Friday's Orality/Rhetoric Lesson
Ben-Amos, Dan. "Jewish Folk Literature." Oral Tradition 14:1 (1999), 140-274.
Ben-Amos observes that Jewish folklore is a primarily oral tradition which has developed in many nations, with independent strands. In this lengthy article he traces some of those strands (Ben-Amos 1999, 140).
The Hebrew Bible records numerous instances of storytelling, both spontaneous and more formal and historical in nature. The ritual historical narration is evidenced, among other places, in Deuteronomy 6:21 and Exodus 13:8, where people are told to tell particular events to their family members (Ben-Amos 1999, 141). Ben-Amos gives examples of particular speakers or singers are noted in Numbers 21:27, Ezekiel 21:5, Jeremiah 9:16, 1 Samuel 19:36, Ezra 2:41, and Nehemiah 12:28. (Ben-Amos 1999, 142). There are examples of oral proverbs which were part of a body of proverbs well known. Pieces of narrative are repeated in the Hebrew Bible, indicating that themes and stories were used and re-used. Ben-Amos gives numerous examples of passages where events are told and re-told. Not only is this tradition evident within the Hebrew Bible, but Ben-Amos identifies a number of themes which are very common in oral traditions of the Ancient Near East (Ben-Amos 1999, 143-144). He further notes that patterns typical of oral poetry appear frequently within the Psalms and the Prophets.
The apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha also contain many elements of folklore (Ben-Amos 1999, 144-145). Though the works are considered to be outside of canonical use, and contain what Ben-Amos would consider "sectarian views," some certainly come from Jewish communities and provide exmaples of folklore. As primarily written documents, these works are more generally tied to a literate tradition. However, even these primarily written documents bear marks of orality. They "bear the stamp of cultural or sectarian ideas that share a broad social basis; they cannot, therefore, be grounded in the imagination of a single author" (Ben-Amos 1999, 146). Some of the narratives consist of tales of biblical figures. Others make particular associations of biblical figures with locations (Ben-Amos 1999, 146-147). Particularly in the books of Maccabees some of the material is legendary in nature. The stories themselves seem rooted in oral tradition and then are used in later oral traditions (Ben-Amos 1999, 148). Ben-Amos also observes that there are a few "fictive folktales" which take biblical characters or settings and built a tale around them.
Oral tradition within Jewish folklore "during the first six or seven centuries CE in Jewish societies in the Land of Israel and in Babylon" is sometimes referred to as "the oral Torah" (Ben-Amos 1999, 149). While the written Torah is recognized as the Scriptures, the oral Torah describes Jewish culture. For that reason, it bears an authority of its own (Ben-Amos 1999, 150). This oral tradition was used to teach and preserve a popular culture, primarily through a body of storytelling. Ben-Amos sees this oral culture as an integral part of maintenance of a distinctive Jewish society (Ben-Amos 1999, 151). Ben-Amos even notes that there were rabbis and other "professional memorizers" who would memorize both the written Scripture and the oral tradition in detail (Ben-Amos 1999, 152). Ben-Amos notes several narratives which apparently have a fairly long history in oral tradition but which were written down only in recent centuries.
Ben-Amos describes the oral exposition of Hebrew Scripture as fitting into three (not mutually exclusive) modes. "In the interpretive mode, speakers often clarify obscurities and inconsistencies and propose causes or motivations for actions" (Ben-Amos 1999, 153-154). For instance, the interpreter may build the discussion between Cain and Abel leading up to the death of Abel. This activity may apply both to Torah and to the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. Using the "expansive mod" the situation is made larger, with more details and characters. In the "associative" mode, different passages would be related to one another. Ben-Amos considers this to be limited in its scope. "Interpreters conceived of the entire Scripture as a closed system, and projected into it their own traditional associations" (Ben-Amos 1999, 155). The oral exposition extended to all sorts of events, including the destruction of the first Temple and its place on the calendar (Ben-Amos 1999, 157).
