Sunday, July 3, 2016

Lashawan Qadash?

One of the interesting things to have come out recently in the apologetics scene are a series of podcasts and debates on the Hebrew Israelite movement. If you've missed it, you may want to check it out here. Even though I encountered adherents of this movement early on in my Christian life (they have quite the presence on the internet), I never saw them as a topic of serious apologetic discussion until recently. They may not be as numerous as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, or Oneness Pentecostals, but they're getting on in numbers, especially in large urban centres such as here in Toronto. I've often seen them hanging around Dundas Square, and it is frustrating to try to dialogue with them as they tend to shut down everyone who tries to reason with them.

That said, I'd like to look at one particular claim that this group makes, and that is their claim to have the pure Hebrew language, which they distinguish from the "Yiddish" that gets passed off as Biblical Hebrew everywhere else. They call this Lashawan Qadash, which is based on the Hebrew for "holy tongue" (לשון קדש; lishōn qodesh) and is supposed to represent Hebrew the way the Hebrews (ie. their ancestors, according to their worldview) pronounced it. They seem to have a preference for the Palaeo-Hebrew script (though they occasionally use the standard block script used today as well). But this isn't the main idiosyncrasy of this form of Hebrew. Its main idiosyncrasy is its pronunciation: Proponents of Lashawan Qadash claim that the only vowel sound that exists in Hebrew is the "a" sound, with the exception of the letter 'ayin (ע), which makes the "i" sound. All other vowels were added to Hebrew later by the Masoretes (6th-10th centuries), who were Ashkenazi Jews (who are not really descended from the Hebrews, according to them).

This video basically explains how Hebrew Israelites view this language. Note that just as there are different subgroups in the Hebrew Israelite movement, there are also variations in their pronunciations. Nevertheless, some common feature are discernible.

Having done my undergraduate studies in Near and Middle Eastern studies (which includes learning not just Hebrew, but other Semitic languages such as Aramaic and Arabic as well), I find these claims to be quite odd, and just a bit jarring. There are so many questionable things about this claimed "pure Hebrew" tongue. For one, they reject the classical names of each Hebrew letter ("Aleph" for א, "Bet" for ב, etc.). According to them, these names are "Yiddish" inventions. But they're not. In fact, the names of these letters pre-date Hebrew. These are the names of the letters as they were originally used in the Phoenician language. Each letter name represents an object that the letter signifies ("ox" for "Aleph," "house" for "Bet," etc.). To reject these names is to divorce each letter from the object which each character originally signified.

Also, Lashawan Qadash ignores Hebrew's relationship with other Semitic languages such as Aramaic and Arabic. If we follow their pronunciation conventions, for example, the word for  "house" (בית) would not be "bayit," as most Hebrew speakers would say it, but "bayat." But this goes against the usage of the word in every other Semitic language. The Aramaic word would also be "bayit," and the Arabic word for the same is "bayt" (بيت). In fact, one wonders what Hebrew Israelites do with the Aramaic portions of the Old Testament in Daniel and Ezra. Their pronunciation system would not work with Aramaic, which was spoken much more widely than Hebrew throughout the Near East (Unless one posits that all  of Mesopotamia, including native Aramaic speakers living in today, have it all wrong. Now that'd be one grand conspiracy theory!). We know how Aramaic is pronounced because the Greek New Testament contains Aramaic words and phrases transliterated into Greek. Here are some examples:

Greek Text
English Translation
Matthew 27:47
Ἠλὶ ἠλὶ λεμὰ σαβαχθάνι
אלי אלי למה סבקתני
Ēli, Ēli, lama sabachthani
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Mark 5:41
Ταλιθα κουμ
תלתא קומי
Talitha qūmi
Little girl, arise!
John 20:16
1 Corinthians 16:22
Μαράνα θά
מרנא תא
Marana tha
Our Lord, come!

