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Legal Theory and the Media of Law

Thomas Vesting

As many disciplines in the humanities have experienced a focus on culture’s impact in recent decades, questions surrounding the significance of media such as writing, print and computer networks have become increasingly relevant. This book seeks to demonstrate that a media and cultural theory perspective can also be highly productive for legal theory.
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Chapter 10: The comprehensive text of Jewish law

Thomas Vesting


Jewish law is linked to the medium of writing in a wholly singular way, inasmuch as scribality is constitutive of its authority and validity. Not unlike the early Greek city codes, it is put into effect via a foundational act: Yahweh delivers the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai and establishes a covenant with the Hebrew people. The Torah – following a long process of Jewish law being transcribed and canonized – builds on this founding event as a binding and conclusive foundational text.1 But whereas in classical Athens written and unwritten nomos remain inextricably bound in tension with each other, the written Torah opens up a chasm between itself and orality that can never again be bridged. By establishing the law in a kind of performative scribality – “‘performative’ in the sense that it produces the reality to which it refers itself”2 – Jewish legal culture radicalizes the process of putting law into writing. The law, i.e. the prescriptions spelled out in the Torah’s 613 commandments and prohibitions, casts off all authority that existed before writing in order to then enclose such authority entirely within itself. The result is a text whose self-referentiality is manifested even in the technology of the scroll that folds the characters of the text inward toward each other. Unlike a printed book, the Torah scroll includes no back-cover description nor any framing of the text.3 The transfer of all authority to a self-contained written document also gives rise to an interpretive community...

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