Characters, Script and Orality

This long post describes some new realizations I’ve reached lately about the transition from oral to written. If you’re a storyteller, I think it’s worth your while reading. Here’s the story…

Call for adventure

So I get this phone call asking me to arrive to a meeting. They wanted me to lead a storytelling peers group that will “look into the sources of our culture, and transform the ancient literary treasure into an inspiration for current creations”. Judaism, that is. For some reason unknown besides an inner wish to connect to my community, I agreed.

The woman I met was fascinating as was the information about the project she leads. She was fascinating mainly because she spoke fluent “Jewish” although she is secular, and she spoke naturally, painlessly, with no evident identity crisis or inner argument what-so-ever. The magnitude of activities around Judaism and Jewish-Israeli culture under her devoted supervision is impressive, even before considering most residents of that area in Israel are totally, religiously – secular. Again, I agreed.

On my way home, it hit me. “Me?! Judaism?! leading a peers group?!” I grew up far away from religious life, I have my self-earned-by-curiosity knowledge, but this called for much more. So I kicked into my automatic response, reserved for these situations: “I need to learn everything there is to know”, I thought. Sure… it took me two hours to realize others have devoted lifetimes to get close to understand tiny particles of Judaism. I had to ditch my ambition, perform a little farewell-to-that-crazy-aspiration ceremony and find a different way to approach the matter. After all, they didn’t call me for something I don’t know. But what was it that I did?

After two days of reading from the Talmud, from the Bible, reading different scholars and God knows what else, I found the entrance. In very short, and if you’re Jewish please forgive me for the huge leaps and generalizations I’m going to make so I can move to the point of this post:

Jews are often referred to as the “people of the book”. Truth is, we are the people of many books. The knowledge accumulated in Judaism is multi-layered and multi-dimensional. There is so much of it and it is so highly regarded that you could think all we should do, is sit and learn all day. Many of us actually do exactly that.

The learning though, isn’t only about accumulating knowledge. It’s mainly about trying to understand things, figure out. Reaching understanding isn’t the final destination either. From what it seems, there is no final destination; it’s a never ending path of improvement, healing, repairing, transforming. There is also a lot of love involved. I think the “Coolest” definition for the spirit of the Jewish people I’ve ever read, is by our president Shimon Peres:

“The greatest contribution of the Jewish people in history, is dissatisfaction.”

We are a polemic clan. It keeps the mind sharp way more than books. We argue about everything, we argue with God too, and I’m not referring necessarily to debate – we argue. This argumentative nature makes us a very oral people. Orality is considered powerful in Judaism, starting with:

“And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” Gen 1:3

Parallel to the written scriptures, books and law (Halakha) there is an oral Torah. Although a lot of it was written down through the ages, it’s actually fluid, living material. Part of it is what’s called “Agada” meaning – legend.

Halakha and Agada (law and legend) are supposed to be combined in learning, but through the years, the focus shifted in favor of Halakha. Quite similar to focus shifting in favor of law and science over art. One of the reasons has to do with methodology – the methodology for studying Halakha is pretty clear (although we can always argue about that too), but for teaching Agada – there is no clear methodology – unless you are a storyteller curious about figuring out a storytelling methodology… I found my way into the possibility of leading the peers group!

Looking at the world from an oral point of view

From that moment, everything about my new Jewish adventure is treated from a storytelling point of view. It helps knock down barriers, connect dots that seemed disconnected for a long time, and brings new ideas into old discussions (arguments really).

Two weeks ago I participated in a Hevruta (partnership in learning) looking at a tiny segment from the Talmud, dealing with language:

Mar Zutra or, as some say, Mar Ukba said: Originally the Torah was given to Israel in Hebrew characters and in the sacred [Hebrew] language; later, in the times of Ezra, the Torah was given in Ashshurith script and Aramaic language. [Finally], they selected for Israel  the Ashshurith script and Hebrew language, leaving the Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the hedyototh. Who are meant by the ‘hedyototh’? — R. Hisda answers: The Cutheans.  And what is meant by Hebrew characters? — R. Hisda said: The libuna’ah script.
                                                           Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin, Folio 21b

Say what?! leaving out the human characters in the story, here’s an explanation:

Originally, the Torah was given to Israel (the people) in Hebrew characters and language.

Later, when the people returned from the first Babylonian exile it was given to them (again), in  Ashshurith script and Aramaic language (which was Lingua Franca, the bridging language of that time. Like English in today’s world).

Finally, they (the leaders) selected for Israel the Ashshurith script and Hebrew language (a new combination), leaving the Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the Samaritans (Cutheans, those from Cuthea). Hebrew characters are The libuna’ah script.

This was where I got really curious. I wanted to know what that script looks like and I was wondering about the alternate use of “characters” and “script”. Here is the script used by the Samaritans until today (libuna’ah) -

The first thing that popped into my mind when I saw these signs was – Runes. I have a set of them at home. People like buying runes just like we like buying Tarot cards, but you can’t do much with them if you don’t know the meanings behind each symbol or card, and how to combine those meanings for various purposes and requests.

Was The libuna’ah script the Jewish version for runes? not exactly. It’s a script, so are runes, but runes are also symbols that can be treated separately or in various combinations that don’t make up a word. The text did give me a hint though – originally the Torah was given in Hebrew characters – not necessarily script.

So I collected some small stones and made myself a set of JRunes to play with. I studied the meanings of each symbol until I got fluent in “reading” combinations. The more I played with it, the more I realized this was about orality – there are no set texts in reading symbols. The reading is done on the spot upon request. You ask something and you get a direction for finding the answer, you understand more about the dynamics around your request.

Pulling it all together

There is a word in Hebrew which appears in several known stories as written on a piece of parchment. Sometimes it falls from the sky interpreted by many as an answer given by God. In other cases, a great Rabbi wrote the word and used the parchment for some powerful deed – like in the story “The Golem of Prague”.


It means “truth” and is considered the word of God. But, what if it isn’t a word? what if it’s a combination of characters which in JRunish would look like this

From right to left: Ox head - strong, power, leader, mighty, champion; Water - chaos, powerful, blood; Two crossed sticks - mark, sign, character, signature, note.

From right to left: Ox head – strong, power, leader, mighty, champion; Water – chaos, powerful, blood; Two crossed sticks – mark, sign, character, signature, note.

If you lived way back then, when those characters where the only symbols used and from your point of view there was nothing else, would your experience about the parchment be the same as with the symbols? I don’t think so.

Something happened in Jewish culture between the first and second temple periods. From being a people of prophecy, nature, poetry, war and love, we’ve transitioned into being a people of wisdom. Claiming we’ve lost all those vivid expressions of life would be far from the truth, but we did lose some in favor of systematic knowledge, sophistication and law. It helped us excel in the mind but it also created a split from nature, myth, the physical, the deep feminine.

So it seems that knowing how to work with Agada, can help heal that split. The word Agada has another version – Hagada. Meaning – storytelling. The common belief among storytellers that storytelling can help heal the world one person or one story at a time, isn’t that far from the truth – אמת – which is the word of God.

Come on oral wizards, go balance out science and law before they manage to dry-out the world completely :-)