Now that Jews all over the world will once again assemble around the Seder table and read the Hagada, the story of the exodus of Egypt, it may be worthwhile to put some thought into the art of reading.
Plato, in his Phaedrus (275a-278a) and in the “seventh letter” (344c), questioned and in fact attacked the written word as completely inadequate. This may explain why few words have ever been written by philosophers about the art of writing, although they made extensive use of it themselves!
It is well known that Plato used to write in the form of dialogues.Although he worked for years polishing this literary form, it is clear to anybody reading these “conversations” that his main purpose in doing so was to hide the characteristic of these “texts”.(Cicero maintains that Plato actually died at his writing table at the age of eighty one.”Plato scribens mortuus est”. (1))
What was Plato’s problem?Primarily, it was that he believed the written word would fall prey to evil or incompetent readers who would do anything they wanted with the text, leaving the author unable to defend or explain himself.The text will live its own life, independent of the author. This is characteristic of the written word. Even more interesting is his observation that it actually becomes a “pharmakon”, a drug which can either heal or kill, depending on how it is used. In fact, the text may be used as a prompt, but it will ultimately lead to memory loss since it will make the brain idle. Years later, Immanuel Kant wrote in similar terms when he said that the “script” wreaked havoc on the “body of memory”. (2)
This, however, according to Plato, means far more than just losing the information, or the lack of memorizing. For Plato, real knowledge is a matter of “intrinsic understanding”, a total “presence” of oneself with what one reads or says. Only that with which one totally identifies and which has become united with oneself can be called “knowledge.” That which one has only read or learned on the surface is not really “acknowledged”. Knowledge is only that which is “in-scribed” in one’s whole personality.
Without being aware of it, Plato touched on a most fundamental aspect of the Jewish Tradition. Although Jews are called “the people of the book,” they are not. They are the people of the ear.The Torah is not to be read but rather to be heard. It was not written in the conventional sense of the word. It was the Divine word, spoken at Sinai, which had to be heard and which afterwards, out of pure necessity, became frozen in a text but with the sole intention of being immediately “defrosted” through the art of hearing.This, then, became the great foundation of the Jewish Oral Tradition.
When one reads one uses one’s eyes, and as such the act remains external. It does not become inscribed into the very soul of the reader. Rabbi Yaacov Leiner, author of the “Beth Yaacov”, son of the famous Ishbitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Josef Leiner, and one of the keenest minds in the Chassidic tradition, speaks about “seeing.”He makes the valuable observation that sight discloses the external aspect of things while hearing reveals the internal. (3) One must hear a text, not read it. This is the reason why the body of Torah consists of a minimum of words and a maximum of oral interpretation.
Still, does the open-endedness of the Torah indeed not present the opportunity for anyone to read his own thoughts into the text and violate its very spirit? The Jewish Tradition responded to this challenge with great profundity. It created an ongoing oral tradition in which unwritten rules of interpretation were handed down, thereby securing the inner meaning of the text while at the same time allowing the student to use all of his creative imagination. Even after the Oral Torah was written down in the form of the Talmud, it remained as such unwritten, as any Talmud student can testify. No text is so succinct and “understaffed” in written words while simultaneously given to such vast interpretation. The fact that the art of reading the Talmud can only be learned through a teacher-student relationship, and not merely through the written word, proves our point. Only when the student “hears” his master’s oral interpretation of the text is he able to “read” it, because the teacher will not only give him explanations but will also convey the inner vibrations which were once heard at the revelation of Mount Sinai.This is the deeper knowledge which the teacher himself received from his teachers, taking him all the way back to the supreme moment of Sinai. In that way the student can liberate himself from a mechanical approach to the text. He will hear new voices in the old text without deviating from its inner meaning. It will give him the courage to think on his own and he will free himself from prejudice. As such, the text is not read but heard.
Jewish law states that even when one is on his own on the Seder night one must still pronounce the text of the Hagada and not just read it. One must hear oneself. One must also explain the text to oneself in a verbal way. There is a need to be in dialogue with oneself so as to understand as well as feel what happened thousands of years ago. Plato touched on this matter without fully realizing why his own teachings never came close to receiving the full treatment they perhaps deserve. They are too much read and too little heard.
At the same time, this may be the difference between the Divine word and the human word. The Divine holds a dimension for which words have no spiritual space. Human words are too grounded in the text. The Divine word is beyond these textual limitations and can only find their way through the act of listening, since it is this faculty which is able to hear the perpetual murmur of the waves beyond the shore.
When Jews on the Seder night read the text, they should be aware that it only provides the opening words. The real Hagada does not have a text.It is not to be read but rather to be heard. And just as with the Torah itself, we have not even begun to understand its full meaning. We are simply perpetual beginners.
(1)Cicero, About Old Age, 13
(2)Imanuel Kant, Antropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht, Suhrkamp, STW 193, Frankfurt an Main, p 489-490
(3)Rabbi Yaacov Leiner, Beth Yaacov: Rosh Chodesh Av.