Friday, June 2, 2017

Fact-Checking the Torah -- Quest for the Ring

The next step in showing that there can be ring structures in Talmud would be to show that Jewish culture uses ring structures in other material.
For that, we could point to the parallelism in Prophets and Psalms. But we would expect to find parallelism in Psalms because it is a common feature of poetry everywhere, as I suggested when I cited to the Victorian period poem “Bells.”
To really demonstrate ring structures in Jewish material, it’s a bit much to go through all 2711 pages of Babylonian Talmud, or all 1700 pages of Jerusalem Talmud. There’s an easier way to do it that would show an ancient habit of ring structures in Jewish material that for many reasons I have discussed, has a high probability of originating orally. Torah.
You don’t even have to use all of Torah, you can just use Genesis, almost all of which is narrative, part of the original concept for use of ring structures.
Try identifying what you think the ring structures are, by chapter and verse. Your students need to know what to memorize; you know that from your own classes whether you’re student or teacher.
Second, you test whether one or more narratives in Genesis that have ring structures are memorized better, when chiasmus is emphasized, than when memorized verse by verse.
You have at least two student groups. They all have to understand Hebrew. You haven’t proved anything by using a translation because Torah is the literature of Hebrew-speaking people. So your first choice of learners is Israelis.
You have to have a clean slate. You want young Israelis who haven’t been exposed to these narratives much. That means secularly educated Israeli children. Part of them will learn the narratives through chiasmus and part will learn them verse by verse. Which group learns them faster? Which group remembers them more accurately? Which group remembers them longer? That’s your experiment.
You also have a ready-made control group. In Israel ultra-Orthodox children know Torah by heart by age 13, so you catch them while they are learning it. You interview their teachers to find out how fast on average these children memorized the same narratives. You also have a built-in opportunity for testing remembrance. Do these children go to synagogue on Shabbat with their fathers, and do they remember the narratives of Genesis from one Simchat Torah to the next?
If you find that your ring structure learners do memorize faster, reproduce more accurately, and remember longer than your control group (the verse learners), you have shown that you’ve identified an advantageous learning mechanism for Genesis narratives. You may also have shown that the ancestors of the Jews could have used a similar technique.
But you haven’t necessarily proven that Jewish oral material originated as or developed ring structures as a tool for learning, because your control group learns the way their parents learned and so on, all the way back.
And the learning method is documented in Talmud (Babylonian, Taanit 27b); it says that the only time it is permitted to split Torah verses is when teaching it. Children were taught part of a verse at a time, to learn by heart, before learning to combine them into one whole that they remember. Which they do. For life. As proven by the expertise of millions of Jews for hundreds of years.
But the author of this paper hasn’t run the experiment. He didn’t even define ring structures for Talmud, his topic. What did he do? That’s for  next week.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights  Reserved


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  2. I learned today listening to Rabbi Bechhofer's lecture that Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 31b starts an actual story that continues onto 32a, about a teacher who lost his job because he refused to split verses up for the children to learn. He even consulted Rabbi Chinah, who told him not to. When he went to another town to find work he met up with Rabbi Shimon ben Yosinah who told him he should have done it: it's OK to split them up for memorization but not when reading in front of the congregation.