- Orality and Ideology in Rabbinic Judaism
Martin S. Jaffee's monograph Torah in the Mouth is the culmination of Jaffee's work of the past fifteen years on the topic. The book presents a carefully developed and theoretically nuanced literary/historical frame for understanding the idea of Oral Torah (torah shebeʿal peh, or, as Jaffee terms it, "Torah in the Mouth" ) in rabbinic Judaism. The work is a significant contribution to the literary and sociological study of rabbinic culture and literature and provides suggestive evidence for historians as well. It has the added delight of being beautifully written and lucidly argued.
Reckoning with orality in literary culture is crucial in the study of ancient literatures; indeed, much has been written on the subject from Gunkel to Parry and Lord and far beyond. Given the centrality of Oral Torah for the Rabbis, the topic is doubly pertinent and complex for scholars of rabbinics. However, since we have access only to written texts, two results tend to follow: the role and meaning of orality is neglected, or bracketed, in literary studies of rabbinic texts; or the role and shape of oral literary culture is taken from the Rabbis' own description of it. This second result is reinforced by biases in the field (and, as post-structuralists like to point out, in Western culture generally) that tend to treat written texts as secondary or belated. A standard narrative of rabbinic writing tells that under pressure of some crisis or another, the pristine or inviolable oral tradition (pristine because the Rabbis tell us it is so) was set in writing and was somehow diminished in the process. Jaffee's sophisticated work finds a way around these two aporiae.
Using comparative evidence as well as close textual analysis, Jaffee denies any linear evolutionist model that moves from the spoken to the written word. Both, of [End Page 199] course, are aspects of early Jewish literary production in all its stages (124-25 and passim). He rightly sees orality as a literary phenomenon, its products being both texts and performances. Yet he distinguishes this brand of "everyday" orality from an idea of oral performance that asserts its predominance over writing explicitly in style or rhetoric. Following Neusner, he separates oral literature and performance from the self-conscious development of "Oral Torah" as an ideological construct. The book at its most skeletal confirms Oral Torah as an ideologically and theologically driven category, a "commodity, an element of exchange in the shaping of culture" (6). Jaffee also tries to map the influence of performance on literary forms and transmission (7). He then traces the roots of this ideology in tannaitic literature to its efflorescence in Palestinian amoraic sources of the third and fourth centuries—more specifically, what he calls "Galilean Discipleship Communities." "Torah in the Mouth" only emerges in reaction to a third- and fourth-century historical need to reify the authority of the rabbinic sage in competition with other Jewish, Christian, and Greco-Roman competitors.
As Jaffee defines it, the classical doctrine of Oral Torah has three basic elements: (1) It treats all rabbinic tradition (even what was originally staked as neither revealed nor exegetical) as Torah revealed from Sinai. (2) It claims that the unwritten study tradition is distinct from the written. That is, this tradition does not derive its being or authority merely by reading Scripture, but has its own etymon with God. As a result, it is not secondary to Scripture. Indeed, it comes to control access to the written Torah. (3) This oral revelation demands that it maintain its revealed form as well as its revealed content. In other words, the oral part of the Torah must never be written. In this demand, the rabbinic Oral Torah denies that it has or ever has had a (valid) written incarnation. Torah in its fullness can only be heard, repeated, and learned directly from the mouth of a Sage to the ear of a disciple. Jaffee shows that these three positions/claims appear together...