Transmitting Jewish Traditions: Orality, Textuality, and Cultural Diffusion (review)
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Journal of American Folklore 116.462 (2003) 486-487



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Transmitting Jewish Traditions: Orality, Textuality, and Cultural Diffusion. Ed. Yaakov Elman and Israel Gershoni. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. Pp. xi + 353, index.)

Yaakov Elman and Israel Gershoni explain in their introduction to Transmitting Jewish Traditions that these essays are "an attempt to survey [End Page 486] some of the ways—conscious and unconscious—in which the transmission of various cultural elements is affected by the mode of transmission" and "the ways in which oral and written transmission of those cultural elements interact within a context in which written transmission is more or less readily available" (p. 1). The topics covered by the essays range from rabbinic traditions of late antiquity and medieval Kabbalism to the problems of translating I. L. Peretz into German in the twentieth century, but in each instance the contributors attempt to describe the interaction of oral and written traditions.

Martin S. Jaffee's "The Oral-Cultural Context of the Talmud Yerushalmi" opens the volume with a detailed analysis of the relationship of written texts to oral performance in the Talmud Yerushalmi and sets the premises about orality and written tradition that the other essays will follow. Jaffee's approach shows sensitivity to the role that orality plays in the variations of manuscript traditions. It is commonly assumed that texts become "fixed" when they enter written form, but, as Jaffee suggests, "the relative 'fixity' of the written texts in comparison to their oral versions is often overstated. . . . Written representations of orally grounded literary versions are normally transmitted in multiple textual versions and commonly preserve stylistic residues of oral-performative settings" (p. 28). The concept of a fixed text is probably alien to scribal cultures like those that produced the Talmud and New Testament. As Jaffee points out, "The rabbinic culture of late antiquity was . . . a scribal culture, one in which the memorization and oral delivery of scriptural and rabbinic textual material represented a fundamental cultural performance" (p. 28). Accordingly, we cannot look at a text such as the Talmud Yerushalmi as a fixed thing, as it would appear in a modern critical edition, but must imagine it as something much closer to the oral traditions it represents in its texts. But why the emphasis on oral tradition even within a written text like the Talmud Yerushalmi? Jaffee proposes that it was because of the importance of the master-disciple relationship in rabbinic tradition, a relationship that privileged the oral transmission of rabbinic teachings over the mere reading of them.

The remaining essays examine a variety of problems related to oral and written traditions in the transmission of Jewish tradition, moving from Paul Mandel's essay "Between Byzantium and Islam: The Transmission of a Jewish Book in the Byzantine and Early Islamic Periods" to essays on Kabbalism and orality by Moshe Idel and Elliot R. Wolfson and on Jewish sermons by Marc Saperstein. Unfortunately, these essays make almost no reference to the large body of scholarship in folklore studies on the transmission and diffusion of traditions, many of which also deal with the interaction of oral and written traditions. This lack is especially apparent in Mandel's and Saperstein's essays. Mandel analyzes the variants of several stories derived from oral tellings, but only through the methods of the textual critic: he seems to be unaware of the scholarship in folklore concerning variation. In light of Saperstein's focus on "The Sermon as Oral Performance," it is surprising that he makes no reference to any folklore research on sermons or on performance. This lack gives the essays a somewhat amateurish feel at times: much more could have been done with the materials discussed but for the authors' lack of experience in analyzing texts from living oral traditions and their inadequate knowledge of the relevant folklore scholarship. Still, the book does present a number of interesting case studies, and there is much to be learned from reading them.



David Elton Gay
Indiana University

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