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Jewish World Review
Plato and the Art of Reading the Haggada
Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo
The great philosopher touched on a most fundamental aspect of the Jewish Tradition: Although Jews are called the 'People of the Book', they are not. They are, in fact, the people of the ear
Tonight Jews all over the world will gather around the Seder table and read the Haggada, the story of the exodus of Egypt, it may be worthwhile to think for a moment about 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 philosophers have written such few words about the idea of "writing" even though they themselves have made extensive use of it!
It is well known that Plato used to write in the form of dialogues. Moreover, it becomes clear to anyone reading these "conversations" that his main purpose in doing so was to hide the characteristic of these "texts." (Even though it is well known that he worked for many years polishing the literary form of these dialogues, Cicero maintains that Plato, at the age of eighty-one, actually died at his writing table. "Plato scribens mortuus est". (1))
What was Plato's problem? Plato believed that a written word will eventually fall prey to evil and incompetent readers who can do anything they want with the text without the author being able to defend or explain himself/herself. He was afraid that the text would live its own life, independent of the author as this is a characteristic of the written word. Even more interesting is his observation that a written text actually becomes a pharmakon a poison that can heal or kill, depending on how it is used. According to Plato, a text may be used as a prompt but 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" brought havoc on the "body of memory". (2)
This however, at least according to Plato, means far more than just losing the information, or the lack of memorizing. Real knowledge was for him a matter of "intrinsic understanding," a total "presence" of one self with what one reads or says. Only that with which one totally identifies and which has become united with oneself really makes "knowledge" possible. That which one has only read, or learned by heart, is not really "acknowledged". Knowledge is only that which is "in-scribed" in one's whole personality.
Without being aware of this, 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, in fact, the people of the ear. The Torah is not to be read but to be heard. Neither was it 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, "unfortunately" became frozen in a text, but with the sole intention to be immediately "defrosted" through the art of hearing. This then became the great foundation of the Jewish Oral Tradition.
Reading entails the use of ones' eyes and, as such, the act stays external. It does not become "inscribed" into the very soul of the reader. Rabbi Yaacov Leiner, the author of "Beis Yaacov," son of the famous Ishbitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Josef Leiner, and one of the keenest minds in the Chassidic tradition, speaks about "seeing" and makes the valuable observation that sight discloses the external aspect of objects while hearing reveals their inwardness. (3) One must hear a text, not read it. This is the reason that the body of Torah consists of a minimum of words, yet a maximum amount of oral interpretation.
Still, does not the open-endlessness of the Torah give the opportunity for anybody to read his own thoughts into this text and violate its very spirit? The Jewish Tradition responded to this with great profundity. It created an ongoing Oral Tradition, in which unwritten rules of interpretation were handed down, securing the inner meaning of the text and, at the same time, allowing the student to use all his/her creative imagination. Even after the Oral Torah was written down in the form of the Talmud, it stayed as such unwritten (as any Talmud student can testify). No other text is so succinct and "understaffed" with written words and yet simultaneously so interpretative explosive. The fact that the art of reading the Talmud can only be learned through a teacher-student relationship, and not through the written word, proves this 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 provide him with interpretations, but will also convey the inner vibrations which were once heard at the revelation at Mount Sinai. It is this inner knowledge that the teacher himself received from his teachers, taking him all the way back to the supreme moment at Sinai. In that way the student can relieve himself of 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 a person who is alone on the Seder night must pronounce the text of the Haggada 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 a dialogue with oneself so as to understand, and also to feel, what happened thousands of years ago. Plato touched on this subject without fully realizing why his own teachings never gained the full treatment that they perhaps deserve. They are too much read and too little heard. At the same time, this may be the difference between a human word and a Divine word. The Divine holds dimension for which words have no spiritual space. Human words are too much grounded in the text. The Divine word is beyond these textual limitations and henceforth can only find their way through the act of listening, as it is this faculty that is able to hear the perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore.
On the Seder night when Jews read the text, they should be aware that the text only provides the opening words. The real Haggada does not have a text. It is not to be read but to be heard. And just like the Torah itself, we have not even started to understand its full meaning. We are just 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, Beis Yaacov: Rosh Chodesh Av.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo is a world-renowned lecturer and ambassador for Judaism, the Jewish people, the State of Israel and Sephardic Heritage.
© 2009, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo