Sunday, March 31, 2013

Passover and Plato

The following is a repost from my own blog that is relevant to the discussions of Judaism and Greek philosophy that have come up repeatedly in this year's Torah study, with its focus on Maimonides. In this instance, it's not the contrast between Athens and Jerusalem that is emphasized, but the commonality of the two worldviews, both with roots in the first truly literate cultures of antiquity. 

The post involves a response to another blog post by Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, and while the Academy and Rabbi Cardozo are Orthodox in orientation, the conclusion has much relevance for Reform Judaism in the 21st century.

And the post is relevant as well to the 4,000 year old Pesach festival that we have been observing over this past week:  

Apart from its other potential benefits in areas such as ethics and spirituality, religion can lead to important insights associated with a media ecology perspective.   

For example, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman mentions how he learned about the Ten Commandments of Moses as a child, presumably in Hebrew School, and was particularly taken with the Second Commandment's prohibition against graven images of any kind, independent of their content, which in practical terms can be said to be the first historical expression of a media ecology approach.  

For Walter Ong, as a Jesuit priest learning about religious traditions, he explains how a big breakthrough came for him when he realized that the emphasis on the visual sense, which has it roots in the literate culture of ancient Greece, is not present in the literate culture of ancient Israel, and that a high degree of residual orality persists in Jewish religious tradition, to this day. The visualism that first started to coalesce in Greece and Rome did not fully come to dominant western culture until after the printing revolution begun in the 15th century, but from that point on, it is integral to all that is, or was, distinctive about modern western culture.  

Now, Ong and Postman, along with other media ecology scholars such as Marshall McLuhan, have identified Plato's Phaedrus  as including the first form of scholarship in the field of media ecology, insofar as that dialogue includes some discussion of the differences between speech and writing as modes of communication. That discussion is supplemented by further observation in Plato's Seventh Letter

  So now, with all that in mind, I was particularly interested to see a blog post entitled Plato, the Haggada and the Art of Reading written by Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem. The post appeared on March 14, in advance of the Passover holiday, and begins like this:
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)
The footnote reads: "Cicero, 'On Old Age,' Section 5." And let me note at this point that within the dialogue, it is Socrates who takes this position, and there is at least some question as to whether these are arguments made by Socrates, who left us no written works and appears to us as a champion of orality. Is Plato a reporter, in this sense, relating what Socrates said, or is Socrates just a literary character, a mouthpiece for Plato's own thought? Whether the truth lies more in one direction or another, we can assume that the concerns expressed were those of Plato, but also note the irony that he did in fact put them into writing, or else we would never have known about them.  

Okay, back to Rabbi Cardozo...
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)
This second footnote reads: "Immanuel Kant, Anthropologie in Pragmatischer Hinsicht, Suhrkamp, STW 193, Frankfurt am Main, p 489-490." The point about memory is well-taken, of course, and speaks to the fundamental notion of use it or lose it. But beyond memory is the gradual erosion and loss of mnemotechy, of mnemonic techniques that were developed in oral cultures, and continued to be used and supplemented in scribal cultures. That's on the technical side, but Rabbi Cardozo points to a different aspect of memory:
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.
This is an important point as well.   We learn, memorize, internalize with our whole body. Ong refers to the Jesuit scholar Marcel Jousse who used the term "verbomotor lifestyle" to refer to this involvement of the whole body. In Jewish tradition, in praying and also in studying Talmud (which Ong mentions), individuals daven, a Hebrew word with the connotation of rocking back and forth, although the denotative meaning is pray. One of our most important prayers, the V'Ahavta (which comes from the book of Deuteronomy) begins with, "And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." In other words, with complete involvement of body, mind, and spirit. And getting back to the point about memory, McLuhan's colleague, Edmund Carpenter, noted that we use the phrase, learning by heart, where heart is a metaphor for the body—it's not just a mental activity.  

Alright then, it's time now for Rabbi Cardozo to apply this understanding to the Jewish observance of Passover:
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. 

