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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Some Thoughts About Oral Tradition

Jewish tradition has it that there are two aspects to the Torah: The Written Torah and the Oral Torah. I have a little video about some of that here:

I want to point out that the notion of the Written Torah can be defined simply as the words of the Torah in ink on parchment as seen in a Torah scroll. The words do not speak for themselves. There is no embedded MP3 player nor are there even vowels or the markings that indicate how to chant the verses. No indication is made to distinguish where one verse ends and the other begins.

By contrast, the original Oral Torah was everything one could know about the Written Torah (plus some other things, as well--more about that another time). The Oral Torah told you how to read the words, how to separate the verses, what the words mean and deeper and deeper levels of meaning.

According to this tradition, Moshe received both the Written and Oral Torah from God and passed these down to the Children of Israel. Each word of the Oral Torah was supposed to be memorized and passed on exactly as received.

One could ask, then, if the Oral Torah was a fixed tradition, why not write it down also? It doesn't seem reasonable that it was given orally just as an exercise in our abilities to commit long texts to memory.

I think that to understand this, we need to consider the nature of written text and oral communication. A written text such as the Torah is fixed. I am careful here not to use the word static--it just is what it is. The reason it is not static per se is because there is an oral tradition that goes with it.

An oral tradition, even if the words are passed down precisely, is by its nature affected by each person that learns it and passes it down. Each person will give the memorized bits their own intonation, their own body language, their own personality.

As the Jewish people moved to different places and cultures, the Oral Tradition inevitably was affected by those changes. Witness the Mishnah, the embodiment of the Oral Tradition, although written in Hebrew, that Hebrew is not the same as Torah Hebrew. The Gemara records discussions primarily in Aramaic.

So we understand that even those rabbis who were most concerned with preserving the Oral Tradition with great precision understood that the Oral Tradition was always dynamic.

Ultimately, whatever one says about the meaning of the Written Torah does not thereby change the Written Torah. It is what it is and it never changes. However, without saying what it means, without reading the words, it has no practical meaning.

Some people say that the Written Torah is the culmination of an earlier Oral Tradition. Regardless of such theories, the reality is that what we have is a written document, unchanging as such. Jewish tradition was interested in preserving that basic text but at the same time promoting a never ending dialogue about its meaning. In the end, though, what we say about the Written Torah may tell us more about ourselves than the text we attempt to understand.

For many centuries, much care was taken to preserve as precisely as possible the text of the Written Torah. But what exactly happened to the Oral Tradition? More thoughts on that next time.


  1. thanks for this clear explanation.
    looking fwd to the next part.


  2. Thank you! Feel free to jump in with comments, questions or the occasional jab in the ribs.