The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey between Worlds


The Talmud and the Internet, in which Jonathan Rosen examines the contradictions of his inheritance as a modern American and a Jew, is a moving and exhilarating meditation on modern technology and ancient religious impulses. Blending memoir, religious history and literary reflection Rosen explores the remarkable parallels between a page of Talmud and the homepage of a web site, and reflects on the contrasting lives and deaths of his American and European grandmothers.

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The Talmud and the Internet, in which Jonathan Rosen examines the contradictions of his inheritance as a modern American and a Jew, is a moving and exhilarating meditation on modern technology and ancient religious impulses. Blending memoir, religious history and literary reflection Rosen explores the remarkable parallels between a page of Talmud and the homepage of a web site, and reflects on the contrasting lives and deaths of his American and European grandmothers.

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Editorial Reviews

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Our Review
A gemlike book, sharply incised and multifaceted, The Talmud and the Internet is not really about either of the two titular entities but about the worldwide web of loss and connection. The book opens with a computer crash that leads to the virtual loss of the author's grandmother (in the form of diaries kept about her final days). This event leads Jonathan Rosen, in thought and meditation, to the actual, physical loss of someone he loved, which in turn leads to his search for a poem by John Donne on the Internet. There is something Victorian about the scope of this book, which encompasses the creation and emendation of the Talmud; the career of the traitorous Jewish-Roman historian Josephus; the sly and symbolically rich story of a famed rabbi's attempt to sneak out of newly Roman Jerusalem; the author's personal family saga; a visit to Chartres; Odysseus' journey to the land of the dead with buckets of blood; and a summoning of the ghost of the eminent Victorian Henry Adams. The prose is deceptively casual, but it carries an immense weight of thought and feeling.

As the title indicates, Rosen finds parallels between the Talmud and the Internet. The core of the Talmud is the Mishnah, a statement of Jewish law. Surrounding the Mishnah are blocks of commentary on the laws written by various scholars and rabbis, in addition to metacommentaries on the original commentaries, spanning in all more than a millennium's worth of deliberation and debate and giving the appearance that a rabbi in the 2nd century is directly commenting on something one of his peers had to say in the 11th. The Internet is similar, in that a page you're currently viewing may have links to jaw-dropping associations of widely varied material. Rosen suggests that the Talmud and the Internet are magical spaces that can connect you with all eras and with a multitude of persons. Both become economical metaphors for serendipity, openness, connection, and knowledge.

Elliptically touching on subject after subject, Rosen beautifully allows one to bear on another, and his themes of Talmud and Internet are subtly woven throughout. Rosen's magic loom spins a skein of association and colorful detail that unweaves and reweaves itself, like Penelope's endless funeral shroud, in ever-changing patterns. So tender and beguiling on first reading, the book leaves traces that deepen and entwine with each successive perusal. Rosen informs us that the rabbis called the Talmud a sea. His extraordinary book is at least a star-filled mountain lake -- bracing, meditative, calm, and wondrous.

Edward Sien, a grant maker to renascent Jewish communities in Russia and Ukraine, lives in New York, where he listens to music, reads, writes all too little, and dreams.

