Ira Robinson

title.none: Elman and Gershoni, eds., Transmitting Jewish Traditions (Ira Robinson)

identifier.other: baj9928.0202.011 02.02.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Ira Robinson, Concordia University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Elman, Yaakov and Isreal Gershoni, eds. Transmitting Jewish Traditions: Orality, Textuality and Cultural Diffusion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. Pp. iv, 368. 35.00. ISBN: 0-300-08198-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.02.11

Elman, Yaakov and Isreal Gershoni, eds. Transmitting Jewish Traditions: Orality, Textuality and Cultural Diffusion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. Pp. iv, 368. 35.00. ISBN: 0-300-08198-7.

Reviewed by:

Ira Robinson
Concordia University

It is clear that, in the history of Judaism, the transmission of cultural traditions in time and space has been as complex as it has been crucial. For upwards of two millenia, this transmission has taken place under conditions in which the foundational revelation of Torah was always available as a written document, but in which other aspects of Torah and its interpretation were transmitted, at least originally, in an "oral" format. It is thus fitting that current academic concerns over the issues of "orality" and "textuality" should be examined within the framework of the study of Judaism. This collection of essays attempts to promote this examination.

The essays originated in a seminar held by the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, and reflects the contributions of both Israeli and American scholars. As often occurs with collections of this nature, the book does not offer a comprehensive guide to the issues of orality and textuality in the history of Judaism. Nonetheless, even if we do not find in this book answers to all our questions, the contributions are of generally high quality, and, taken as a whole, the book gives us many interesting perspectives on the issues at hand.

The introduction, "Transmitting Tradition: Orality and Textuality in Jewish Cultures", by the editors of the volume, attempts to bring the scholarly world of Judaic studies into conversation with the theoretical literature on orality, which is acknowledged by the authors as having had, until recently, but "little influence on the study of classical rabbinic texts". (5)

The first essay, Matin Jaffee's "The Oral-Cultural Context of the Talmud Yerushalmi: Greco-Roman Rhetorical Paedeia, Discipleship, and the Concept of Oral Torah", seeks to give us a sense of the importance of "writing in the transmission of early rabbinic learned tradition", in connection with its "orally rooted tradition". (27) In early rabbinic culture, the author asserts, "memorization and oral delivery of scriptural and rabbinic textual material represented a fundamental cultural performance". (28) In connecting this cultural performance with its institutional setting, Jaffee also brings to bear what is known concerning the rhetorical performances in contemporary hellenistic schools in order to help us understand the nature of the learned performance which ultimately stands behind the written word of rabbinic texts.

In the second chapter, Paul Mandel's "Between Byzantium and Islam: the Transmission of a Jewish Book in the Byzantine and Early Islamic Periods", we confront the issue that the origins of rabbinic books "betray an oral mode of linguistically fixed units of discourse". (75) With respect to rabbinic literature, indeed, oral transmission did not cease with the "redaction" of works like the Mishna, and this tends to problematize the idea that there were fixed written texts which underlie the first known manuscripts of rabbinic books, which date from the ninth century. For the ancient rabbis, despite the literate nature of their society, it was not the "book" as a whole, but the appropriate citation of the "book"'s constitutive elements that was of importance. From a study of the two recensions of the midrashic text "Lamentations Rabbati", Mandel concludes that "two cultures of transmission, the oral and the written, existed side by side and influenced each other". (100) He also differentiates between the scholarly cultures of Babylonian and Palestinian rabbis in terms of the nature of the transmission of their "texts".

The formative nature of the early Islamic centuries for the transmission of rabbinic texts, alluded to in Mandel's article, forms the subject of the article "Orality and the Institutionalization of Tradition: the Growth of the Geonic Yeshiva and the Islamic Madrasa" by Daphna Ephrat and Yaakov Elman. In this comparison of contemporary Islamic and Jewish scholarly institutions, it becomes clear that memorization played a key role in the scholarship of both communities. Especially within the Yeshiva, the authors state, it was control of the orally-fixed Talmudic "text" which helped maintain the status of the institution. (p. 124)

The next two chapters deal with the issue of the medieval Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah. In "Transmission in Thirteenth Century Kabbala", Moshe Idel looks at orality as a means of transmission that is "ritual" in nature and thus helps ensure the reliability and the authoritative nature of the material transmitted. Elliot Wolfson, in his "Beyond the Spoken Word: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Medieval Jewish Mysticism" covers the same material, relatively speaking. He understands the ideology of oral transmission, as expressed by the medieval kabbalists, as an essential component of their ideology of esotericism. As well, Wolfson wishes the reader to understand that the interface between orality and textuality was crucual for the medieval kabbalistic tradition. Thus, as he stated, "claims to orality in thirteenth-century Spanish kabbalah should be viewed as a link in the ongoing chain of textual exposition, a process that by nature generates rather than restricts...creative exegesis". (198)

Malachi Beit-Arie, in his article, "Publication and Reproduction of Literary Texts in Medieval Jewish Civilization: Jewish Scribality and its Impact on the Texts Transmitted", wishes to address the medieval concept of the "authorship" of texts in connection with the nature of the scribal reproduction of those texts. He finds that the scribal reproduction of medieval Jewish texts was largely an individual endeavor. In this it was similar to the scribal situation of the medieval Islamic world, as opposed to the institutional settings (monastic or university) for textual reproduction in the Latin Christian world.

Marc Saperstein, in his "The Sermon as Oral Performance", speaks of the sermon as a "performance" which involves the sort of direct communication with an audience that neither visual art nor purely literary works can offer. A close reading of a sermon of senenteenth-century Rabbi Saul Morteira of Amsterdam illustrates the problematics and possibilities of this genre.

The last three contributions deal with twentieth-century phenomena of cultural transmission. In the case of Jeffrey Grossman's article, "From East to West: Translating Y. L. Perets in Early Twentieth-Century Germany", the issue is the translation of the Yiddish-language stories of Perets into German in the context of the cultural needs and expectations of a largely acculturated German-speaking Jewish community. Israel Bartal's "The Kinnus Project: Wissenschaft des Judentums and the Fashioning of a 'National Culture' in Palestine", speaks of the selective appropriation of premodern Jewish texts in the community of Jewish intellectuals who were to form the intellectual foundation of the State of Israel. Parallel to Bartal in a certain sense is Israel Gershoni's "'Secondary Intellectuals,' Readers, and Readership as Agents of National- Cultural Reproduction in Modern Egypt". In that article, the author looks at the formation of a national culture in nineteenth and twentieth century Egypt, and the tension inherent between "an exclusivist vision of Egypt as culturally bounded by the Nile valley", and an identification with Islam and the Arab nation. (325)