The Rabbinical period gives us the Talmuds and the Midrashic books. Ben-Amos notes that these have narratives from the "tannaim" from the first and second centuries, often told by the "amoraim," rabbis from the third through sixth centuries (Ben-Amos 1999, 158). Many of the Talmudic events focus on events and people from Palestine. Narratives tend to center around major characters who are "holy men, rabbis, and martyrs" (Ben-Amos 1999, 159). Not all the tales are strictly historical. "In the Jewish tradition narrators do not distinguish between fictive and historical tales, the one exception being sheer tall tales. From the narrators' perspectives all stories, the biographical as well as the miraculous, are true. The narrative interpretation, expansion, and association of biblical events and figures take the biblical text as evidence for their veracity, and therefore they too are true" (Ben-Amos 1999, 161). Some narrators, however, do make specific reference to particular political events. These narratives may be seen as more reliable historically.
Ben-Amos shows that the oral tradition in Jewish society does "include humorous tales, parables, and proverbs" (Ben-Amos 1999, 162). The use of humor was considered important in breaking down tensions and preparing people to receive lessons. The tales are typically told as truth, but they would never be considered anything but a falsehood. Parabolic tales are common, drawing figurative language from the natural world. Linguistic analogies often appear in these parables. They would be recognized as not literally true but as stories which express a truth (Ben-Amos 1999, 164). Ben-Amos notes that some of the parabolic oral tradition shows clear reference to Aesopic fables. The traditions also tend to refer such parables to specific historical or political situations (Ben-Amos 1999, 165). The oral tradition also represents many quotations of proverbs, normally validating a position. The authority of the tradition is emphasized by citation of one or more proverb which demonstrates the point of view (Ben-Amos 1999, 166).
Ben-Amos further shows that Jewish society has a history of particular formal occasions for telling particular types of tales, as well as the reading of particular texts from the Scripture. Citing Nehemiah 8:1-2, he observes that the reading of Torah was accompanied by oral interpreation (Ben-Amos 1999, 167). The Talmud does distinguish between that which is oral and that which is written, prohibiting recitation by memory of Scripture and recitation by reading of oral traditions. The storytelling of rabbis is a common element in the Tamuds, as Ben-Amos illustrates with numerous passages.
Ben-Amos details some of the practices of the synagogue, in which there were reading and sermons. Some preachers were known to be exciting, others not. The rise of the synagogue did develop different branches of oral tradition, some more concerned with the law and othes more concerned with folklore (Ben-Amos 1999, 168). While the teaching of the law was considered more important than the folklore, both were important elements in the culture. Ben-Amos considers that the oral and literary pursuits tended to overlap with one another. This reader would take his statements to indicate that the rabbis who were involved in the folklore were still literate.
The oral tradition within Judaism is described by a significant vocabulary, indicating different genres. Ben-Amos describes a number of these genres. Some are essentially exegetical in nature (Ben-Amos 1999, 170). Other categories include fables, exaggerations, poetic examples, and stories of tricksters. Ben-Amos observes that there are many different types of spoken genres, not all of which are given names (Ben-Amos 1999, 171).
The medieval period in Jewish oral and literary work begins with the Arab conquest of the seventh century. Though collections of works continued to be made, and new compositions arose, Ben-Amos sees the type of composition changing to a greater emphasis on the biblical texts (Ben-Amos 1999, 172). The tradition was essentially retold, in several ways. "The retelling of tradition involved decentralization, individualization, linguistic diversity, generic and thematic expansion, and the adaptation of new literary modes of presentation" (Ben-Amos 1999, 173). Ben-Amos approaches those in turn.
As the Jewish communities spread, the literature was less focused in Palestine. Oral traditions and folklore came from different parts of the world, particularly Babylonia (Ben-Amos 1999, 173). Ben-Amos notes that some of the material from these different communities were in Hebrew and some were in the local languages.
