Dr. Karl Kutz, professor and chair of biblical languages, and Dr. Rebekah Josberger, associate professor of Hebrew and Old Testament, are two well-loved professors at Multnomah University. I sat down with them to talk about their recently released book, Learning Biblical Hebrew: Reading for Comprehension: An Introductory Grammar, and the accompanying workbook that comes out August 14. You can purchase both works through Lexham Press.
Dr. Kutz and Dr. Josberger have been working on this project for nine years. They’ve compiled their work, class notes, and research to create an incredible resource for those studying and teaching Hebrew. They joked that there’s not exactly a huge audience for a book like this, and in Dr. Josberger’s words, “the last thing this world needed was another Hebrew grammar.” But throughout our conversation, it was clear that they have something special, a unique approach that keeps their Hebrew students connected to each other, their education, and the text.
KHH: What was it that drove you to start this project in the first place?
RJ: Karl’s work was awesome, and it wasn’t published anywhere.
KK: I had started doing the grammar approach as far back as thirty years ago. When Becky came, we had a real impetus to consolidate and really figure out how we were going to do this.
RJ: I didn’t come from a background where I felt safe to ask questions if I didn’t know something. So, I sat in on his classes and started watching him teach, and it was like watching a master! It was phenomenal! But it had nothing to do with his notes. That’s where it started. It was that first year or two trying to merge the programs from the college and the seminary and trying to make the notes that he had represent the lectures that he gave.
In my experience, languages tended to be the most dreaded classes because they were so difficult, and they were some of the least used after graduation. Who wants to be the teacher that teaches the least used class? And when Karl’s students came back to campus after my first year here, I would sneak in a subtle question: “Can you still read Hebrew?” And it didn’t matter how long ago they’d been here, they all could still use it. And most of them still did use it. I knew that’s what I wanted to do, so that’s what started the project.
KK: Yeah, and it’s been refined over and over again. We had a methodology of getting people into the text, giving them the freedom to fail. It didn’t matter how well you got it, it’s the time and exposure that produces mastery, and students just really enjoyed reading.
KHH: Now that your hard work is published, what would you say are some things you’ve gained through the project, and what parts are you most proud of?
RJ: I’m most proud that we’re still friends!
KK: That’s actually its strength. We’re very alike in terms of what we value; we’re very different in terms of how we get there. One of the most difficult parts of doing a co-authored text, particularly one that strives for something so tangible in the classroom, is how you blend those styles. It helps that we’re really good friends and that we trust one another.
RJ: Sometimes I would push for a certain way, and we would discuss it for about a week. Then he would say one thing and I would realize there was still something I didn’t understand about a part of Hebrew. Then I could stop and admit, “I don’t understand this, you have to teach me this.” I loved having the freedom to say, “I forgot this,” or “I don’t understand this piece, what am I missing?”
KK: And even thought students won’t necessarily get in on those anecdotal conversations, the philosophy of it is what comes out. There’s this sense that you don’t have to posture. There’s always something new to learn, and as long as you’re not posturing and you’re engaged in a dialogue about how to better understand what’s going on, that translates into what happens in the classroom.
RJ: The thing that I’m most proud of is our students—former students, current students—they edited everything for us. The things they challenged us on or the things they understood. I was shocked. I was just so proud at their level of Hebrew understanding. I really feel like this project is just as much the students’ as it is ours.
KK: One thing that’s unique about the workbook, in particular, is the way it encourages students to get into the biblical text. If somebody is taking a language, it’s because they want to get into the biblical text. And yet, most of the time, they don’t get to. You either don’t translate very much, or you have lots of exercises where you never get very far, and the process of dialogue back and forth allowed us to find a way to get people immersed in the text quickly. And they learn to both formally understand Hebrew and have an intuitive sense of it because they’ve spent time with it. It’s like an immersion in the only way you can do in printed form, and it just works well.
KHH: What has the feedback for this project been like so far from other Hebrew professors, other students outside of Multnomah, and also your own Hebrew students?
KK: We’ve had great feedback from other instructors—there’s kind of a joke that there are as many Hebrew grammars as there are Hebrew instructors.
RJ: Not an exaggeration! The last thing this world needed was another Hebrew grammar.
KK: But we’ve had a really good response. Not just from colleagues that we’ve had connections with but people who have said they’ve been wanting something like this, but they just didn’t have time to do it.
RJ: We’ve also had other kinds of feedback; there’s been some concern about how much vocabulary we include.
KK: It’s aggressive.
RJ: It’s very aggressive. But that’s helped us to understand that other programs might still be working under a model where you’re shooting for mastery…
KK: Instead of experience.
RJ: Experience and the room for failure. In a way, it’s great critique, and our students complained about the same thing. But we have to learn how to work it into the curriculum, to still insist on that, but not have it be the thing that hurts their grade. It just allows them to be able to read.
KK: Because one of the most predominant things that conditions whether or not you can use it in the future is whether you can sit down with the text when you’re done and it’s not labor-intensive, and that means you have to have vocabulary and you have to have read a lot. If those two things are in place, then the tendency is that people are going to keep using it.
KHH: What are the most unique and enjoyable parts about teaching Hebrew at Multnomah?
RJ: Oh, it’s so easy. Multnomah students know within the first few weeks that Hebrew is something that they might be able to learn, and it’s fun to learn, and you’re a part of a group when you learn it, and it’s attainable, and you don’t have to be a Hebrew prof when you’re done. And we don’t have to do any convincing of its value in the classroom.
KK: But I think people realize pretty quickly that even though we’re very excited about Hebrew, Hebrew is not the top-tier objective. The objectives are broader. They’re about mentoring, they’re about critical thinking. Hebrew’s just the dress, just the clothing that those objectives come in.
RJ: It’s about falling in love with the text.
KK: And the relationships, the communal aspect of learning, the freedom to ask questions. The students come in and find that they’re able to ask question not just about Hebrew, but about theology and the biblical text that haven’t necessarily been kosher in a certain environment. And it’s okay to ask them because we create a climate where you don’t always have to have your A-game. You put in the effort, but you don’t have to necessarily have it all figured out. That creates humility, and those are the kinds of things that we value.
RJ: Well that’s number one. Number two: I don’t know any place in the world that is the size of Multnomah and is as supportive. If we can populate the classes, we can teach what we want to teach.
KK: We offer more Hebrew than most programs in the United States.
RJ: You can take seven years of Hebrew here. I can’t tell you how abnormal that is, that we get to do that and that we’re trusted with that…
KK: And that people keep coming to do that.
RJ: I was afraid that when I picked a school, I would have to choose between one of two types of schools. There’s the kind where you can set your own teaching, and it’s smaller and intimate and you just enjoy your students and you become a good teacher. Or there’s the kind where you can focus on research and keep learning and publishing. I get to be at a school that’s little and intimate and I can pour into teaching.
But in that environment, we can build the absolute best program we can build, no holds barred. I don’t know how Multnomah does that. And our students are awesome. They are so accepting of one another, and that’s just characteristic of the little Hebrew family we have.
Dr. Kutz and Dr. Josberger’s book, Learning Biblical Hebrew: Reading for Comprehension: An Introductory Grammar, is out now with Lexham Press. The corresponding workbook will be released August 14th.
You can purchase both books www.lexhampress.com or through Amazon.