Friday's Orality/Rhetoric Lesson
Fraade, Steven D. "Literary Composition and Oral Performance in Early Midrashim." Oral Tradition 14:1 (1999), 33-51.
Fraade observes that Midrashic studies can be a fruitful area for analysis of the dynamic of orality and literary composition. He begins by discussing whether midrashic composition was primarily an oral/early/popular or literary/late/elite process (Fraade 1999, 33). He is clear that there are essentially two streams in Midrash, some more formal and some less formal. Most scholarship has considered that even the more formal materials could be ultimately traced back to live sermons, through an oral process of transmission. The textuality is thought to have arisen later (Fraade 1999, 34). However, recent scholars have suggested that the works are primarily literary in nature. The textual rhetorical features of the genre are easily mistaken for oral compositional features. Fraade notes that "the linearity of both of these assumptions has been called into question, almost simultaneously, by scholars of traditional cultures in general and by scholars of Rabbinic literature in particular (Fraade 1999, 35). The growing consensus is that there is an interaction between oral and textual processes.
The early midrashic collections, from the third century CE, describe both written and oral communication dating back to Mt. Sinai (Fraade 1999, 37). The concept then continues of some works being appropriate for oral recitation and some for recitation by reading. Fraade illustrates this with multiple quotations of Mishnaic commentaries on different Scripture texts. The written and oral materials were considered authoritative, though the oral materials were generally based on the concepts found in writing. "Thus, it is often explained that the Written Torah, by its very nature and from its very beginning, must have demanded an oral accompaniment to fill its gaps and clarify its meanings" (Fraade 1999, 41).
Fraade does ask an important question. We seem to have an assumption that the expansions of the written Torah "were primarily oral" (Fraade 1999, 42). The oral material developed and is considered appropriate for oral preservation and performance. Fraade concludes that the important nature of hearing God's words privileged orality in a special way. This led to a culture of hearing, rather than reading (Fraade 1999, 43). The paradigm of orality also bore a concept of the message being given orally by God to Moses and then passed on over the generations. The natural conclusion from that paradigm would be that the oral materials were not composed in writing and then memorized, but were composed and transmitted orally (Fraade 1999, 44).
Fraade notes that the very structure of dialectic within the Midrashim links the words of the written and oral sources, but does so in such a way as to keep the difference apparent (Fraade 1999, 45). The rhetorical features make it clear that there are differences between text and orality. Both sources are carefully prepared and maintained. This does suggest an interaction between the oral and the written.