Friday's Orality/Rhetoric Lesson
Jaffee, Martin S. "Oral Tradition in the Writings of Rabbinic Oral Torah: On Theorizing Rabbinic Orality." Oral Tradition 14:1 (1999), 3-32.
Jaffee introduces the idea of an Oral Torah as that which God preserved through oral tradition, though it was written down in one form or another by about the tenth or eleventh centuries (Jaffee 1999, 3). The teachings were considered to be authoritative and to preserve teaching that had stood for millennia. Jaffee seeks to analyze the antecedent traditions, particularly from the third through seventh centuries, andattempting to understand the oral foundations of the actual literature (Jaffee 1999, 4). He considers this article to be introductory in nature, but hopefully useful in setting the stage for further discussion (Jaffee 1999, 5).
Rabbinic literature may be classified into three basic forms. Mishnah (repeated tradition) "consists primarily of brief legal rulings, narratives, and debates, normally ascribed to teachers who lived from the last century BCE through the early third century CE" (Jaffee 1999, 5). Such works are largely compolied into a literary work itself known as the Mishnah. Tosefta (supplement or amplification) is commentary on the Mishnah. Jaffee seems to consider the Tosefta as a subgroup of Mishnah. These works appear in writing beginning about the twelfth century (Jaffee 1999, 6). Midrash (interpretive tradition) attempts to tie different types of teaching to Scriptural passages. Many of these works appeared, especially from the third to seventh centuries (Jaffee 1999, 6). The third class of literature Jaffee finds is known as "Talmud" or "Gemara" (learning, analytical discourse) (Jaffee 1999, 7). These relatively complex materials were used to train students in a process of dialectic by which they could resolve questions. The two compilations of this genre are the Palestinian Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud, both appearing in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries in written form (Jaffee 1999, 8).
The consensus of medieval Rabbinic scholars was "that the writings known to them in manuscript stemmed from, and, but for vagaries of scribal error and other sorts of natural corruption, faithfully reproduced teachings that for centuries had been inscribed only in the memories of scholars and transmitted solely in the oral instruction imparted by masters to their disciples" (Jaffee 1999, 8). Interestingly, Jaffee asserts that "what made a text Oral torah was neither the medium of its comtemporary preservation nor the fact that mastery of the text involved the capacity to call its sources immediately to mind from the ark of memory" (Jaffee 1999, 9). The manuscripts occasionally pointed to sources dating back to the earliest period of Judaism, though the understanding of the material in the manuscripts was taken to be transmitted primarily in the present time through oral means (Jaffee 1999, 10). The consensus of Rabbinic teaching is that the Rabbis do not consult books to confirm traditions, but they may consult those who are experts at memorization. Since the mid nineteenth century, Jaffee observes, scholars have sought out information that may enable reconstruction of the oral culture of the earlier time periods. Jafee mentions numerous lines of investigation which show a strong influence of the late 19th century and 20th century politics of oppression and power (Jaffee 1999, 11).
Jafee considers rabbinic compilations on three different levels, "the 'lemmatic,' the 'intermediate,' and the 'documentary'" (Jaffee 1999, 12). In esäsence, one can focus on very small elements, intermediay elements, or entire documents. On the lemmatic level, scholars have looked at small units, not generally words or phrases, but passages of a few sentences. At issue is to what extend the lemmata represent the actual oral tradition and to what extend they are literary elements (Jaffee 1999, 13). Jaffee observes that the maximalist scholars expect they can find the actual oral material behind the writing, while the minimalist scholars think this to be largely impossible.
On the level of intermediate and documentary analysis, there is debate about "how intermediate units are related to their documentary settings" (Jaffee 1999, 15). Some, exemplified by Neusner, consider that the different Rabbinic documents with their different characteristics, must have been composed by anonymous teams which had sovereign literary command of the material and style (Jaffee 1999, 16). One significant difficulty in this scheme is that the view of historiography is based on something which is not known to have existed. The collective editorial or compositional effort has never been demonstrated by anything except speculative efforts in modern times. Jaffee illustrates this through a brief analysis of Neusner's interpretation of literary process in composition of the Mishnah (Jaffee 1999, 18). According to Jafee, Neusner ultimately describes the Mishnah as something that is orally composed but written in order to be redacted so as to finalize the composition. It is therefore both an oral and a literary work in its composition, but is considered an oral work. Jaffee considers Neusner to overstate his case for order in texts which show relatively little intentionality (Jaffee 1999, 20). In contrast to Neusner, Jaffee discusses the work of Schäfer, who finds no pure background text with evidence of extensive compilation (Jaffee 1999, 21). Rather, Schäfer considers the material to have been gathered using a relatively organic process, resulting in the texts which we find now.
Jaffee proposes a compromise position between the two poles. "The most apt literary analogy for most Rabbinic comilations, I submit, is the anthology, provided that we add one crucial proviso. Rabbinic anthologies must be distinguished from those composed in cultures that ascribe sovereign integrity to authored literary works or are engaged in the business of canonizing Scriptures" (Jaffee 1999, 22). The compilers felt free to make adjustments to the readings of the material they were compiling. These materials, in turn, had already been subject to their own transmission history, which could have similarly made adjustments to them. Within this compromise position, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that oral performance of materials would occur. These oral recitations would be very likely to maintain particular language and structure, but it would be acceptable to exercise at least some level of freedom in transmitting the materials (Jaffee 1999, 24). The written collection, then, may well have been assembled from oral sources, and itself leads back to oral usage. The governing principle involved becomes discourse rather than literary editorial philosophy (Jaffee 1999, 26). Jaffee considers this compromise to move in a positive direction, answering many of the questions raised by both sides of the issue.