The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey between Worlds
by Jonathan Rosen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 132 pp. $16.00
Among the foundational literatures of the world’s civilizations, none is harder to classify than the Talmud. A gigantic and complex set of volumes whose core contents were assembled and edited by the end of the 5th century C.E., it interweaves passionate narrative and touching anecdotes with dry legal analysis and interpretation of Scripture that itself calls out for (and receives) interpretation. Subjects change abruptly without the least sense of self-consciousness, and debates are regularly presented between rabbis who lived generations, even centuries, apart. The Talmud has no clear beginning or end, and every discussion in it presupposes others, some of them unrecorded. The basis of all subsequent Jewish law, the Talmud nonetheless often leaves us in the dark about the conclusion of its legal debates; luckily, the thoughts and decisions of medieval and modern commentators are themselves incorporated onto every exceedingly busy page.
In The Talmud and the Internet, Jonathan Rosen, a young novelist and essayist, finds the baffling disjointedness and anomalousness of the Talmud to be an asset rather than a liability. Indeed, running as a leitmotif throughout this slim volume of reflections is the anomalousness of Rosen’s own biography and, more subtly, of modern identity itself. “In writing this book,” he tells us at the outset, “I realized that what interests me is learning to embrace contradictory forces: ancient tradition and contemporary chaos, doubt and faith, the living and the dead, tragedy and hope.” Toward the end, Rosen is still speaking of his by now painfully evident “impulse to flee in two directions at once—to defect . . . to the secular world and to find, as well, a traditional religious home.”
Rosen’s two grandmothers symbolize, for him, the contrary directions in which he feels this “impulse to flee.” One was well-off and basically secular, an American woman who lived into her nineties and whose final days Rosen minutely describes. The other was a Polish-born Jewess murdered by the Nazis long before he was born. At the close of his reflections, he defines his challenge as one of doing “justice to my own experience as the grandchild of those two women. A grandchild of optimistic American and of tragic European experience.” But the “justice” he arrives at is not a synthesis of these twin legacies but rather resignation in the face of an ambivalence that he seems powerless to resolve.
Fascinated by the Talmud, Rosen also reports that he does not “much like going to synagogue,” an aversion he links to his dislike of other institutions: “libraries, museums, hospitals, concert halls, or department stores.” His own preference is not for “organized religion” but for “private connections.” Luckily, it is in two places, the Talmud and the Internet, that he finds an objective correlative to his own sense of dislocation and homelessness.
“When the Jewish people lost their home (the land of Israel) and God lost His (the Temple),” Rosen writes, “then a new way of being was devised and Jews became the people of the book and not the people of the Temple or the land.” An analogous loss of place, an analogous worldwide dispersion in which we are nevertheless connected by words, is to be seen in the Internet, which, like the Talmud, offers “a world of unbounded curiosity, of argument and information, where anyone with a modem can wander out of the wilderness for a while, ask a question, and receive an answer.” The Talmud, he goes on,
helped Jews survive after the destruction of the Temple by making Jewish culture portable and personal. In the same way, there are elements in the inclusiveness of the Internet well suited to a world that is both more uprooted and more connected than ever before. Finding a home inside exile, finding unity inside infinity, finding a self inside a sea of competing voices was an ancient challenge and is a modern one too.
The similarity of the Talmud and the Internet thus somehow consoles Rosen for the pain of an identity split between European and American Jewish experience, and between religion and secularity: “I take comfort in thinking that a modern technological medium echoes an ancient one.”
Rosen’s consolation is, alas, a shallow one, for the analogy upon which it is founded is in point of fact mostly a mirage. To be sure, he does recognize differences between the Talmud and the Internet. “The Talmud,” he correctly observes, “was produced by the moral imperative of Jewish law. . . . Nobody was trying to buy airline tickets or meet a date.” But how much likeness can there be between, on the one hand, a book relentlessly focused on morality and law, and, on the other hand, a medium that lacks not only all fixed content but even, as Rosen himself remarks almost in passing, a “moral center”?
As against Henry Adams’s early-20th-century judgment in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres that “technological power depose[s] Divinity,” Rosen bravely suggests that “the invisible linkages forged by electric power, and the computer that is the child of those forces, constitute a cathedral . . . no less grand” than Chartres. But one need not subscribe to Adams’s misguided polarization of tradition and technology to see in the Internet as much potential for things the talmudic rabbis would abominate as for things they would appreciate. One thinks of pornography, for example, or neo-Nazi propaganda, or consumer fraud, or instructions on building explosives—all of them rather different from the airline tickets and dates that Rosen lamely mentions. The Internet not only lacks a moral center; it is intrinsically amoral, and, by itself, unable to generate or sustain a community committed to carrying out moral imperatives and obeying law of any kind, Jewish or otherwise.
In Rosen’s mind, “the Talmud . . . was the product of a culture that had already learned the impracticality of identifying faith with architectural or even religious unity.” This too is wrong, just as it is wrong to say that the Talmud took the place of the Temple (the synagogue more nearly did that). Endlessly and eloquently, the Talmud attests to its authors’ faith that the Jews would eventually be restored to their true geographical home, that the Temple would eventually be rebuilt and the forms of worship associated with it (and ordained in the Torah) reinaugurated. In brief, the rabbis regarded as abnormal and temporary, even if of insufferably long duration, the dislocation and homelessness that Rosen takes as his—and our—inevitable destiny.
As for the religious unity of the Jewish people, on which Rosen imagines the rabbis had given up, it was, rather, a central motivation for their advancing a delimited canon of Scripture and standardizing Jewish practice wherever they could. This is about as far as one can get from a culture in which faceless individuals see what they want, say what they want, and buy what they want with a click of the mouse—a world of “private connections” with little or no public accountability.
Given its inherently amoral character, the new information technology can, of course, also be utilized for positive ends—including the diffusion of talmudic learning. And so it has been, with impressive results. But even here there are limitations. Rosen notes correctly that “people are meant to study the Talmud in pairs,” that it “isn’t read like a book but studied aloud, chanted, lived.” The Talmud is, in other words, the product of a real, not a virtual, community, and its “moral imperative” does not coexist peacefully with the culture of individual choice and personal preference that the Internet has carried to dangerous new levels.
Indeed, though the Talmud conveys massive amounts of information, its goal is something very different—namely, wisdom. This wisdom is conveyed primarily not on the screen, or even on the page, but in the relationship of teacher to student in a living society whose life blood is an inseparable union of practice and learning. Anyone wishing to delve into the Talmud in more depth than Jonathan Rosen’s intriguing but superficial analogy accommodates would be well advised to turn off the computer he finds so congenial and darken the door of the synagogue he finds so repellent.