dragging you off in god-knows-what direction. And part older European gentlemen who are very concerned that you are going to be all right.

The point being, you never really know what you’re going to get. Sometimes asking for directions brings you into contact with truly delightful people you never would have met otherwise. Other times, it turns into a very unpleasant experience that tests your patience and civility.

One time, as I stood looking confused at a fork in the road, a man came up and asked if I was headed to the conference center (how did he know? I was wearing the scholar uniform of khakis and a corduroy jacket, of course). I said yes, and he asked if I’d like to walk along with him. We spent the next few minutes discussing his upcoming commentary on the Book of Leviticus and my dissertation on psalms, until we reached the center and split off to our respective events. Perfectly pleasant.

Another time, I was trying to find a group of friends in a crowded Italian market/restaurant. I asked an employee where “Il Pesce” was, and without a word he grabbed me by the shoulder, pulled me across the market, and let me loose with just as little ceremony—in front of “La Pasta.” Luckily one of my friends came to fetch me, or I may never have found them.

Another time, an elderly man asked if I needed some direction. When I asked him to point me in the direction of the exhibition hall, he grabbed my arm (much more gently than the last guy, but still) and guided me all the way to the hall, even though I kept telling him I was ok on my own from here (and here, and here). I just couldn’t shake the guy!

I know this might make a lot of you nervous. A lot of people feel uncertain about how best to help visually impaired people and people with other disabilities. “Will they think I’m overbearing, rude, or awkward? Will they hate me for trying to help?” This is understandable—it’s a complicated issue that I hope to dissect more in future posts. But based on my experience so far, I have thought up a few tips that I think will serve you well in deciding how and when to help:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask a blind person if they know where they’re going. I know a lot of good-hearted people who don’t offer help because of the fears mentioned above. I’ll just give you permission: it’s ok to ask a simple question like “Are you all good?” or “Do you need some directions?”
  • BUT, believe the person if they say no, and believe them if they tell you they only need one piece of information, and don’t feel bad walking away once you’ve told them what they asked for.
  • In general—and this is good advice in all of life—don’t just grab people. Exceptions are allowed for imminent danger: falling pianos, quicksand, etc. Otherwise, ask before touching.
  • Better yet, ask if the blind person would like to take your arm. This is best practice for what is called sighted guide, but understand that not all blind people like to take an arm, or at least not all the time. Many of us prefer to walk beside you or a half-step behind, and walk independently with our canes.

Basically, let people tell you how to help them. Listen and trust that they know how to live and function in their own bodies.

On my end, I’m realizing I need to develop my ability to clearly and effectively communicate my needs to those who wish to help. This can be frustrating and difficult in the moment, but the more I think through my experiences and talk with people, the better I get.

Any other questions about how to interact with blind folks? Any other tips from blind travelers? Let me know in the comments!

SBL!

A photograph of the San Antonio Riverwalk. Just like me, the people in this photo have not fallen in the river.

I just got home from San Antonio, where I attended the Annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. SBL, as we call it, is the largest conference of biblical scholars in the world, and it’s held in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion. This means that for one weekend a year, thousands upon thousands of scholars in biblical and religious studies descend upon one unsuspecting American city.

The scope of the thing is truly mind-boggling. There are hundreds of papers and presentations each day, covering every conceivable topic within and around biblical studies and religion. It’s a great place for scholars to hear about new discoveries, new ideas, and new approaches, and to share their own ideas and get feedback before committing them to print. But the best part is reconnecting with friends and colleagues and meeting new ones. The conversations over dinners and drinks are consistently stimulating and gloriously nerdy.

For me, SBL also offers a chance to reflect on how I am changing and still need to change as my sight wanes. It’s a different experience every year.

The most noticeable change this year: I used my white cane. Last year I brought it with me, and I carried it in my bag throughout the weekend, but I never actually took it out to use it. This time I had it out almost the entire time. Inside and in daylight I don’t really need it for the large-scale tasks of orientation and navigation, but it warns me of curbs, planters, and benches, and warns people around me that I will definitely run into them if they don’t move. At night on the narrow and winding Riverwalk, on the other hand, I needed the cane (and a few timely nudges from my friends) to keep from taking a swim.

The social and networking aspect of the conference keeps changing, too. I’ve never been great at picking faces out of a crowd, but now it’s near impossible. I’m sure I walked right by dozens of people I should have said hello to, and failed to notice friends and colleagues attending sessions with me. Name tags are useless, so I’m sure I also miss out on meeting scholars whose work I know but have never met in person.

Even meeting close friends can be disorienting. Suddenly someone appears right in front of me, or beside me walking in lockstep, and it takes a few seconds to piece together who they are from their voice and whatever visual clues I can get. Sometimes I start a hug or a handshake without knowing who’s on the other side, and recognize them halfway through. Luckily, my assumption that people who want to hug me or shake my hand generally have a good reason to do so hasn’t backfired yet! 

I am curious to see how my experience of the conference changes over time. It will continue to provide a benchmark for my vision and adaptation, as well as for my scholarly career. Next year I plan to present a paper—a dual novelty since it will be my first paper at an academic conference and my first presentation from Braille notes!

Hebrew Braille: First Impressions

An image of my twenty-volume Hebrew Bible in Braille, sitting on my bookshelf.

I finally took my first stab at reading a second language in Braille.

