Why was this a big deal?
In 1913, what later became known as "The Language War" began when the Haifa Institute of Technology decided to adopt German as their official language of instruction. (I know, I know...)
Later, it turned to a tug-of-war between Yiddish and Hebrew. Assimilated Jewish linguists insisted on secularizing the holy Hebrew language and instill it as the official language of Eretz Yisrael.
Others objected the secularization of the holy tongue, along with the unsavory political agenda behind it.
Some also felt that using Hebrew for mundane talk or in places like the bathroom profaned the holy tongue. (They weren't wrong. My kids happily chattered away in Hebrew in the bathtub and Hebrew is the language in Israeli discotheques, smutty movies, and coarse stand-up routines.)
Contradiction or Communication?
As the rav explained, the Sefardi chachamim spoke classical Hebrew, the beautiful Hebrew of the commentators and ancient Sages. They spoke that language as their mother tongue and according to their traditional pronunciation.
He also spoke Sefardi-accented Hebrew with regular non-Yiddish-speaking Sefardim.
The pro-Yiddish rav spoke to them in kind because they couldn't know Yiddish (so that was a practical reason) and because the whole language divide wasn't about language, but about politics, "isms," and an anti-Torah agenda, all of which had nothing to do with the Sefardi community.
Yet when Hebrew could be spoken as a need by people who really knew how to use the language, the rav happily spoke Hebrew and spoke it using the pronunciation best understood by his fellow Sefardi Jews.
A Jew's Official Language
Yet in response to a British government survey which asked what language was spoken by the respondent, Rav Sonnenfeld not only answered "Hebrew," but advised others to answer the same--even though Rav Sonnenfeld's conversational language was indeed Yiddish.
When some of the pro-Yiddish camp objected, Rav Sonnenfeld replied, "What can I do? When I speak to God, I speak only in Hebrew--how can I deny that?!"
Obviously, Rav Sonnenfeld considered his main language to be the one in which he spoke to his Creator.
At one point, Rav Sonnefeld mused that it was perhaps a mistake for the religious community NOT to have adopted Hebrew immediately upon arrival in Eretz Yisrael. "By doing so, we would've pre-empted the irreligious camp...We would have then not been forced into taking a negative stand against Hebrew being the official language."
But these things are hard to predict.
- Don't get caught up in the technicalities of a gadol's opinion; understand the real motivation behind the opinion.
- A gadol is coming from a place of love and not a place of fanaticism with getting all yipped-up on misplaced zealotry.
- Communicate in the language OTHERS understand best (this goes beyond mere language choice, BTW)
- The goal is to meet the other as far as you can, and not assert yourself over the your fellow.
Figuring out how to do this with each situation can take a bit of trial and error, but as long as we're trying, then that's really good.
The Only "ism" You'll Ever Need
What is the Heart's Nusach?