Now that Jews all over the world will once again assemble around the Seder table and read the Haggada—the story of the exodus from Egypt—it may be worthwhile to put some thought into the art of reading.
In The Phaedrus (275a-278a) and in his Seventh Letter (344c), Plato questioned—and in fact attacked—the written word as being completely inadequate. This may explain why philosophers have scarcely written about the art of writing, although they extensively engaged in that very craft!
It is well known that Plato used to write in the form of dialogues, and it is clear to anyone reading these conversations that his main purpose in doing so was to hide the characteristics of the texts. He worked for years on polishing this literary form. Cicero maintains that Plato actually died at his writing table at the age of eighty one. “Plato uno et octogesimo anno scribens est mortuus.” (1)
What bothered Plato was that he believed the written word would fall prey to evil or incompetent readers who would do anything they want with the text, leaving the writer unable to defend or explain himself. He feared the text would take on a life of its own, independent of its author, as is indeed characteristic of the written word. Even more interesting is his observation that a written text actually becomes a “pharmakon”—a drug that can either heal or kill, depending on how it is applied. It may even be used as a prompt, but will ultimately lead to memory loss since it will make the brain idle. Years later, Immanuel Kant wrote along similar lines, saying that the “script” wreaked havoc on the “body of memory.” (2)
However, according to Plato, this means far more than just losing information, or being deprived of the skill of memorizing. For him, real knowledge was a matter of “intrinsic understanding,” demanding a person’s total presence within what he reads or says. Only that with which I totally identify and which has become united with my Self can be called knowledge and is in-scribed in my whole personality. That which I have simply read or learned superficially is not really knowledge.
Unwittingly, Plato touched on a most fundamental aspect of the Jewish Tradition. We Jews are called “the people of the book.” But we are not; we are the people of the ear. The Torah is not to be read, but rather is to be heard. It was not written in the conventional sense. 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.
Reading entails using one’s eyes and, as such, the act remains external. The words are not carved into the very soul of the reader. Rabbi Yaakov Leiner, son of the famous Ishbitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef 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 minimum words and maximum oral interpretation.
Still, does the open-endedness of the Torah 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 unwritten, as any Talmud student can testify. No other 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 that were once heard at the revelation on Mount Sinai. This is the deeper knowledge that the teacher received from his masters, taking him all the way back to the supreme moment at Sinai. In that way, the student can free himself from a mechanical approach to the text. He will hear new voices in the old text, without deviating from its inner meaning. This will give him the courage to think on his own and rid himself of prejudice. The text, then, is not read but heard.
Jewish law states that even if one is alone on the Seder night, one must pronounce the text of the Haggada and not just read it. He must hear himself, explain the text to himself in a verbal way, and be in continuous dialogue with himself so as to understand and feel what happened thousands of years ago. Plato alluded to this matter without fully realizing why his own teachings never came close to receiving the treatment they perhaps deserved. They are read too much and heard too little.
This may be the difference between the Divine word and the human word. The Divine is a dimension where words have no spiritual space. Human words are too grounded in the text. The Divine word goes beyond these textual limitations and can find its way only through the act of listening, because it is through this particular one of our senses that we are able to hear the “perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore.” (4)
When we read the text on the Seder night, we should be aware that it only provides the opening words. The real Haggada has no text. It is not to be read, but is rather to be heard. And just as with the Torah, we have not even begun to understand its full meaning. We are simply perpetual beginners.
(1) Cicero, “On Old Age,” Section 5.
(2) Immanuel Kant, Anthropologie in Pragmatischer Hinsicht, Suhrkamp, STW 193, Frankfurt am Main, p 489-490.
(3) Rabbi Yaacov Leiner, Beis Yaakov: Rosh Chodesh Av.
(4) Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976) p. 8.
Questions To Ponder from the David Cardozo Think Tank:
(We suggest printing out and discussing at your shabbat table, if you like.)
1.How do you feel at seeing the Greek philosopher Plato featured so prominently in an essay of Jewish Thought, when we have ‘our own’ philosophers to quote? Is this for you a sign of a well-rounded intellectual, or does it carry a risk of pretentiousness? Perhaps it indicates a little too much engagement with the secular world for your liking? In your own life, with whom are you more familiar: Rashi or Plato? Are you happy with that?
2. Is Plato correct? Is the written word ‘completely inadequate’? What advice would you give to the great philosophers of our age, whose main output is the printed word, to help them be understood as intended? Is there value to being misunderstood – how do you feel when you are misunderstood?
3. If ‘the real Haggada has no text’ what is the ‘real Haggada’? What do you want discussed at your seder table? What is your ‘real’ Haggada about?
4. Women’s voices have been unspoken, unwritten and unheard through much of Jewish literature. What do you think the Haggada might sound like had the Exodus story been written with Miriam and Pharaoh’s wife as the main protagonists? How do you think the Mishnaic texts of the Haggada might read had the words spoken by the wives of the Rabbis in Bnei Brak (or any women at all) been written down? Would those written words have been ‘completely inadequate’ too?
5. The essay suggests that true Jewish learning takes place through the act of listening. That emphasis has been preserved in yeshivas for men and women today, where voluble discussions between chevrutah partners fill the study halls. However, many modern Jews do their learning by reading books and the internet, in silence. Is this fact adversely affecting our Jewish identity? Should we make efforts to encourage people away from books and into interactive learning spaces? Should you make this effort in your own life, to set up a chevrutah and attend shiurim instead of reading?
6. There are new kinds of listening in today’s society – we can listen to videos on the internet, or join virtual groups where people write and respond to each other, “hearing” each other’s points. Does that count, or does one literally need to be hearing words from the lips of a live human being in the same room?
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