My twenty-volume Bible in Hebrew Braille has been sitting around for five months, ever since Jewish Braille International graciously sent it to me, free of charge. This particular copy is used. It once belonged to a certain Nancy Ellen Jaslow, presented to her “on the wonderful occasion of her Bat Mitzvah, October 11, 1963.” So thank you, Ms. Jaslow, for your Bible. I hope I will put it to good use.

I cracked it this weekend and read through the introductory material. The project of creating a Braille system for Hebrew and transcribing the Bible was conducted by a team of blind and sighted Jewish rabbis and scholars from New York, London, and Vienna. They began in the early 1930s and finally published in 1954, hindered by “the stringencies of the time,” as the introduction so euphemistically admits. It’s not a scholarly edition of the text, but I was impressed to see that well-known biblical scholars like H. L. Ginsberg and Theodore Gaster had reviewed the text and notes.

On Monday morning, I perused the key to the text and began to read. At this time, I have read exactly one page of Hebrew in Braille. Since some of you have asked, I thought I would share some of my first impressions here.

First Thing: What is It?

All Braille, everywhere and in every language, is made up of cells, which are made up of six or eight dots in two columns, like so:

⠿   ⣿

It has to be embossed very precisely and uniformly; there are no fonts or scripts or cursive in Braille. Braille already pushes the fingers to their perceptive limits, and there is no room for fanciful embellishments. Eight-dot Braille is mostly reserved for musical and mathematical notation, while every language that I know of uses six-dot cells.

Six dots allow for sixty-three different combinations of dots, not counting the blank cell. Every language has the exact same stock of cells to choose from, and each language gets to choose how it will use those cells. Since English only has 26 letters, it uses the rest of the cells to represent punctuation, common letter combinations, or whole words. Chinese, which has thousands of characters, has to get more creative. It uses two or three cell combinations to represent each character. Hebrew is like English in that it has fewer than 63 letters in its alphabet: 22 consonants (5 of which have a second form that appears at the end of words) and 15 or so vowels. This means one cell can be used to represent each letter or vowel, and there will still be some left over for punctuation.

But regardless of how a language uses Braille, it’s still just combinations of those same 63 cells. So no matter how different two languages are, and no matter how different their written scripts look, in Braille the cells look the exact same, and lines of text look very similar.

⠠⠓ ⠁ ⠝⠊⠉⠑ ⠐⠙

⠚⠪⠍⠂ ⠝⠊⠋⠄⠇⠣⠁

See? One of the lines above is Hebrew, the other English. Can you tell which is which? The first line says “Have a nice day” in English, the second says יום נפלא “have a wonderful day” in Hebrew.

Before I started learning the Hebrew Braille system, I worried that I would sometimes not know what language I was reading in. No one would ever mistake a page of printed Hebrew for English, because the scripts are just too different. But since the Braille script is universal, and reading it with fingers doesn’t allow for that same full-page first impression you get with printed text, I thought sometimes I might get really confused for a while.

It turns out this is not a problem. It could be confusing for one letter, maybe two, but then it becomes completely incomprehensible. If I tried to read the Hebrew sentence above as English, it would be “jowm, nif’lgha”—no confusion there!

I guess it’s like looking at a page of German or French. They use the same letters as English, but you immediately know that it’s not English.

So, one less thing to worry about.

Second Thing: How does it compare to reading printed hebrew?

I knew that reading Hebrew in Braille would be a different experience from reading it printed on a page or written on a manuscript. It’s written from left to right, like English, so some people have asked me if it’s more like reading Hebrew transliterated into English characters. So far, I would say it’s not like reading transliteration or Hebrew script. It’s like reading Hebrew in Braille.

Classical Hebrew, the Hebrew of the Bible, was originally written with only consonants. This is a fine way of writing for people who grew up speaking the language, but once it fell out of everyday use, readers needed help remembering proper pronunciation. Scribes and copyists added in vowels and other pronunciation aids, in the form of small dots and marks surrounding the consonants. Now when you see Hebrew, it looks like this:

וְלֹא־לְמַרְאֵה עֵינָיו יִשְׁפּוֹט

And transliterated Hebrew looks like this:

wᵉlōʾ lᵉmarʾēh ʿênāyw yišpôṭ

Both Hebrew script and transliteration include marks above and below the letter: vowel points in Hebrew and diacritical marks in transliteration. In Braille, it is impossible to modify a letter by placing something above or below it. Everything has to be linear. Each of those marks needs to be represented by a character that either precedes or (more often) follows the letter it modifies.

This has a couple of effects. It hides somewhat the similarities between related vowels. One example is that of holem and holem waw (the ō and ô in the transliteration above). These two vowels make the same sound and are interchangeable in the spelling of many Hebrew words. The transliteration and their writing in Hebrew script make this similarity apparent. In Braille, holem is ⠕ and holem waw is ⠪—two completely different cells. For those who know Hebrew, the same principle applies to shureq and qibbutz, hireq and hireq yod, and the hatef vowels.

The feel of reading Hebrew (pardon the pun) also changes, because the vowels don’t play second fiddle to the consonants the way they do in print. They are given equal weight on the page. Apart from making words feel longer, though, I’m not sure how this will affect my experience of reading Hebrew. Let me get back to reading and I’ll let you know.

And of course, until next time, “jowm, nifl’gha!”