Unit: Textual Practices
The Huppah in the Sukkah, Toronto, 2003. The avant-garde wedding celebration of video and performance artist Melissa Shiff and media scholar Louis Kaplan included projections of sacred Hebrew texts onto both bride and groom during the ceremony.
Within the long-standing characterization of Jews as a "people of the book" lie a host of cultural, sociological, and historically specific assumptions that require systematic examination. This curriculum module outlines some of the key approaches to the study of Jewishness, as they relate to historically evolving technologies, institutions, and cultural practices of textual inscription, storage, transmission, dissemination, consumption, and reading.
A useful point of departure can be found in Moshe Halbertal's discussion of Jewish text-centrism, which he defines as "a shared commitment to certain texts and their role in shaping key aspects of everyday life and popular memory." In this understanding, text-centrism distinguishes Jewish practices of writing and reading from other religious traditions--including some that may also contribute to what Brian Stock calls "textual communities"--where, for instance, religious authority is defined in terms of a monopoly over the performance of public rituals, or where knowledge of and access to sacred texts is restricted to priestly cadres. Halbertal goes on to identify various consequences of Jewish text-centrism, which make the study of Jewish relations to textual production and consumption very distinct. These include:
(a) expectations for a wide swath of the community to demonstrate at least a minimal level of literacy, in order to fulfill ritual obligations, and to participate in modes of everyday discourse, financial transactions, and legal frameworks.
(b) the consolidation of forms of cultural and political authority within Jewish communities that are tied to the possession of textual mastery and interpretive expertise in the reading of canonical texts. This confers onto text-oriented scholars, rather than priests or prophets, a distinct advantage in the production of authoritative discourses about public order, moral values, educational expectations, or the accumulation of personal prestige.
(c) the high value that Jewish culture places on reading, and especially Talmud Torah (the study of canonical texts), has historically served as a religious ideal, but also as the basis for legitimate membership in Jewish communities, in the organization of various everyday practices and mechanisms of social reproduction, and also as a key marker of social distinction. It has been often remarked, for instance, that the traditional proscription against women reading Talmud laid the groundwork for a specifically gendered hierarchy of cultural power within Jewish societies, organized through practices of literacy. But we should also bear in mind that this same system historically served to subordinate men, in so far as every Jewish male was expected to participate in a circulation of discourse about Jewish texts, and to acquire at least some degree of mastery over them. This system linked the failure of one's ability to excel in one's studies with one's subordination to the scholarly elite.
1) What are the differences among (a) learning from a book (privately), (b) learning from a person (orally), and (c) learning from books together with other people?
2) Is there a difference between the concepts of textuality and of literacy? [note: see works of Brian Stock cited in bibliography] If so, how does that distinction help us understand the place of writing in the transmission of Jewishness?
3) Is text (as opposed, for example, to food or marriage) really "the core of Jewish culture?" If it is, what does that say about the place of those many Jews, such as most women and poor people--certainly the majority in some times and places--who had only limited access to Jewish texts?
4) What does it mean to say that a text is, or is not, "Jewish?" What difference does it make whether the text is written in the Hebrew alphabet or not?
5) Does Jewish textuality actually promote the transmission of identity through the asking of questions, and if so, what limits does it set on the range of questions that may be asked?
6) In what ways has the advent of mass-circulation print transformed Jewish conceptions of textuality and reading practices? Are Jewish practices of textual production, circulation and reading being transformed yet again in the current age of Internet, hypertext, and digitalization of archives? If so, how do these transformations affect the texts and their previous models of dissemination?