Topic: 2. Orality and Writing
The Jewish tradition is replete with references to the importance of writing, for which no more vivid emblem can be found than the Biblical commandment incumbent upon every (male) Jew to produce a copy of the Torah for himself. On the other hand, an equally venerable tradition within Judaism concerns the importance of oral discourse, whether in the form of recitation of prayers, or the transmission of knowledge by word of mouth (the most obvious example of the latter being the Torah she be’al peh, the Oral Law, which was initially forbidden to be committed to writing, but after great debate was finally recorded and redacted by R. Judah haNasi in 200 CE.
A central concern for the analysis Jewish texts is therefore to clarify the relationship between orality and writing, and to trace the way these have been understood and activated over the course of Jewish history. This includes the study of reception and performance, which examines textual practices from the perspective of consumers, users and readers.
There now exists a rich body of scholarship dealing with the status of orality in relation to the Jewish textual tradition. These studies include attempts to define and measure Jewish literacy, to analyse gender-specific codes and practices of reading, and to understand the interplay between written and spoken language in the transmission and transformation of Jewishness. Under this rubric also fall questions such as the range of competency required to be an effective “reader” for various purposes – from rote reading of the Hebrew alphabet that enables participation in public prayer, to the ability to shape one’s private worldview through reading, and to the reflexive understanding of Jewish interpretive practices and standards that in turn enable one to become an “authorized” interpreter.