By individualization, Ben-Amos means that there were citations of sources of materials, as well as some suggestions to the history of a tale's transmission (Ben-Amos 1999, 174-175). The voices involved in a story would be identifiable.
Though much literature and oral tradition maintained the use of Hebrew, Ben-Amos notes that local languages, and hybrid languages including elements of Hebrew and a local language would be used in the medieval period (Ben-Amos 1999, 176). The Hebrew alphabet was used, though the language might not be Hebrew. Ben-Amos discusses in brief a number of different texts in these combinations of languages. Some were based on oral tradition, while others were based on literary traditions.
The genres and themes of medieval Jewish folk literature expanded considerably as well. International folktales came into the literary tradition. Ben-Amos suggests they were previously known and told, but in the medieval period these tales from different nations were written for preservation (Ben-Amos 1999, 178). These tales are varied and abundant. In the same general theme, we find folk literature translated from other languages, mostly into Hebrew (Ben-Amos 1999, 180). Another theme which arises frequently is that of history. The accounts may be family histories, local information, or be related toJewish interests particularly (Ben-Amos 1999, 181). Ben-Amos provides numerous examples of these accounts.
The shift of presentation in the medieval period allowed for both oral and literary use of framed narratives rather than materials which were based on existing texts (Ben-Amos 1999, 183). Ben-Amos sees this as an important move, as it led to the rise of independent stories. Though they would regularly be tied in some way to a pre-existing theme, they might not have such a clear dependence.
Magical texts also arise in the middle ages. Ben-Amos cites Exodus 20:7 to suggest "that the priests neither condoned nor eradicated the use of magic in Israelite society. The same attitude, with the same results, prevailed in later periods" (Ben-Amos 1999, 184). In practice, some magic practitioners were active. Ben-Amos finds literature including incantations as well as magical prescriptions, or charms (Ben-Amos 1999, 185). In this literature, the material is taken from Scripture but is rearranged in such a way as to make it unrecognizable. The power is seen to come from the original context. Ben-Amos suggests the most common methods would be by reversing letters or makeing collections of letters such as an anagram. It could be deciphered by someone who understood the original reference. This led to complex systems of symbolic numbers and letters, as well as combinations of words thought to have power.
The development of the printing press and the expulsion of Jews from Spain, both events in the 15th century, had a profound influence on Jewish literature of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. Ben-Amos observes that printing of Hebrew books began by the end of the fifteenth century (Ben-Amos 1999, 186). This may well have led to an increase in the creativity of writers, who thought they could be made visible to additional readers. They tended to do so by retelling biblcal events but dressing the characters and settings in a modern style (Ben-Amos 1999, 187). Personalities and events would be recreated in the contemporary manner. For instance, members of royalty were uniformly considered demonic. Important individuals would be assumed to have special magical powers. In 1492 Jews were expelled from Spain, although they had been "an integral part of the Spanish social, cultural, and economic fabric of life" (Ben-Amos 1999, 190-191). Their removal from Spain urged a sense of nostalgia which caused oral tradition to flourish. Ben-Amos finds this to be especially the case in therms of folk music. Ballads were well enough known that a brief reference to a first line was adequate to remind the singer of the tune and structure (Ben-Amos 1999, 191).
Ben-Amos observes another move to record Jewish folklore, this in the 19th and 20th centuries. This has contineud up to the time of the article, in 1999 (Ben-Amos 1999, 193). The rise of Hasidic traditions in eastern Europe roughly coincides with the work of Jacob and Wilhem Grimm. The tales collected in the Hasidic tradition include themes current to the composition (Ben-Amos 1999, 194). Publication of some of the Judeo-Spanish materials also began in the late 19th century. Ben-Amos considers this to be likely primarily motivated by hope of economic gain (Ben-Amos 1999, 195). The Iraqi Jewish community is the oldest found outside of Israel. Ben-Amos reminds the reader that it is the source of the Babylonian Talmud (Ben-Amos 1999, 196). The mid 19th century saw numerous manuscript publications of Iraqi Jewish tales, though they were in manuscript, as there were no Jewish printing presses located in Iraq. Some did come into print, published in India, near the end of the 19th century (Ben-Amos 1999, 197). Ben-Amos notes that in Kurdistan and Yemen there were very low rates of literacy and, though there were Jewish folk tales, they were rarely reproduced in written form (Ben-Amos 1999, 199-200). However, after the establishment of national Israel, the Yemeni immigrants to Israel did tend to bring their folk tales into written form. In contrast to this phenomenon, in the North African countries, where literacy has historically been fairly high, oral materials were typically retained in oral form rather than being written (Ben-Amos 1999, 200-201).
