Yale Valedictorians in 1785 and 1792 Delivered Their Orations in Hebrew:

So reports a Yale library Web page:

In [1777], [Rev. Ezra] Stiles was called to Yale to become its president; a year later, he became the school's first Semitics professor.... A Yale student wrote in 1788, "The President insisted that the whole class should undertake the study of Hebrew ... For the Hebrew he possessed a high veneration." As it turns out, Stiles's prescription was not popular and by 1790, he modified his edict: "From my first accession to the Presidency ... I have obliged all the Freshmen to study Hebrew. This has proved very disagreeable to a Number of the Students. This year I have determined to instruct only those who offer themselves voluntarily." While enrollment in his courses dropped, the valedictorians of the classes of 1785 and 1792 did deliver their orations in Hebrew.

Houston Lawyer:
I would have found pig Latin more comprehensible.
10.22.2007 7:46pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
It's a classical language; as I recall, at the time a college student was expected to be able to read at least two. At the siege of Yorktown, I read somewhere, few Americans could speak French, and few French officers could speak English, so they often conversed in Latin.
10.22.2007 7:49pm
Pius XXX:
Did they use Ashkenazi, Sephardi, or modern Israeli phonetics? Just curious :)
10.22.2007 7:57pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Though Ezra Stiles was an orthodox Christian, he was a Hell of a lot better than the following President of Yale, Timothy Dwight. Stiles actually supported the French Revolution.
10.22.2007 8:05pm
vepxistqaosani (mail) (www):
Back in the 70s, when I was in high school, I discussed the decline and fall of American education with my grandfather, who was one of the first BSEEs (Georgia Tech, 1916). He said, "Education in this country starting going downhill when they stopped requiring Greek in high school."

I imagine that the Rev. Mr. Stiles would agree.
10.22.2007 8:10pm
Anonymouseducator (mail) (www):
I wonder what sort of things I will rail against in my dotage.
10.22.2007 8:40pm
KeithK (mail):
I wonder what sort of things I will rail against in my dotage.

You'll wait until dotage? I rail against things constantly now and I'm not even middle aged yet!
10.22.2007 9:24pm

Stiles actually supported the French Revolution.

Which wasn't exactly an unmixed blessing.
10.22.2007 9:24pm

Stiles actually supported the French Revolution.

You say that like its a good thing.
10.22.2007 9:44pm
Joel B. (mail):
This was likely out of veneration for Biblical Hebrew. A great care for know the word in its original language (at least the Old Testament) is what drove many to recognize the need to learn Hebrew, and still to this day.
10.22.2007 10:10pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Hebrew was required of Harvard students until 1835 when French was allowed to be substituted.

On a bit of a tangent, my first teacher of Greek (no longer required) was Zeph Stewart, Justice Potter Stewart's brother.
10.22.2007 10:17pm
AppSocRes (mail):
If I remember my English history correctly, just after the English Civil War some of the more radical Puritans in Parliament suggested that Hebrew replace English as England's official language: After all, it was the language in which the Lord first communicated with humankind. Generally speaking, the Puritans thought very favorably of Jews, very much as do many of today's more conservative Christian sects.
10.22.2007 10:44pm
Ex-Fed (mail):
I'm sure Walt and Mearsheimer are preparing a postscript as we speak.
10.22.2007 10:47pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
You say that like its a good thing.

No one, including Stiles, defended how the French Revolution turned out. Many notables -- for instance Jefferson, Madison, Paine -- supported the Revolution at the beginning.

My point was, if you knew of Timothy Dwight, he was the archetypal anti-Enlightenment Calvinist who preached against "infidelity," (and in particular against the "infidel" Jefferson). Stiles, on the other hand, was friends with and supported these "infidels."
10.22.2007 11:18pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
You say that like its a good thing.

It did give the French the long-missing opportunity to win a war, if only because they were on both sides.
10.22.2007 11:26pm
Name withheld:
Years and years ago, while taking a political science course at a university in Illinois, I met a man who said that he decided there was no God after his mother forced him to go to Hebrew classes. He had prayed for weeks to get out of having to learn Hebrew, and his prayers did not succeed. ... Last I heard, he went on to Harvard Law School.
10.22.2007 11:35pm
Pius XXX:
I believe that all universities at the time at least attempted to use some form of Sephardic Hebrew under the (mistaken) impression that it's more correct than Ashkenazic Hebrew. (Mistaken insofar as if you take a prescriptivist outlook, which you necessarily do when viewing one pronounciation over another, the correct pronounciation from the point of view of those who vocalized the same biblical texts that were studied, is pretty much the consonantal pronunciation of Baghdad (Aramaic Speaking) Jews combined with the vowel pronunciation of Ashkenazic Jews, except for the schwa sound whose Yemenite pronunciation most closely approximates the value. Because the Protestant heritage of which Harvard was a part of very much respected the cantillation system of the bible (to the extent it was studied), they presumably would also have preferred the pronounciation of those who recorded not only the cantillation, but the vocalization of the Hebrew and Aramaic words.)
10.23.2007 12:37am
50 years of educational progress...

From Latin in Middle School and Greek in High School to remedial English in college (often no longer requires)

And yet folks act as if they are proud..that their grandchildren will work for someone form a country w/o quite as much snark
10.23.2007 12:50am
Milhouse (www):
he decided there was no God after his mother forced him to go to Hebrew classes. He had prayed for weeks to get out of having to learn Hebrew, and his prayers did not succeed.
Maybe that's because he didn't pray in Hebrew. The Talmud says that the angels who convey individual prayer to God don't understand Aramaic; presumably they don't understand English either. (Communal prayer needs no angels; God hears it directly. Or at least so says the Talmud.)
10.23.2007 3:41am
Milhouse (www):
PS: Ouch. I think my tongue just punched a hole in my cheek.
10.23.2007 3:42am
MDJD2B (mail):
Imagine-- the Israel Lobby was doing its insidious work more than 100 yearsbefore Herzl created the Zionist movement. :--)
10.23.2007 6:54am
I recall seeing Hebrew inscriptions in Westminster Abbey, and asking the docent about them. He said they had nothing to do with Judaism, per se. It was merely the custom at the time (and I forget how far back these inscriptions dated) for reverent Christians to study what they called the Old Testament in the original language.

Meanwhile, the custom of giving commencement addresses in classical languages continues into the modern era. A friend of mine was Salutatorian at Princeton in the mid-80s and gave the saultatory oration in Latin, as has been the custom at Princeton lo these many decades. A quick google search seems to indicate that the custom continues to this day:

"The memorized half-hour oration, as delivered by the first salutatorian, eventually gave way to a ten-minute address, usually read from manuscript, and its tone, once in keeping with the formal proceedings of commencement, came to provide a kind of comic relief from them. In modern salutatories the humor of the text itself is heightened by the reaction of the other degree candidates, most of whom know no Latin but have at their places printed copies of the salutatory, with footnotes indicating the responses the salutatorian expects of them (hic plaudite, hic vociferate, hic deplorate, etc.); and they always do respond, though sometimes hesitatingly at first, with exuberance -- to the delight and surprise of the audience."

(As a Penn student, I was not subjected to such frivolity; Latin was confined to our degrees, and to those who chose to study it).
10.23.2007 11:13am
Yale published a small volume around the beginning of the century titled "Ezra Stiles and the Jews" (I have it). It describes his relationships with and towards the Jews he met in those early days, in particular Rabbi Carigal. See also Here
10.23.2007 1:26pm
Soccer Dad (mail) (www):

This was likely out of veneration for Biblical Hebrew. A great care for know the word in its original language (at least the Old Testament) is what drove many to recognize the need to learn Hebrew, and still to this day.

Reggie White did exactly this at the end of his life.

But what Reggie White believed and said began to change after retiring in 2000. Ever an insatiable learner, he began to question what exactly his Bible was teaching him, how it was written and where it came from.

