Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Talmud and the Internet, by Jonathan Rosen: a review

Growing up in Pittsburgh and attending the pretentiously titled School of Advanced Jewish Studies, I took a bite of Talmud. Not even a mouthful: just enough to taste. And it has nourished my curiosity forever.  Read this book if you want to whet your curiosity too.

Like me, author Jonathan Rosen finds the form of the Talmud even more intriguing the intricacies of its content. It's the original hypertext.

The Mishnah is at the center of each page, a set of oral traditions about how to read and practice what we find in the Torah that were finally written down between 180 and 220 CE by Rabbi Yehudah haNasi to keep them from being forgotten. The Gemara comes below, giving four centuries more of debate about what how those traditions make sense and what they really mean. More commentaries are arranged at the bottom and along the sides: the medieval scholar Rashi and his disciples especially. That's not even getting into the entirely separate books that comment on the Talmud, from Maimonides' Mishneh Torah to the latest one hot off the press.

As Rosen points out, these commentators hold lively discussions, even when one of them is rebutting another who's been dead for centuries. They don't confine themselves to any genre. Legal discussion rubs shoulders with etymology, moralism with fable. They remind him (and me) of nothing so much as weird and unpredictable discussions on the Internet--especially the more unbridled Internet of 2001, when this book was published.

Rosen is both incisive and evocative when he makes the case that Talmudic discussion is the lifeboat of the Jewish people. When the destruction of the Temple by the Roman empire cast Jewish life adrift, it was in these discussions that we made our home.

Rosen is elegiac when he looks at 21st-century Jewish life, changed forever by both the Holocaust in which some of his grandparents died and the acceptance of the Jews into secular society, and of secular society into Jewish identity. Can we find ways to transmute our existence in new circumstances as the creators of the Talmud once did? Or will the culture that he and I hold dear fade into memory? Or both?

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