This brings up some interesting points about what went on with God and Moses according to the Torah. My understanding is that God wrote the Torah down on stone tablets, typically depicted as the Ten Commandments, but the Torah has 613 laws all told, plus the narrative that makes up the Five Books of Moses. Traditionally, it's said that the entire Torah was delivered in this way, but whatever it consisted of, the story has it that Moses threw the tablets down when he saw the Israelites worshiping the golden calf, so that they were broken into fragments, then went back up the mount, and the second time around God dictated them and Moses wrote them down in his own hand.  

But there's more! By the time of the Roman conquest of Judah, which they renamed Judea, there were two groups vying for dominance . One, the Sadducees, who were members of the upper class, including the priests who controlled the Second Temple, only acknowledged the written law as found in the Torah as a document. The other group was the Pharisees, from whom Rabbinic Judaism emerged, and who have been unfairly maligned within the Christian New Testament (especially given the fact that much of what Jesus says in the New Testament is essentially an extreme Pharisaic position). The Pharisees argued that in addition to the written Torah, God also gave Moses the oral Torah, which is the tradition of oral interpretation of the written text. This allowed for much greater flexibility, and from this comes the document known as the Talmud, which is a written record of that oral tradition. 
But note that it is an oral tradition quite different from the oral tradition we associate with oral cultures, but rather an oral tradition that responds to a written text. The answer to Plato's criticism that a text cannot answer questions is this act of interpretation. That is the role of the teacher, and that is what is meant by a rabbi, or in eastern tradition a guru, someone who can speak for, answer for, and interpret a text.  

All right now, let's return to Rabbi Cardozo and the distinction between seeing and hearing:
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.

Footnote 3 reads: "Rabbi Yaacov Leiner, Beis Yaakov: Rosh Chodesh Av." And this is a very important point. Vision gives us exteriors. Voice comes from inside us, with the breath of life, so that the interior is exteriorized, and then internalized again through the act of hearing.  

Now, let's return to Rabbi Cardozo and the question of the Talmud as oral tradition:
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.

Given our visualist tradition in the west, we tend to assume that reading means reading silently to ourselves, which transforms us into isolated individuals. Reading out loud binds us together as an audience and community, it creates a relationship, whether it is teacher-student, parent-child, or from a religious perspective, God and humanity. Interpretation, an open approach to meaning-making, is linked to a social, relational approach to understanding, and in some sense in constructing our view of the world, our reality. 

At this point, you might be asking, what does all this have to do with Passover. And well you should ask because here is what Rabbi Cardozo has to say:
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.
 As someone who has made a career in higher education, I must note that this has profound implications for education in general, and Postman emphasized the importance of a balance between the spoken and written word that was achieved in the classroom, and how reliance on electronic technologies for teaching might disrupt that balance. If nothing else, it is a point to consider, as is the point about reading out loud even if we are by ourselves, to enter into a dialogue with ourselves.  And from a religious point of view, we are never completely alone, are we?  
In that respect, Rabbi Cardozo continues with a discussion of the spiritual dimension of all this:
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)

The footnote reads: "Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976) p. 8." The reference to spiritual space in this passage is quite interesting. Whether the space is sacred or profane, writing fixes and freezes language in space. While space is perceived through all the senses, it is most closely connected to vision. Visual space is distinct from acoustic space, a realization central to McLuhan's media ecology (and that of Carpenter as well). But sound is best understood with respect to time rather than space. Sound is an event, a happening, as Ong reminds us, sound is ephemeral and only exists as it is going out of existence. And Ong too notes the intimate connection between the oral-aural world and the sacred.

  Rabbi Cardozo concludes with the following:
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.

This is a wonderful sentiment, that we are all learners, all seekers. Jack Goody makes this point about religious understanding in oral cultures, that it is about being a seeker rather than about adhering to fixed dogma. Put another way, the sacred text and the oral tradition are media environments, and as environments they are too vast to fully comprehend or map, but they are open to ongoing exploration.

  Rabbi Cardozo ends his post with, "moadim le-simcha," which means happy holidays, and I would like to return the sentiment to him, "chag sameach" (another Hebrew phrase meaning happy holiday), and happy holidays to people of good will of all faiths and beliefs.

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