Jim Crace
Wisdom, intelligence and tenderness, all in one short volume. Brilliant!
Nessa Rapoport
The Talmud and the Internet is a lyrical meditation about the quest to illuminate what has come before us in order to live wisely...[it] is a journey not only between two worlds but among the great questions and the great souls who have considered life's purposes amid often horrifying evidence.
Frank Kermode
Reading and re-reading Rosen's little book I found myself thinking, to my own surprise, of E.M. Forster....All through this humane and gentle book one is reminded of the famous epigraph of Forster's Howard's End: "Only connect." Connecting is a practice encouraged by both the Talmud and Internet, and by Jonathan Rosen as well.
Richard Eder
We are moved and enlightened...Others have raised the felt contradictions between the tragic and luminous Jewish heritage and the ahistorical comforts and complacencies of American life. Few have managed to do so with such a mix of the searching, the modest and...with such charm.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1990, when the Forward was established as a national Jewish weekly newspaper, Rosen was appointed arts and culture editor. For 10 years, until his recent resignation, he presided over a sprightly and highly regarded section of features and book reviews. This book is an autobiographical memoir in which he muses about his experiences and his family, while comparing the ocean of the Talmud with the vastness of the Internet. Both are described in clear language as unfinished metaphors for tradition and technology. Rosen artfully mingles facts about his wife, parents and grandmothers with erudite thoughts about his broad range of reading in Judaica and the classics. He explores John Donne, the Odyssey, Josephus and Henry Adams, mingling them with his admiration for Rabbi Akiva and Yochanan ben Zakkhai (the founder of Yavneh, where "Talmudic culture was saved"). The book ends with a moving account of visiting the present-day Lord Balfour on his Scottish estate, where Rosen's father spent WWII, having escaped from Vienna on a Kindertransport. Finally, Rosen expresses the hope that his baby daughter will maintain her connection to family history and the past, represented by the Talmud, while embracing the future, represented by the Internet. The book reveals far more about the author than it does about the Talmud or the Net, but it successfully introduces readers to all three with considerable sensitivity. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Rosen, author (Eve's Apple, LJ 4/15/97) and culture editor of the Forward, has written an engaging little book, originally intended, as he tells us, as an elegy for his grandmother. This is a reflection, a meditation, and a collection of stories, centering around or inspired by the Talmud. The author offers good insights into what being Jewish is like in modern America. He shows how his grandmothers, one of whom perished in the Holocaust while the other died at an old age in America, represent two different Jewish worlds. As Rosen admits, he does not discuss the Internet much, but it stands for the modern world of technology as the Talmud stands for tradition. Both bring different worlds, such as those of his grandmothers, together. The Talmud embraces a variety of ancient stories, traditions, and rabbinical positions on a multitude of topics; the Internet likewise encompasses almost innumerable web sites on almost every subject. Recommended for public and academic libraries and collections of inspirational reading. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/00.]--John Moryl, Yeshiva Univ. Lib., New York Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
From The Critics
Internet culture is not a pretty thing. It is the dominion of Drudge Reports, Jennycams and assorted other embarrassments; a medium in which every idea, image and opinion is equally valid - thus equally worthless - and nothing means anything except in relation to something else. So many of us find it more heartening - and practical - to think of the Internet in terms of software design, network access or venture capital.

Jonathan Rosen, the former culture editor for Jewish weekly the Forward, takes a different tack in The Talmud and the Internet. He attempts to make sense of Internet culture by applying a sweeping metaphor. The result is a spry 130-page meditation that uses the fragmented world represented in the Talmud to demonstrate the Internet's paradoxical potential for wholeness.

The Talmud is a sprawling text that addresses every aspect of Jewish life: from dietary laws to animal husbandry to what God and Moses really talked about on Mount Sinai. It began as an oral tradition and was first transcribed during the Roman era, but the rabbis continued inserting commentary through medieval times. In the process, God was transplanted from a stationary home of bricks and blood sacrifices - the Temple - to a portable, "virtual" home with a shifting architecture of words, thought and prayer - the Talmud.

The Internet has numerous parallels to the Talmud. Both are the products of countless contributors, both aspire to be perfectly encyclopedic and both express their wisdom in an ad hoc web of references to other authorities (the Hebrew word for a passage from the Talmud means "webbing"). They even use similar visual strategies to represent the simultaneity of their voices. A page of the Talmud resembles a Web page, explains Rosen, in that "nothing is whole in itself. ... Icons and text boxes are doorways through which visitors pass into an infinity of cross-referenced texts and conversations." Rabbis who lived centuries apart appear on the same page, conversing across time, commingling with Biblical excerpts, parables and bits of history.

Somewhere near the roots of modern Western culture lies the belief that there are unbridgeable gaps between religious and secular, sacred and profane. Rosen counters that the Internet's gaudy melange of politics, porn, commerce and soap-box-preacher nuttiness suggests that everything is part of the same graceless totality. Jesus insisted on an either/or when he booted the money-changers from the Temple, but the Talmud, like the Internet, "talk[s] about God one moment, sex the next and commerce the third."

Far from "a broken-down state of affairs," this strikes Rosen as "astonishingly human and therefore astonishingly whole." By relating absolutely every idea from all possible angles, without passing final judgment on correct or incorrect, relevant or irrelevant, the Internet and the Talmud each invest their shattered, centerless cultures with a kind of mosaic unity. The Internet, like the Talmud, becomes "not merely a mirror of the disruptions of a broken world," but something that "offers a kind of disjointed harmony." No matter how ridiculous or vulgar the parts, the whole cannot help but make sense.

Connecting all of this is Rosen's conviction that the "Jewish condition" - institutionalized exile, inherent uncertainty, fragmented memory - is itself a metaphor for the alienation and hope of contemporary culture. While this is not a novel argument, Rosen takes up the mantle with wit, smarts and conviction, and by applying it to the Internet he shows that the piecemeal culture we describe (and deride) as postmodern is neither as unprecedented nor as tragic as we often believe.

Margaret Wertheim
[A] poetic and highly idiosyncratic meditation on the search for meaning and the nature of truth...His book is a fine personal reflection on the Talmud...
Richard Eder
The author is writing a kind of spiritual memoir, and he does it wittily, suggestively and with a fine rambling grace...Others have raised the felt contradictions between the tragic and luminous Jewish heritage and the ahistorical comforts and complacencies of American life. Few have managed to do it with such a mix of the searching, the modest and — if the word is not patronizing — with such charm. Mr. Rosen is an intellectual who writes of contradiction and uncertainty as though they were were beams of light, and as he meditates on his family and his own journeys, he makes them seem so.
The New York Times
Frank Kermode
Rosen is an accomplished writer . . . An admirable essay - somewhat old-fashioned but benignly so: carefully shaped; having an air of relaxation, yet with no hint of looseness in the writing. Reading and rereading Rosen's little book I found myself thinking, to my own surprise, of E. M. Forster.
New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
How do we mix ancient wisdom and modern technology? The author of Eve's Apple (1997) and former culture editor of the Forward seeks an answer.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374272388
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 9/1/2000
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 144
  • Product dimensions: 5.26 (w) x 7.82 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Rosen is the author of the novel Eve’s Apple. He created the Arts & Letters section of The Forward, which he edited for ten years. His essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The American Scholar, and several anthologies. He lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Not long after my grandmother died, my computer crashed and I lost the journal I had kept of her dying. I'd made diskette copies of everything else on my computer—many drafts of a novel, scores of reviews and essays and probably hundreds of articles, but I had not printed out, backed up or made a copy of the diary. No doubt this had to do with my ambivalence about writing and where it leads, for I was recording not only my feelings but also the concrete details of her death. How the tiny monitor taped to her index finger made it glow pink. How mist from the oxygen collar whispered through her hair. How her skin grew swollen and wrinkled, like the skin of a baked apple, yet remained astonishingly soft to the touch. Her favorite songs—"Embraceable You" and "Our Love Is Here to Stay"—that she could no longer hear but that we sang to her anyway. The great gaps in her breathing. The moment when she was gone and the nurses came and bound her jaws together with white bandages.

    I was ashamed of my need to translate into words the physical intimacy of her death, so while I was writing it, I took comfort in the fact that my journal did and did not exist. It lived in limbo, much as my grandmother had as she lay unconscious. My unacknowledged journal became, to my mind, what the Rabbis in the Talmud call a goses: a body between life and death, neither of heaven nor of earth. But then my computer crashed and I wanted my words back. I mourned my journal alongside my grandmother. That secondary cyber loss brought back the first loss and made it final. The details of her dying nolonger lived in a safe interim computer sleep. My words were gone.

    Or were they? Friends who knew about computers assured me that in the world of computers, nothing is ever really gone. If I cared enough about retrieving my journal, there were places I could send my ruined machine where the indelible imprint of my diary, along with everything else I had ever written, could be skimmed off the hard drive and saved. It would cost a fortune, but I could do it.

