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As we prepare to gather around the Seder table and read the Haggada, the story of the Exodus from Egypt, it may be worthwhile to think a moment about the art of reading.
Plato questioned, in fact attacked, the written word as completely inadequate (see Phaedrus, 275a-278a and the "Seventh Letter" (344c) - which may explain why philosophers have written so little about writing, in spite of engaging in it extensively!
Plato wrote much of his work in the form of dialogues, and anybody reading these "conversations" soon realizes that his main purpose in doing so was to hide their "textual" characteristic (although it is well known that he worked for years on polishing these dialogues).
What was Plato's problem with text?
Plato believed that written words eventually fall prey to evil and incompetent readers, who twist and corrupt their meaning. And because of the nature of text - namely, that it leaves the author's domain - writers are unable to defend or explain their real intentions. Plato was afraid that his texts would take on lives of their own, independent of his will.
Even more interesting is his observation that a written text can become a pharmakon - a poison - with the power to heal or kill, depending on how it is used. According to Plato, a text may be useful as a prompt, but it will ultimately lead to memory loss since it makes the brain idle. Centuries later Immanuel Kant would write that "script" wreaks havoc on the "body of memory."
According to Plato, this means far more than just losing information or the ability, over time, to memorize accurately. Real knowledge was for him a matter of "intrinsic understanding," a total "presence" of oneself with what one reads, writes, or says. True knowledge, for Plato, is only that with which one totally identifies and which unites entirely with oneself.
Knowledge must be inscribed on one's whole personality. Thus information one has only read or learned by heart is not really "known."
WITHOUT BEING aware of it, Plato touched on a fundamental aspect of 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 meant to be read, but heard. We see this from the fact that originally it was not given in written form at all.
God spoke the Divine word at Sinai. It primarily had to be heard, and only afterwards, out of pure necessity, unfortunately became frozen in a text. However, it was always God's intention that this written Torah would be "defrosted" throughout the generations, which is why Jewish Law is founded upon a great Oral Tradition.
When one reads one uses one's eyes to see something that remains external. It does not become "inscribed" in the soul of the reader. The author of Beit Ya'acov, Rabbi Ya'acov Leiner (1814-1878), son of the famous Ishbitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Josef Leiner, and one of the keenest minds in the hassidic tradition, wrote that "seeing" discloses the external aspect of objects, while "hearing" reveals an aspect of their inner essence. One must hear a text, not merely read it. This is the reason that the body of Torah consists of a bare minimum of written words combined with an overwhelming wealth of oral interpretation.
DOES THE open-endedness of the Torah make room for people to misread and misinterpret it in ways that violate its very spirit? Jewish Tradition responds to this dilemma by providing a set of rules of exegetical interpretation, handed down from Moses, serving both to secure the integrity of the text while, at the same time, allowing the student the full range of his creativity and imagination within the context of the legitimate framework.
Even after the Oral Torah was written down in the form of the Talmud it remained very much unwritten (as any Talmud student can testify). No other text is so abbreviated, succinct and "understaffed" with written words, yet simultaneously overflowing with meaning, to the point of explosiveness. The art of Talmud can only be learned via a close teacher-student relationship and not through the written word alone, because only when the student hears his master's interpretations of the text can he "read" it properly. And by spending enough time with the rabbi and the text, the student will eventually learn to "hear" the interpretations singing through the text.
The teacher does not only give interpretations, however; he also conveys some of the inner vibrations that were once heard during the revelation at Mount Sinai. This inner knowledge - that the teacher himself received from his teachers - is a process that goes back all the way to the supreme moment at Sinai.
In this way, Jewish tradition frees itself from Plato's paradox. The Talmud scholar hears new voices explaining the old text in new ways, but without deviating from its Author's intended meaning. And, in time, he learns to think creatively on his own, but without personal bias getting in the way of truth.
As such, the text is not read, but truly heard.
JEWISH LAW specifies that even if a person finds himself alone on Seder night he must pronounce the text of the Haggada out loud, and not just read it silently to himself. He must hear himself speaking the words. He must also interpret and explain the text to himself in a verbal way.
The head, which understands quickly, must speak to the heart in a dialogue so a person can actually feel what happened to his ancestors thousands of years ago.
Perhaps we can understand Plato's paranoia about his own writings: They are too much read and too little heard. This may, however, just be a function of the difference between human words and those authored by the Divine.
Human words are too much grounded in the text. The Divine word is beyond textual limitation, and hence can only begin to express its meaning through the act of speaking and listening. It is the sense of hearing that brings words inside a person's mind - literally, via the sound waves - so he may, perhaps, feel the tingling of the vibrations that emanate from a world beyond.
When Jews read the text of the Haggada on the Seder night they should be aware that the text merely provides a starting point. The real Haggada does not have a script. It is not a dialogue that can be read but one that must be said and heard aloud; and then contemplated endlessly.
The author is dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem.