Tuesday, February 27, 2007

NYU's Hebrew Professor George Bush (1796-1859)

George Bush (1796-1859), an ordained minister, was professor of Hebrew and oriental literature at NYU from 1832-1846. He would have been long forgotten if not for the fact that he was a George Bush. He is indeed a relative of the president; not an ancestor, but a cousin five times removed.* Indeed, the very existence of a Wikipedia page on him would have been exceedingly unlikely, in my opinion, if not for his name.

Although specialists in the field of Christian Hebraism knew of him, no one else would have had not Shalom Goldman brought it to wider attention after "discovering" him in 1988. Intrigued to discover the president's name in an article by Raphael Loewe's in the Encyclopedia Judaica ("European Christian Hebraists") that mentioned "George Bush (USA)," Goldman was spurned to investigate. In 1989 Newsweek reported the existence of this long forgotten professor, quoting Goldman.

With the publication of a 1991 article in the American Jewish Archives called "Professor George Bush: American Hebraist and Pro-Zionist," the White House noticed. "It" sent a letter to Goldman, "artfully written," connecting it with the adminstration's "search for peace in the Middle East".

Also of note is that he wrote a book called The Life of Muhammad, a fact which has been noted in the Islamic world today.

Of interest--and, in fact, this is why I wrote this post--is a 27 page review from 1835 of a 298 page Hebrew grammar he wrote, from the Princeton Theological Review. I uploaded a copy which can be downloaded here.

The review is basically favorable, with some qualms. I was very amused by this part of the review, where Bush is taken to task for a couple of decisions he made:

[The grammar] sort of [takes] for granted that the reader knows what he cannot know if he is a beginner....Thus, for example, when Professor Bush talks of letters being sounded theoretically one way and practically another, the terms are in themselves perspicuous enough, and any one who had a previous smattering of the language, would at once perceive their meaning. But what idea can a novice form of a theoretical sound as distinguished from a practical one?

...Another circumstance which strikes us very early is the author's adoption of Professor Stuart's [method of transliteration] of certain Hebrew letters. [Stuart] represents the aspirated Daleth by dh, which was long since pointed out by Sir William Jones as a proper symbol of the natural relation between the soft th and the ordinary d. Professor Bush denoted it by th, and assigns as a reason that "its sound is practically that of th in though."....he carries it so far as to use the form Begath-kephath, where the very object of employing the word at all is to keep its elements distinctly in the memory, which design is thus defeated by repeating the th....This sort of trifling...is very apt to fascinate grammarians, but a little thought will show its mere inanity.

...In relation to the aspirates, Professor B. is not sufficiently explicit. He states that the letter Beth has the sound of "bh i.e. v." Now, perspicuous as this may be to philologians, might not a beginner very reasonably ask, what connexion there can be between these letters, and how the insertion of a point can transform one consonant into another?
*Although Goldman writes that he is an ancestor of Presidents George Bush (pg. 10, God's Sacred Tongue: Hebrew & the American Imagination), on a Department of State web site meant to counter misinformation about the US government--in this case to effectively provide hasbarah to enhance the US's reputation among Muslims--the government clarified that Professor George Bush is not a descendant:

"Two independent genealogies show Reverend Bush was the cousin of Obadiah Bush, who was the great-great-great grandfather of the current president. This makes the Reverend Bush a distant relative of the current president, five generations removed, but NOT his direct ancestor"

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