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  • Why Jews Quote
  • Michael Marmur (bio)

Everyone Quotes1

Interest in the phenomenon of quotation as a feature of culture has never been greater. Recent works by Regier (2010), Morson (2011) and Finnegan (2011) offer many important insights into a practice notable both for its ubiquity and yet for its specificity. In this essay I want to consider one of the oldest and most diverse of world cultures from the perspective of quotation. While debates abound as to whether the “cultures of the Jews”2 can be regarded integrally, this essay will suggest that the act of quotation both in literary and oral settings is a constant in Jewish cultural creativity throughout the ages. By attempting to delineate some of the key functions of quotation in these various Jewish contexts, some contribution to the understanding of what is arguably a “universal human propensity” (Finnegan 2011:11) may be made.

“All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is not a thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote.”3 Emerson’s reference to warp and woof is no accident. The creative act comprises a threading of that which is unique to the particular moment with strands taken from tradition.4 In the ancient world “[o]riginality consists not in the introduction of new materials but in fitting the traditional materials effectively into each individual, unique situation and/or audience.”5

The term “quotation” hardly does justice to the array of referential techniques to be found in most forms of literature through the ages: direct quotation, allusion, paraphrase, mention, cliché, echo, suggestion, pastiche, plagiarism, and many more. All of these are examples of “literature in the second degree,”6 and despite attempts to provide comprehensive taxonomies, the lines between the various techniques remain blurred.7 For our present purposes we may see all these as aspects of quotation.

In this essay I want to sketch some of the key aspects and functions within one ancient and still vibrant patchwork of traditions. Why do Jews quote with such enthusiasm? What is achieved by this activity, which seems to be prevalent in virtually every genre of Jewish creativity? Why have so many throughout history been keen to present their own views as nothing more than a rehearsal of previously stated sources?8

Jews Have Always Quoted

The prevalence of quotation in Jewish culture is attested to by the sheer weight of quoted sources to be found in virtually every genre of Jewish literature. It is rendered largely invisible, or at least pushed to the farthest recesses of Jewish cultural consciousness, because explicit references to the practice of quotation in Jewish tradition are few and far between. Just as the threads in a fine garment are rarely considered, so the key aspects of Jewish quotational practice have been largely ignored.9

The literature, language and folklore of the Jews throughout history has included a cascade of sources and references. “Jewish culture is a cumulative culture par excellence; it assumes that the earlier is very often the better.”10 As a consequence, Jewish expressions from one era refer to precedents and echoes from previous generations.

It is difficult and perhaps futile to disentangle the textual from the oral dimensions of this Jewish pre-occupation with quotation. Noting with David Carr (2005:7) that “societies with writing often have an intricate interplay of orality and textuality,” we can assert that the tendency to cite sources is common to almost all kinds of Jewish expression, written and oral, as they have come down to us through the ages. This common thread has been illustrated well by Galit Hasan-Rokem (1981), who has traced the deployment of one Biblical verse through Rabbinic literature and in the words of a contemporary Jewish storyteller of Bukharan descent.

“In actual usage a quotation may be … experienced as acoustic reality as well as, or perhaps more than, through written apprehension” (Finnegan 2011:166). Finnegan’s assertion is borne out by a perusal of forms of quotation in a variety of Jewish cultural settings. With regard to rabbinic culture, Martin Jaffee (2001:20) has...

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