Monday, January 8, 2007

Alarming Analogies

Though it may seem sacrilegious to say so, I can’t help feeling that in certain respects the Internet has a lot in common with the Talmud. The Rabbis referred to the Talmud as a yam, a sea—and though one is hardly intended to “surf” the Talmud, there is something more than oceanic metaphors that links the two verbal universes. Vastness, a protean structure, and an uncategorizable nature are in part what define them both.

When Maimonides (1135-1204), the great medieval commentator, wanted to simplify the organization of the Talmud, and reduce its peculiar blend of stories, folklore, legalistic arguments, anthropological asides, biblical exegesis, and intergenerational Rabbinic wrangling into simplified categories and legal conclusions, he was denounced as a heretic for disrupting the very chaos that, in some sense, had come to represent a divine fecundity.

I have often thought, contemplating a page of Talmud, that it bears a certain uncanny resemblance to a home page on the Internet, where nothing is whole in itself but where icons and text-boxes are doorways through which visitors pass into an infinity of cross-referenced texts and conversations. Consider a page of Talmud.

There are a few lines of Mishnah, the conversation the Rabbis conducted (for some 500 years before writing it down) about a broad range of legalistic questions stemming from the Bible but ranging into a host of other matters as well. Underneath those few lines begins the Gemarah, the conversation later Rabbis had about the conversation earlier Rabbis had in the Mishnah. Both the Mishnah and the Gemarah evolved orally over so many hundreds of years that even in a few lines of text, Rabbis who lived generations apart give the appearance, both within those discrete passages as well as by juxtaposition on the page, of speaking directly to each other.

The text includes not only legal disputes but fabulous stories, snippets of history and anthropology, and biblical interpretations. . . . One feels, for all the Talmud’s multiplicities, an organizing intelligence at work. And yet when I look at a page of Talmud and see all those texts tucked intimately and intrusively onto the same page, like immigrant children sharing a single bed, I do think of the interrupting, jumbled culture of the Internet. For hundreds of years, responsa, questions on virtually every aspect of Jewish life, winged back and forth between scattered Jews and various centers of Talmudic learning. The Internet is also 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. I find solace in thinking that a modern technological medium echoes an ancient one.

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