A Word’s Meaning
There were mutterings this year – Shibboleth’s second year – about the desirability of the title of our fair publication. On one hand, it sounds cool. On the other, its esoteric nature is problematic on a number of levels. The issue isn’t only that many potential readers don’t know what “shibboleth” means or what kind of a publication it heralds. The issue is that the true meaning of the word – and not just its obscurity – seems to support the reading that the publication is intended to exclude outsiders. And why, one might wonder, would one bother publishing if one doesn’t intend to engage with outsiders?
For the uninitiated: “shibboleth” refers directly to chapter 12 of the Book of Judges, which relates the clever trick of the Gileadites, who had just defeated and exiled the Ephraimites. When the Ephraimites began to attempt to cross the Jordan River and reenter their home territory, the Gileadites caught wise and instituted a test: they asked the Ephraimites, who because of an idiomatic idiosyncrasy could not pronounce the “sh” sound, to say “shibboleth.” One by one the refractory Ephraimites failed to say “shibboleth” properly; they were outed, and the Gileadites promptly slew them. According to the biblical text, 42,000 Ephraimites were killed in the resultant massacre.
Ostensibly, then, Shibboleth is implicitly promoting xenophobia, an unhealthy fixation on local custom, the exploitation of cultural differences for political ends. Shibboleth, a publication that often riffs on culturally Jewish tidbits that may be unfamiliar to the layman, might be argued to use rarefied knowledge as the mechanism for exclusion and, metaphorically, for death – just as the Gileadites used their ear for pronunciation to ferret out the interlopers. One might argue that while the editors of Shibboleth, like the Gileadites, appear at first to be engaging congenially with their reader, their ultimate purpose is unclear. Do we, a tight-knit group of Jews that hold the bulk of our meetings in the kosher kitchen at Yale University, intend to emphasize the difference or similarity between ourselves and strangers, the insider and the outsider? After all, aren’t we authors starting off confrontationally by asking the reader whether or not he gets the joke via the title itself? Aren’t we, the editors, shutting out those admirers who earnestly attempt to answer our questions, understand our arguments, bond with our struggles – those casual readers who invest in this magazine only to see their effort work against them, as the Ephraimites did theirs?
We would argue that Shibboleth is in fact offering the shibboleth, teaching the correct pronunciation rather than wielding it. The scholars that have labored over these essays have taken pains to straddle the line between accessibility and rigor. And they have done so not in order to standardize the patois, but to attune the reader’s ear to the differences between the “sh” and the “s,” so to speak. At least, that is to say, the metaphorical Ephraimites will recognize whether or not they are repeating a concept correctly; whether or not they should choose to embrace that concept is another matter. Our humble magazine has grand aspirations: to serve as some terribly minute codex that alerts us to meaningful differences without homogenizing dialects. Indeed, the pieces included herein differ even amongst themselves in their vision of Judaism, and many alert us to the different strands of thought that have colonized the tradition. To use difference as proof of ignorance is a slippery slope.
Difference does, though, give rise to ineluctable tensions. And if the ultimate shibboleth of the Jewish insider is comfort with Jewish texts, then in this issue many of our authors have striven to grant the reader access to the abundance of different approaches to Jewish texts that arise within the community and the potential exclusivity of those approaches. Whether the tension is between the academic and rabbinic study of the canon, the religiously and politically charged different homiletic readings of the Bible, or the secular milieu of a Yiddish literatus and the Hasidic devotion he seeks to encapsulate in his poetry, it is precisely these tensions that keep the traditions from becoming effete. It is also in granting people access to them that they remain relevant.
If we value our traditions as such, they’re never entirely ours; tradition is by nature fraught with meanings we can’t fathom, histories yet untouched. But so too is tradition alive with meanings whose exclusionary potential allows, on the flip side, for the warm embrace of revealed depth. Uncovering the small joys of tradition sometimes requires only the little time it takes to peruse a college journal, or maybe to look up an unfamiliar word in the dictionary. So for those that didn’t know what shibboleth meant, and thus didn’t understand it as a slap in the face: good. Now that you know what it means, it’s not a slap in the face. Welcome!
Editors in Chief