    The idea that nothing is ever lost is something one hears a great deal when people speak of computers. "Anything you do with digital technology," my Internet handbook warns, "will leave automatically documented evidence for other people or computer systems to find." There is of course something ominous in that notion. But there is a sort of ancient comfort in it, too.

    "All mankind is of one author and is one volume," John Donne wrote in one of his most beautiful meditations. "When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated." I'd thought of that passage when my grandmother died and had tried to find it in my old college edition of Donne, but I couldn't, so I'd settled for the harsher comforts of Psalm 121—more appropriate for my grandmother in any case. But Donne's passage, when I finally found it (about which more later), turned out to be as hauntingly beautiful as I had hoped. It continues:

God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

At the time I had only a dim remembered impression of Donne's words, and I decided that, as soon as I had the chance, I would find the passage on the Internet. I hadn't yet used the Internet much beyond E-mail, but I had somehow gathered that universities were all assembling vast computer-text libraries and that anyone with a modem could scan their contents. Though I had often expressed cynicism about the Internet, I secretly dreamed it would turn out to be a virtual analogue to John Donne's heaven.

    There was another passage I wished to find—not on the Internet but in the Talmud, which, like the Internet, I also think of as being a kind of terrestrial version of Donne's divine library, a place where everything exists, if only one knows how and where to look. I'd thought repeatedly about the Talmudic passage I alluded to earlier, the one that speaks of the goses, the soul that is neither dead nor alive. I suppose the decision to remove my grandmother from the respirator disturbed me—despite her "living will" and the hopelessness of her situation—and I tried to recall the conversation the Rabbis had about the ways one can—and cannot—allow a person headed towards death to die.

    The Talmud tells a story about a great Rabbi who is dying, he has become a goses, but he cannot die because outside all his students are praying for him to live and this is distracting to his soul. His maidservant climbs to the roof of the hut where the Rabbi is dying and hurls a clay vessel to the ground. The sound diverts the students, who stop praying. In that moment, the Rabbi dies and his soul goes to heaven. The servant, too, the Talmud says, is guaranteed her place in the world to come.

    The story, suggesting the virtue of letting the dead depart, was comforting to me, even though I know that the Talmud is ultimately inconclusive on end-of-life issues, offering, as it always does, a number of arguments and counterarguments, stories and counterstories. Not to mention the fact that the Talmud was finalized in the early sixth century, long before certain technological innovations complicated questions of life and death. I also wasn't sure I was remembering the story correctly. Was I retelling the story in a way that offered me comfort but distorted the original intent? I am far from being an accomplished Talmud student and did not trust my skills or memory. But for all that, I took enormous consolation in recalling that the Rabbis had in fact discussed the matter.


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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2002

    A Driftnet for Catching God

    'The Talmud and the Internet' compares two systems bridging two new worlds. The first,the Talmud, offers a transition from the world of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. to the world of commentary. The second, the internet, carries the reader from the world of books to that of cyberspace. 'The Talmud is not a book', the author notes, but rather a 'driftnet for catching God'> After the destructin of the Second Temple, God's works became words. The plaace where temple practices of atonement and scrifice took place was destroyed. 'Jewish people lost their home and God lost his Temple.'The rabbis created a virtual Temple after the real one was lost'. Rosen describes the 'Mishnah', the legalistic core of the Talmud, as divided into six broad orders that reflect six categories of Jewish life, but these six are subdivided into numerous sucategories called tractates. The Hebrew word for tractate, Rosen explains, means literally,'webbing..capturing the reach and the randomness, the infinite connectiveness of words.' Unlike the Tamud, however, the internet has no moral center. 'Words fly out of books' Rosen says, but he questions whether the world is experiencing the death of books. In his interesting meditation on two vast worlds, the internet and the Talmud, Rosen brings out some parallels. The internet helps the self'find unity within infinity'. The Talmud, however,restores the lost world of creation to the world of humanity.

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