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This article is excerpted with permission from the highly recommended Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts (New York: Summit Books, 1984).
I have been speaking about “reading” the classic Jewish texts (and also, of course, about the way that in the Jewish tradition texts tend to be “readings” of other, earlier texts), but we must also consider ways in which our idea of reading might differ markedly from other such notions in the past. In fact, traditional Jews rarely speak about reading texts at all; rather, one talks about studying or learning these sacred books. Thus we must ask: is the difference between reading and learning something more than merely a matter of terminology?
Although I have argued above that reading may be a good deal more active an occupation than we usually think, it is nonetheless a solitary activity. We sit alone with a book as we read. Learning or studying can imply something very different. It is important to remember that most traditional Jewish “reading” occurs in a social context, in the class or the study session. In the world of the yeshiva (school for Rabbinic studies), Jewish learning is carried on in a loud, hectic hall called the bet midrash (study house) where students sit in pairs or threesomes, reading and discussing out loud, back and forth. The atmosphere is nothing like the silent library we are accustomed to. Reading in the yeshiva is conducted in a room with a constant, incessant din; it is as much talk as it is reading. In fact, the two activities of reading and discussion are virtually indistinguishable.
Reading thus becomes less an act of self-reflection than a way of communal identification and communication. One studies to become part of the Jewish people itself. As much as prayer, study is a ritual act of the community. The sociologist Samuel Heilman, in The People of the Book (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1983), talks about these learning environments as providing a “sentimental education” in which Jews gain access to the values of their tradition and live out those values by the very act of study. Through the study discussions, Jews actually replicate the world of the Talmud. It is as if distinctions of time and place are erased, and the participant is catapulted back to Rabbi Akiba’s academy 1800 years in the past. The learner joins in the discussions, voices his opinion, is defended or refuted by the legendary teachers and students of other ages and takes his place in the continuum of the tradition.
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