So he poured himself into learning not just Hebrew, but how Hebrew was spoken at the time of Christ. He spent six, seven hours a day studying, and he studied so hard that he could eventually take the original Torah, which is what many believe is the original Word of God, and translate it for himself.

Rumors were that, at the end of his life, he was considering conversion to Judaism. As far as I know those were only rumors.
10.23.2007 1:37pm
you would almost imagine that this university was somehow founded by christians. it can't be possible that those close minder christers founded any universities, can it?
10.23.2007 1:44pm
As an old Blue, I can fill you in on some lore:

Ezra Stiles was for some years the minister of a Congregational Church in Newport, where the oldest [I think] synagogue in the U.S. was located. He struck up a friendship with the peripatetic Rabbi Carigal, who started him on his Hebrew studies. Carigal was not Ashkenzi - born in Palestine, I think - which may account for what I've been told is the Sephardic cast of Stiles's Hebrew.

Unfortunately, but to the amusement of the undergraduate mentality, Stiles described Carigal at Passover services as wearing "a high Fur Cap, exactly like a Womans Muff...."

The Yale seal bears the Hebrew letters spelling Urim and Thummim, as a result of Stiles' influence. Those words are of obscure meaning, but have something to do with a test of divine purity.

One of Yale's residential colleges bears his name. Prof. Edmund Morgan wrote a characteristically terse and penetrating biography of him.
10.23.2007 2:48pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
you would almost imagine that this university was somehow founded by christians. it can't be possible that those close minder christers founded any universities, can it?

Orthodox Christians founded the universities in the 17th and early 18th Centuries on explicitly Christian missions. But something very interesting began to occur in the mid-18th Century: Those colleges because hotbeds of "infidelity" -- the enlighteners began taking over. Dwight quelled the infidelity that was rampant at Yale when he took over for Stiles in the 19th Century. However, Harvard officially went infidel in 1806 (or 08 or 09, I have to double check) I believe when their theology school was taken over by a Unitarian. For the next over one hundred years, all of Harvard's Presidents were Unitarians.
10.23.2007 3:01pm
PaddyL (mail):
In "Power, Faith, and Fantasy, America in the Middle East 1776 to Present", Israeli historian, Michael Oren, describes how early US Middle East foreign policy was influenced by the work of Biblical scholars during the 17th and 18th Centuries. Puritans and other fundamentalist Protestants studied the Hebrew language version of the Bible because it represented the purist description of the Jewish religion that was the foundation of Christian dogma.

Jewish biblical scholars were highly regarded. Their work motivated many 19th Century American missionaries to go to the Middle East and proselytize the heathens. They became advocates for the restoration of Jews to their traditional homeland.

Oren's work provides context for many of the above comments.
10.23.2007 5:36pm
GaryinSilverSpring (mail):
From Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson: "Garrick, for instance, observed in his sprightly manner, with more vivacity than regard to just discrimination, as is usual with wits: 'When Johnson lived much with the Herveys, and saw a good deal of what was passing in life, he wrote his
London, which is lively and easy. When he became more retired, he gave us his Vanity of Human Wishes, which is as hard as Greek. Had he gone on to imitate another satire, it would have been as hard as Hebrew.'"
10.23.2007 9:14pm
Rabbi popping in:
If I am not mistaken, enlightened xtian scholars in the 16th century first took Jewish tutors to teach them Hebrew and other Jewish texts. Maybe even earlier than that.
10.24.2007 12:16am
Can't find a good name:
TaxLawyer: Harvard has a similar practice at commencement with the Latin Oration. It's not given by the salutatorian, though, but by a student (a Classics concentrator) selected through a competition judged by a faculty committee. The graduating class is provided with a booklet with the text in Latin and English so they can follow the oration and react accordingly (I don't think they get stage directions, though); the other attendees at graduation don't get the booklet at that time.

See here for this year's Latin Oration.
10.24.2007 3:32am