Interview: Geoffrey Khan, Regius Professor of Hebrew, Cambridge

01 February 2019

‘Putting a fence in your mind around your language, your race, and your religion is so impoverishing’

I work in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. A typical day there involves teaching undergraduates, supervising graduates and post-doctoral researchers, doing administrative jobs, or attending meetings and seminars.

We have good relations with our colleagues in the divinity faculty, and try to share the teaching as best we can. They concentrate more on the exegesis of the Hebrew Bible, whereas we look at a broader range of Hebrew texts from a philological and literary perspective.

I do a lot of my research writing at home, which is the quietest place now that our children have moved away. (My son used to do drum practice every day.) I have three main research fields: the history of the Hebrew language, in particular the history of biblical Hebrew in its various traditions; the modern Aramaic dialects; and medieval Arabic documents.

What I enjoy most in my professional life is to teach and discuss research with my graduate students, to discover new manuscripts in library collections, and to carry out fieldwork on undocumented spoken Aramaic dialects.

Traditionally, a Regius Professor of Hebrew in Cambridge would concentrate on the biblical world in antiquity. I, however, regard it as important to take into account that the Hebrew Bible was transmitted after antiquity through the centuries among Jewish communities in a living tradition, which included a written text, an oral recitation, and an interpretation of its meaning. This living tradition often adapted itself through the centuries to the surrounding world.

I work a lot on medieval codices [bound manuscript books] of the Hebrew Bible that were written in the Islamic period and exhibit influence from the surrounding Islamic world. The whole layout and graphical form of the biblical text changed when it started to be written in codices rather than scrolls. Moreover, the ancient oral traditions were textualised in the form of vocalisation signs. All this was almost certainly due to the influence of the Islamic environment. The printed editions that we use today are essentially based on these medieval Bible codices. There is even a corpus of medieval codices of the Hebrew Bible, produced by Karaite Jews, that was written in Arabic script, with illuminations which looked very like medieval Qur’ans.

I am particularly interested in the phenomenon of living oral traditions of the Hebrew Bible. Detailed records of these oral traditions first appear in the Middle Ages, and many of them survive down to modern times.

I have a special interest in the pronunciation of biblical Hebrew. Jewish communities today in the Middle East and North Africa, Yemen, and Central Asia preserve many traditions of great antiquity. There is a very important watershed in the Middle Ages, when the oral tradition was put in writing and a vocalisation sign system was created.

One of the most authoritative oral traditions, which had its roots in the Second Temple Period, was transmitted in Tiberias, in Galilee, but this fell into oblivion in the later Middle Ages, and was preserved only as a fossil in a system of written vocalisation signs added to the biblical text in manuscripts. It is now possible to reconstruct this Tiberian oral tradition, and I am about to publish a book which will give the first detailed description of it.

I do a lot of work on vernacular languages, in particular on modern Aramaic dialects, which are spoken by some Christians and Jews in the Middle East. Most of the dialects are now highly endangered and are on the verge of extinction. This work involves carrying out fieldwork among the speakers.

My interest in this field began in Jerusalem in the 1990s when I met a speaker of Aramaic, who was an elderly man from Kurdistan. This was a life-changing experience. I realised that he must have been the last surviving speaker of a dialect of the Aramaic language that had been spoken by Jews in Mesopotamia for 3000 years.

Many Aramaic-speaking Christian communities have been displaced from their homes in the Middle East since the First World War. With the loss of every dialect of this language, we lose something unique. Tragically, there is currently a massive extinction of languages in the world. Language diversity is very important: it is a manifestation of vitality and fulfilment in our species.

Similarly, I believe passionately that diversity in race and belief are important manifestations of vitality and meaningful existence. Putting a fence in your mind around your language, your race, and your religion in an exclusive and partisan way is so impoverishing. For this reason, learning languages builds bridges between human beings. There is an innate tendency in us to feel more comfortable in hermetically sealed groups. Unfortunately, this has manifested itself very starkly, recently, in the rise of ultra-right-wing nationalism in many countries. We live, however, in a world that is more than ever interdependent, and we need more than ever to regard ourselves as a global community of human beings. Learning languages, therefore, is vital.

I grew up in Middlesbrough, brought up by my mother. My parents separated when I was very young. I am mixed-race. My mother was English; my father was Asian, of Indian and Iranian descent. I went to a rather rough comprehensive school, where there were often violent fights in the playground, and I frequently suffered from racial abuse. I took refuge in learning various languages.

What took most courage in my life was following my heart and love of languages when I chose a career path, and not taking my teachers’ advice to study for a more secure career, such as medicine or engineering.

Stepping out of the world of my childhood in Middlesbrough into the wider world, and into the world of Semitic languages, seemed very attractive. I studied Semitic languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, learning Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Akkadian, Ethiopic, the classical language of Ethiopia, and Amharic, the main spoken language of Ethiopia. My Ph.D. was about the syntax of the Semitic languages.

I married, and my wife and I adopted two mixed-race children. I have learnt that the love of a child is nothing to do with genetic racial connection: it is a manifestation of the caring aspect of our human nature. It is this caring aspect of human nature that gives me hope for the future of mankind.

It is also very important to learn to read texts that are of deep meaning for different faith communities in the original languages. By learning Hebrew, you learn also a lot about Judaism and Jewish texts, which helps to contextualise Christianity.

I used to do bell-ringing, but I gave it up when I realised that my main “hobby” was my academic work. But I do like to do physical exercise, especially walking.

What makes me angry is the intolerance of diversity, and the barriers that many people set up between humans by notions of racial and religious identity.

Academically, I want to finish a big reference grammar on biblical Hebrew that I am writing, which will take account of advances in research, particularly with regard to the pronunciation of the language.

Seeing those whom I love happy makes me happy. I want to help my current students — who, like me, have followed their heart — to find their place in life. And I want to do all I can to ensure that my family always remains happy. The deep wish for somebody to be happy is surely at the very heart of love.

Praying, for me, is the feeling of a deep wish for the good of others, not making a request from another for help. If everybody prays in this way, there is hope for mankind.

If I were locked in a church and could choose my companions, I would choose to be with my immediate family, and pray for their happiness and pray for the happiness of all who are suffering.

Professor Geoffrey Khan was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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