Research into Jewish oral literature began in formal terms during the 19th century, with the work of Rabbi Nachman Krochmal. "According to his view, the aggadah revealed the essential tenets of Judaism to the unlettered folk" (Ben-Amos 1999, 201). Ben-Amos further notes Leopold Zunz as an early luminary in the field. Scholarly study of Jewish folklore in Germany attracted the interest of writers and poets as well, who became interested in the different shades of cultural meaning which could be found not only in German works but in those of other areas (Ben-Amos 1999, 202). This also led to an awakening interest in the Yiddish language, which was recognized as a language which could be used for sophisticated literature and poetry (Ben-Amos 1999, 203). Collection of folklore and the re-identification of heroic figures as spiritual people rather than warriors characterized much of the work of the German Jewish folklorists. The discipline flourished especially toward the end of the 19th century and into the beginnning of the 20th century, when many works were published (Ben-Amos 1999, 204). In the wake of World War II, research activities resurfaced in Israel and the United States. In this period, the study of Jewish folklore became an international pursuit, with significant growth in Eastern Europe and tracing of migrations of Jewish communities (Ben-Amos 1999, 205).
Ben-Amos further observes that studies of Jewish oral tradition also "shifted the scholarly perspectives on Jewish life. No longer solely pious, spiritual, and religious - since print reflected 'Jewishness' - oral traditions present the secular dimension of cultural life, not the least of which included fantastic, demonic, bawdy, and erotic elements" (Ben-Amos 1999, 206). The folktales deal with all sorts of elements of life and community, including those which are not exclusively directly connected wit hthe religious faith.
Ben-Amos notes that in recording of Yiddish oral tales, many of which had been published in Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, the narrators told stories which would differ somewhat from those "told" in print under "the controlling normative influence of the learned rabbis, printers, and editors" (Ben-Amos 1999, 208). The collectors were then able to identify international qualities and types of tales which went beyond the bounds of any one locality. A significant portion of this work involved the identification of Sephardic folktales which came from the Iberian peninsula. The forms which could be identified were no longer in use in Spain, but had migrated with the Jewish folklore (Ben-Amos 1999, 209). Likewise, some folktale forms from Iraq and Yemen migrated to Israel in and after 1948. Particularly important are traditional forms of hagiography, which came from medieval Jewish and Arabic traditions and moved from the areas dominated by Islam to Israel (Ben-Amos 1999, 210).
In the creation of the State of Israel, a restoration of Hebrew folkore took on greater importance.For this reason, publication and republication of narratives which were presented in Hebrew rose to prominence (Ben-Amos 1999, 211). In this regard, Ben-Amos speaks frequently of collectors who "recorded" texts. This reader could wish he were specific whether the recording in this period was an audio recording or a recording in print In whatever way it was done, though the collections of oral materials have been significant (Ben-Amos 1999, 212). Ben-Amos finds that the last third of the 20th century has seen "a growing polarization in Israeli society between secular and religious Jews" (Ben-Amos 1999, 214). While the secularists tend to engage in jokes, tales of woe, and local legends, the religiously oriented Jews have tended to move back to religious topics.
