Avoiding the tyranny of the written word
The development of the mediated mode of Jewish literacy
A study of literacy as a social rather than as a personal phenomenon reveals new aspects of its complexity. Looking in particular at Jewish literacy, a distinction is proposed between unmediated and mediated literacy, the latter referring to modes of literacy that continue to require extensive mediation by a teacher long after the initial skill of phonemic decoding of the orthography has been acquired. In the case of the Written Law (the Bible) this situation was maintained by the use of an orthography which did not record vowels or punctuation and by the maintenance of an oral tradition on correct reading in crucial points in the text. In the case of the Oral Law (the Talmud), when it was finally written down, it was recorded in an elliptical style that continued to make the mediation of a teacher necessary. The result in each case is a method of safeguarding transmission without fossilizing content. Even after unmediated literacy had become widespread for other purposes, the effect of the traditions has remained strong. The system of mediated literacy, combined as it is in the Jewish tradition with a strong value for universal education, assures continued interpretation of traditional knowledge.
Published online: 01 January 1986
Arnove, F. and J. Arboleda