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  • Torah in the Mouth: Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism, 200 BCE–400 CE
  • Loveday Alexander
Torah in the Mouth: Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism, 200 BCE–400 CE, by Martin S. Jaffee. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. 242 pp. $49.95.

Jaffee's detailed and richly-textured study provides a fascinating account of the rabbinic doctrine of Oral Torah, placed firmly within the broader context of orality and literacy in the Mediterranean world of Greco-Roman antiquity. Part I deals with the role of oral tradition in Second Temple scribalism, looking first at the social settings in which scribal orality functioned (Ch. 1), then in turn at patterns of performative reading and text interpretation among two Jewish groups from the Second Temple period, the Qumran sectaries (Ch. 2) and the Pharisees (Ch. 3). Here Jaffee professes his debt to classic studies of orality and literacy like those of Walter Ong and Werner Kelber: yet, interestingly, his careful examination of the interplay of written and oral modes of composition and performance in Second Temple Judaism actually militates against the radical disjunction of oral and written media often presupposed by proponents of that school. Though orality was highly valued in the performance and interpretation of traditional material, this was consistent with the patterns found in Greco-Roman society at large. There was no blanket ban on writing: in fact, it was the written text that formed the basis and raw material for the ongoing task of interpretation. It would be interesting to supplement Jaffee's analysis here with a parallel study of the early Christians as a third group arising within the matrix of Second Temple Judaism. Like the Qumran sect, the [End Page 156] early Christians were committed to the "study of authoritative texts under the guidance of an illuminated teacher" (p. 35); and, as at Qumran, this cumulative text-interpretive tradition "was received . . . as ongoing revelation continuing into the present" (p. 37). The two groups in this respect form an interesting contrast with the Pharisaic communities, for whom "authoritative 'rulings' were presented as derived from past tradition" (p. 60). But in neither case was there a hard and fast distinction between oral and written forms of this interpretive tradition: for both, the distinctive authority of orality was linked with the moment of delivery of the ancient texts, not with the ongoing activity of interpretation (Ch. 1).

The examination of the Tannaitic tradition in Part II (Ch. 4) confirms this pattern: it is not until the Amoraic period, Jaffee argues, that we find the doctrine of Oral Torah emerging as an "ideological construction" (Ch. 5), the result of a conscious and deliberate process of reflection on the Tannaitic oral-literary tradition. In the Mishnah itself, orality and literacy are interwoven at every stage of composition (Ch. 6). Thus it becomes clear that the full-blown commitment of the Amoraic authorities to Oral Torah as a solely oral tradition was not (as is often supposed by both Jewish and Christian scholars) a natural development of pre-70 norms, but an "extremely unprecedented" innovation (p. 142). Thus the central puzzle of Jaffee's book, and the one to which he devotes his final chapter, is: why did the later rabbinic communities come to the view that the Oral Torah should not be committed to writing? He finds the answer in "the need to explain and celebrate the distinctive social form of rabbinic community—the master-disciple relationship" (p. 146). The study of Torah in these communities centered around the "pursuit of intimate discipleship in shaping a life of transformative piety" (p. 147). And this process of internal transformation is what "Torah in the mouth" really means: "only through the image [of God disclosed through the being of the master] shall a person transform himself into an embodiment of halahkic norms" (p. 151). This pattern of discipleship was "deeply colored by centuries of immersion in the Greco-Roman social and cultural milieu" (p. 147), and in their stress on "the transformative power of the Sage's teachings" the Amoraic authorities "recapitulated . . . the pedagogic assumptions of [their] nonrabbinic, Greco-Roman predecessors and contemporaries" (p. 152).

There is much...


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