The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey between Worldsby Rosen
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/i>
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.
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.
New York Times Book Review
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Read an Excerpt
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 computermany 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 121more 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 findnot 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 medespite her "living will" and the hopelessness of her situationand I tried to recall the conversation the Rabbis had about the ways one canand cannotallow 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.
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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