There is no room for vocalizing these Aramaic phrases differently than how they are vocalised in the Greek New Testament. What is also clear from this is that the "e" and "u" vowels are used, which is contrary to what proponents of Lashawan Qadash say.
But perhaps it will be argued that what applies to Aramaic doesn't apply to Hebrew. The falsity of this claim is made clear once we factor in the Septuagint (LXX), a Greek Translation of the Old Testament produced by Hellenistic Jews living in Egypt in the 3rd century B.C., and is cited by the authors of the New Testament. In the LXX, there are many Hebrew words that are transliterated into Greek text. This will give us an idea of how the Jews in the 3rd century B.C. pronounced these words. Here are some representative nouns:

Hebrew Name
Transliteration from Hebrew
Greek  (LXX)
Transliteration from Greek
First Appearance
Genesis 1:26
Genesis 5:29
Genesis 12:8
Genesis 17:5
Genesis 17:19
Genesis 25:25
Genesis 25:26
Genesis 32:28
בֵּ֥ית לָֽחֶם
Bēyt Lechem
Genesis 35:19
Exodus 2:10
Joshua 1:1
Joshua 10:1
Ruth 4:17
2 Samuel 5:7
2 Kings 14:25
2 Kings 19:2

Note that some names are transliterated more precisely than others. Nevertheless, the transliterations are fairly consistent, and even the loosest Greek transliterations stay fairly close to the Hebrew originals. Now, the Hebrew Israelites are to be believed, the vowel system used for Biblical Hebrew was invented by the Masoretes and could not have existed prior to the 6th century. Yet the evidence from the LXX shows that the pronunciation system can be traced back to at least the 3rd century B.C. This refutes the idea that it is a later invention.

Finally, the question must be asked: If Lashawan Qadash represents pure Hebrew, why is there no evidence for its existence prior to the 20th century? Why is it that all throughout the world, the same Hebrew pronunciation is used by all kinds of disparate groups, many of which couldn't have been influenced by the Ashkhenazim? For example, we have the Falasha Jews from Ethiopia. In their prayer services, they use exactly the same pronunciation system that all other Jewish groups use (see this video for an example). Bear in mind that for hundreds of years, these Ethiopian Jews had no contact with the rest of the Jewish world, which rules out their use of Hebrew being influenced by European Jewry. The fact that the Hebrew that is preserved among them matches that used everywhere else is proof that this is the true Hebrew language, not Lashawan Qadash.

There are many other problems that underlie the Hebrew Israelite movement, such as their hermeneutically questionable interpretation of texts involving Israelites and Gentiles, as well as their claim that black Africans are the true Hebrews, against all genetic and geographic evidence to the contrary. Those are beyond the scope of this article, however. For information on those topics, I recommend the video playlist I linked to at the beginning of this article. Hopefully, this article sheds light on the Hebrew language's history and usage, and why the standard Hebrew pronunciation is to be preferred over the spurious innovation known as Lashawan Qadash.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