Ben-Amos recognizes folk songs as a different literary concept from folk tales. Scholarship pertaining to folk songs rose at the same time as the scholarship which worked with folk tales. Again, the texts tend to migrate from orality to literacy and back (Ben-Amos 1999, 214). However, folk songs have not proven as likely to be expressed in print. Again, it is not entirely clear whether the 20th century preservation of folk songs has been in print or in audio recording, though Ben-Amos does mention "musical broad sheets of the 'Tenement Songs'" (Ben-Amos 1999, 215). The Judeo-Spanish poetry and folk songs have been the subject of extensive research. "Thematically speaking these poems range from tales of Spanish heroic epics, French Carolingian narratives, and historical and biblical ballads, to the whole gamut of romantic relations" (Ben-Amos 1999, 216). The themes are not the same as those of the midrashic literature. While some biblical stories do appear, the stories and themes are rarely the same in the two types of literature. Ben-Amos notes that "study of Judeo-Arabic oral poetry is in its inception" (Ben-Amos 1999, 217). The analysis thus far has focused on musical features and not the features of texts. Hebrew folk songs have arisen since the establishment of National Israel. Ben-Amos observes that these songs are slightly artificial because they didn't necessarily spring naturally from a culture. Many have been created to stabilize the culture, and have been distributed by means of schools and political movements, rather than flowing more naturally through families (Ben-Amos 1999, 218).
Yiddish is a language which lends itself very naturally to proverbs. These have been collected extensively in the late 19th century and through the 20th century (Ben-Amos 1999, 219). Ben-Amos finds in many of these proverbs a force of wit and character which is attractive to non-Jewish cultures as well. The use of proverbs is not limited to Yiddish, though. It has been identified in much the same form in Judeo-Spanish works, leading to independent collections of the proverbs in the Jewish-Spanish communities (Ben-Amos 1999, 220). Judeo-Arabic proverbs are likewise used extensively. Ben-Amos considers the tradition to have arisen there "from biblical and talmudic-midrashic sources" (Ben-Amos 1999, 221). Hebrew proverbs are also common. However, Ben-Amos sees this study as a specially challenging discipline. In Hebrew, proverbs cross both boundaries of language and type of literature, as Hebrew is used as both a sacred and a vernacular language.
Riddles are often considered children's games. For this reason, Ben-Amos finds that recording and analysis of riddles in Yiddish, Judeo-Spanish, and Judeo-Arabic is very rare (Ben-Amos 1999, 223). What does surprise Ben-Amos is that riddles are a common feature of Arabic medieval literature and folklore, but are almost entirely lacking in Jewish folklore of the Arabic territories. In sharp contrast, riddles appear frequently in Hebrew literature, though they have not been studied in a significant way (Ben-Amos 1999, 224).
The use of humor in Jewish socieites has been a matter of debate. Some scholars have considered Jews to be lacking in humor, while others, especially in the 20th century, have considered Jewish humor to be of a certain, oddly self-deprecating type (Ben-Amos 1999, 225). Ben-Amos concludes that Jewish humor in general fits into the mold of that of many ethnic minorities. The humor tends to represent the experiences common to those who are marginalized.
The experience of the Holocaust was a particularly fertile ground for Jewish folklore (Ben-Amos 1999, 226). Not only did East European Jews engage in their folklore as they always had, but they also created new idioms, codes, and legends which would contribute to their cultural survival. Folklorists also entered material which might have been lost into journals. Hebrew terms were often substituted for Yiddish terms which would be recognizable to speakers of German, thus making the speech less intelligible.
Jewish poets and writers played a leading role in 20th century folklore research. Ben-Amos finds them important particularly because of their ability to creatively express the heart of their culture in terms which could be grasped by the general public. "They considered folklore to be a source of cultural renewal, searching for themes that would replenish their imagination and offer their urban intellectual readers a revived contact with the tradition they left behind and from which they had already alienated themselves (Ben-Amos 1999, 229). Ben-Amos finds that the literary figures were more comfortable in print, rather than making recordings of folk songs or folktales. The poets and writers rather rewrote tales or alluded to them in their stories (Ben-Amos 1999, 231).