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What? Nobody Wants A Byline?


These days, everyone claims to be an author. From speechwriters to the guy who created the “axis of evil” slogan, from artistic works to images, trade names and slogans--it’s all intellectual property. In contrast, there are no authors in rabbinic literature. The Mishnah, two Talmuds and the Tosefta—the entire rabbinic body of writings—no person or group claimed it as their intellectual property.

“There’s no place in rabbinic literature where you can see someone writing down rabbinic text,” says Martin S. Jaffee. “We don’t know who wrote it down or what they thought they were doing.”

If you write something, it’s your idea. If it’s your idea, then it’s your intellectual property. Recognition and money flow from that property. By comparison, the rabbis believed that they received everything, says Jaffee. “To be an author was to depart from the tradition. To claim authorship was to claim originality. And the rabbis weren’t interested in being original”.

Jaffee is Professor of Comparative Religion at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. He’s also the co-editor of “The Cambridge Companion To the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature” (Cambridge University Press). The book is possibly the finest survey in English of critical cultural issues for non-yeshiva beginning students of rabbinic literature.

In the ancient world, there was a big debate about the value of books as opposed to living teachers. Philosophers asked: can you learn Plato from a book or do you need a teacher to guide you? In the Jewish world, there was no debate. For the rabbis, you can’t understand the book, especially the Bible, without a teacher. Thus the tradition of oral Torah, the transmission of tradition in an exclusively oral fashion in which it was important to deny any innovative intent. A book of oral Torah made no sense.

Oral Torah shares something in common with other world scriptures, says Jaffee. They share similar “advertising campaigns”. All these scriptures were somehow “delivered” by the gods, a certain God or the only God. They were delivered into the hands of human elites--a prophet, priests, kings or scribes—for safekeeping, proper copying, memorization and veneration. And there were no creative human beings involved in authorship—at least as far as the preservers of the texts were concerned.

The Talmudic rabbis did not even see themselves as “the rabbis”.  From Rabbi Akiva to Rabbi Eliezer, they considered themselves “traditionalists”.  

“They were mediators of a tradition,” says Jaffee.  “In the period before the writing down--we don’t know when—refusal for responsibility of authorship began at the smallest level—the saying.”

In societies where the oral sacred tradition is still regarded as important, you still have to learn from a teacher. It’s the absorption of the tradition through the ear that makes it alive. Those oral societies don’t necessarily see the book as a repository of wisdom. Knowledge is in the person who shapes the tradition, even while repeating it. Performance is geared to an audience and the performer shapes the material according to the audience.

Another issue, says Jaffee, is the idea that recitation is central to the experience of oral transmission. Recitation was a religious activity, possibly more important than prayer. By internalizing Torah in memory, one incorporated it into the body, the same way a Christian incorporates bread and wine.

“Many places in the Talmud indicate that in memorizing Torah, it becomes part of you,” says Jaffee. “You incorporate a part of eternity, which assures you of life in the world to come.”

And there’s the relationship of master to disciple. The model is based on Moses and Joshua. That relationship, to the rabbis, is the whole world. “It’s like the relation of a Hassid and a Tzadik,” says Jaffee. “I happen to think the relationship in ancient Judaism was much closer to (modern) Hassidism, at least in the role of the sage who mediates redemption through his disciple.”

Rabbis refused to take responsibility for authoring Talmud and rabbinical literature until the 9th century. Maimonides, writing in the 12th century, said that the times back then were bad and the sages were afraid knowledge would be lost. Thus the religious leadership decided it was ok to take the radical innovation of writing down the tradition.

“But there’s no hard evidence to really go on,” says Jaffee. “Rabbis (began to take authorship) in the Islamic lands in the 9th century. It was part of the great explosion of Islamic learning at the time. That’s certainly the case in the Masoretic notation system (the “official” version of the Bible). So it’s possible that the writing down is part of the Islamification of Jewish culture at the time. But without somebody who wrote it down telling us why they did it, we don’t know.”

As a scholar whose specialty is the relationship between orality and text in rabbinic literature, Jaffee admits the non-authored character of rabbinic literature sometimes frustrates him. “It makes a difference if you’re trying to reconstruction the religion of ancient Judaism,” he says. “The crucial part of the religion is the teacher-student relation. So if you want to re-construct the various Jewish cultures, you need to know the teachers and the dates. (Without dates and authors), there are many questions that we can’t answer.

“But the real issue is: what do we make of the rabbinic literature that we have after it has all been written? On the basis of the literature that we have, how can we reconstruct the oral forms of Torah? We have the Mishnah as a written text. Was it the same Mishnah recited by memory in the 3rd century? Or is it a kind of version of one tradition, one of many traditions that circulated? That’s why studying manuscripts is important. We tend to think that once a text is printed, it is fixed. But before it was printed, it existed in many manuscript forms. Somebody gets a manuscript and prints it. But it’s a totally arbitrary judgment to print one manuscript and not another. Once a book is printed, the manuscript is often lost. The texts we have are vastly reduced versions of what once existed.”



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