When Narratives Get in the Way of Facts

 “Never let a good tragedy go to waste.” - Rahm Emmanuel
By now, everyone has heard of the Orlando attack, where Omar Mateen murdered 49 people in a gay nightclub before he himself was killed. The aftermath of this terror attack has been something of an interesting Rorschach Test, where everybody who has some kind of strong opinion on a given social/political issue has projected their own concerns onto the incident, and are using it to call for the implementation of this or that social agenda or to demonize this or that social group. Witness the flurry of articles, social media posts and debates that focus in on (depending on one’s concerns) the state of LGBT rights in North America, the importance of gun control/gun rights in preventing further deaths, and/or the role of Islamic radicalism in terror attacks against the West.
What has been disappointing—though not the least bit surprising—about the recent events has been the willingness of many of those commenting on them to completely ignore the facts about what actually happened in order to further a specific narrative about society. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than among the various internet-based “social justice warriors” that pounce upon this tragedy. Before anyone even knew exactly why the shooter did what he did, they were already blaming the attacks on perceived bigotry and homophobia that is being spread by conservative Christians. This is exemplified by one particular Facebook post that has been making its rounds throughout social media, which states:
You weren't the gunman, but you didn't want to see gay people kissing in public. You weren't the gunman, but you don't like gay characters on TV. You weren't the gunman, but you think gay people are sinful and need saving.
You weren't the gunman, but you were upset when gay people gained the right to marry. You weren't the gunman, but you use slurs for gay people. You weren't the gunman, but you would vote against legal protections for gay people.
You weren't the gunman, but you're the culture that built him. You're the bullets in his gun.
The problem with this statement is the fact that at no point does it at all touch base with reality. There are many facts that militate against this interpretation of the event, of which I will name the two most important ones:
Fact #1: Omar Mateen was neither a Christian nor a conservative. The shooter was a Muslim man of Afghan descent. Furthermore, he was not even a particularly religious Muslim. Various investigations into his life indicate that he himself was gay, and had frequented the very nightclub he shot up in the past. But then, he made a 180 degree turn and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State just shortly before the shooting. How does one reconcile these two apparently contradictory sets of facts with one another? There are many theories that one could posit. Perhaps he didn’t really mean his last minute pledge of allegiance and did it out of spite against those who’ve rejected him. Or perhaps he was sincere, and we have a case of what some social commentators have dubbed “Sudden Jihad Sydrome.” Either way, it is not at all clear that Christian opposition of homosexuality had anything to do with his motives.
Fact #2: The response of the Christian community has been overwhelmingly one of compassion. Sure, one can always point to a Steven Anderson as an example of how some radical Christians are praising the shooter. But why point to the exceptions rather than the rule? Why not mention the fact that Chik-Fil-A opened on a Sunday for the first time in its history to make chicken sandwiches to donate to blood donors helping the victims? How about mentioning Russell Moore’s plea for mutual understanding and sharing of grief between the Christian and LGBT communities? This is the critical element that is missing in the “Social Justice” narrative: The actual words and actions of the very Christians they seek to lay the blame on for this terror attack.
It can be extremely frustrating for Christians to be blamed for what happened in the face of all the facts. But then again, we live in a society where Cultural Marxism (as opposed to Biblical Christianity) determines how to properly interpret all facts and events. As Dr. Scott Masson has pointed out in his lecture “Repressive Tolerance and Cultural Marxism,” this ideology sees Christianity as the root of all social injustice in the world, and must therefore be stigmatised and marginalized in the name of “tolerance.” Its main dogma—its theory of “privileged classes”—artificially sorts everyone into various gradations of either privilege or oppression/victimhood. Warren J. Blumenfeld (one of the promoters of this ideology in academia), has written about how various religious groups can be classified under hierarchies of privilege. Protestants are more privileged than Catholics, and both are more privileged than non-Christian groups such as Jews, Muslims, and people of no religion. Furthermore, since race also factors into this theory of privilege, predominantly white Protestant denominations are more privileged than predominantly non-white denominations.[1] And of course, in recent years, sexual orientation has figured prominently in this theory of privilege, with heterosexuals being vastly more privileged than LGBT people of all stripes.
Because all facts are filtered through this filter of “privilege,” narratives must always be structured in a way that those with the most privilege are the chief oppressors. Thus, even though both Christianity and Islam declare homosexuality to be a sin, Cultural Marxists will almost always focus on Christian homophobia to the exclusion of Muslim homophobia (the exceptions to this rule are usually liberal Muslims or ex-Muslims, who are generally more attuned to the problems occurring within Muslim societies). The aftermath of the Orlando attack is perhaps one of the most extreme examples of this cognitive dissonance to date. Here, social justice warriors operating according to the rubric of “privileged/oppressed classes” take what is, according to all facts and evidence, an act of Islamic homophobia, and attributing it to Christians!
This brings us back to one of the most important insights of the late Reformed Christian philosopher Cornelius Van Til. Van Til pointed out that despite our pretensions to the contrary, none of us ever approaches facts and evidence with an unbiased mind. In other words, neutrality is a myth. All of us operate according to a worldview, which we use to arrange the evidence into one coherent narrative. The problem with this is that only one worldview can be universally true (and we who are Christians do believe that this one true universal worldview is the Biblical one), and every other worldview must of necessity ignore certain facts about reality or twist them beyond any reasonable interpretation of them. Cultural Marxism is one such worldview, and the Orlando terror attack proves that this worldview is incapable of explaining reality as it really is. Saint Paul said it best about such false worldviews when he said, “claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:22, ESV).
Having said this, I would like to briefly touch upon the question of what the proper Christian response to the Orlando massacre should be. Perhaps the best response to date has been that of Michael L. Brown, entitled “A Christian Message to LGBT Americans in the Wake of the Orlando Shooting.” I encourage everyone to read this article and mirror its words to everyone they know who is LGBT or an “ally” of that movement. I will conclude with his words:
Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). He said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). And he said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
But he also said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). And “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).
It is Jesus that you need.

[1] Warren J. Blumenfield, “Christian Privilege and the Promotion of ‘Secular’ and not-so ‘Secular’ Mainline Christianity in Public Schooling and in the Larger Society," Equity and Excellence in Education 39 (3): 195–210.