Jewish Text Study Is Traditionally A Communal Activity

Reading Jewish texts is not just a religious act, it is an act of communal identification and communication.

This article is excerpted with permission from Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts (New York: Summit Books, 1984).

It is important to 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 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, 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.

There is much to be said for such an understanding, since it gives a taste of the rich emotional world connected in a very close way to the classic Jewish texts. These are not only books that one reads or rereads and sets on the shelf. They live, too, in the context of hours of human repartee, of struggle and illumination in community. Part of the great allure of study for Jews over the centuries must have some connection to this interpersonal domain. Thus the texts are “interactive” in two senses: in the way reading is lively and dialogic, and in the way we get to speak to our companions when we study, debate, and ponder the texts aloud.

Moreover, the texts are bound to the lives of individual Jews in ways beyond reading and studying. The entire liturgical structure of the Jewish year resounds with echoes of the great sources. First and foremost is the role of the prayerbook, the daily instrument of worship, which contains within it quotations and allusions to the Bible, to Talmudic sources, to poems of the Middle Ages, rituals of Kabbalah, and even to the philosophy of Maimomdes (in the popular hymn known as Yigdal).

But the texts have connections beyond the prayerbook. Each Sab­bath a portion from the Torah and from the Prophets is chanted in the synagogue. On certain holidays one of the Five Megillot (scrolls) is read: Song of Songs on Passover, the Book of Ruth on Shavuot (the festival that is celebrated seven weeks after Passover in the early summer), Ecclesiastes on Sukkot (the festival of booths, the fall harvest holiday), Esther on Purim, and Lamentations on the Ninth of Av, the summer fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temples. The holiday of Passover uses the Haggadah, a work of rabbinic literature, as the central text for the Seder meal, and on Hanukkah we sing medieval liturgical poems and recite a passage from a rabbinic law code. The texts are always there throughout the year and throughout the life cycle, in the rituals for birth, bar mitzvah, marriage, and death. The marriage document, for example, read out at the wed­ding ceremony, reminds us of our ties to the textual tradition of the past: it is written even today in Aramaic, the language of the Talmud.

Thus the texts are connected to study and to prayer. They formed the basis of meditation for the mystical tradition (it is not surprising from all this that letter-mysticism is central to the Jewish method of contemplation!), and they live in the daily, weekly, and ongoing rituals of the Jewish people.

Jewish study and learning, we have suggested, are not merely the activities of the library or the reader in isolation, but rather live in social and religious contexts. A particularly significant feature of the religious context is the fact that traditional learning is invariably done with a master, someone who can guide one’s encounter with the text and help make sense of what may be arcane, confusing, or beyond one’s grasp. The teacher in such an environment has a special kind of authority–different, I believe, from the role of a teacher in a normal American school or university–because the traditional texts themselves are based to a great degree on a sense of the authority of wisdom. Such an attitude may go back to ancient days when the Oral Torah really was oral and learning was a kind of discipleship. Although the texts have long been written down, we still venerate the learned teacher, and the texts them­selves reinforce this, representing the tradition as a human chain in which one builds on the teachings and insights and legal judgments of the sages who have preceded us.

Thus the solitary reader is at a considerable disadvantage. Not hav­ing the social context of fellow students, not having the reliable authority of the wise master, he is very much left to his own devices and may, in fact, be stuck in his own peculiar quicksand.

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