Surfing the Talmud

SAN FRANCISCO (08/28/2000) - The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey Between Worlds by Jonathan Rosen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)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.

Hal Cohen is a contributing writer for Lingua Franca.

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