The Talmud and the Internet

A Journey between Worlds

Jonathan Rosen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Turn it and turn it for everything is in it …
—Babylonian Talmud

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 computer—many 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 no longer 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 121—more 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 find—not 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 me—despite her “living will” and the hopelessness of her situation—and I tried to recall the conversation the Rabbis had about the ways one can—and cannot—allow 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.

“Turn it and turn it for everything is in it,” a Talmudic sage famously declared. The sage, with the improbable name of Ben Bag Bag, is quoted only once in the entire Talmud, but his words have a mythic resonance. Like the Greek Ouroboros—the snake who swallows its own tail—Ben Bag Bag’s words appear in the Talmud and refer to the Talmud, a self-swallowing observation that seems to bear out the truth of the sage’s observation. The Talmud is a book and is not a book, and the Rabbi’s phrase flexibly found its way into it because, oral and written both, the Talmud reached out and drew into itself the world around it, even as it declared itself the unchanging word of God.
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, something more than oceanic metaphors links the two verbal universes. Vastness and an uncategorizable nature are in part what define them both. When Maimonides, the great medieval codifier and philosopher, wanted to extract from the Talmud’s peculiar blend of stories, folklore, legalistic arguments, anthropological asides, biblical exegesis, and intergenerational rabbinic wrangling some basic 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. Eventually, Maimonides was forgiven, and his work, the Mishneh Torah, is now one of the many cross-referenced sources on a printed page of Talmud—absorbed by the very thing it sought to replace.
The Mishnah itself—the legalistic core of the Talmud—is divided into six broad orders that reflect six vast categories of Jewish life, but those six categories are subdivided into numerous subcategories called tractates that range over a far vaster number of subjects often impossible to fathom from the names of the orders they appear in. The Hebrew word for tractate is masechet, which means, literally, “webbing.” As with the World Wide Web, only the metaphor of the loom, ancient and inclusive, captures the reach and the randomness, the infinite interconnectedness of words.
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 hundreds of years before it was codified around 200 C.E.) about a broad range of legalistic questions stemming from the Bible but ranging into a host of other matters as well. Underneath these 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 participate and 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. Running in a slender strip down the inside of the page is the commentary of Rashi, the medieval exegete, commenting on both the Mishnah and the Gemarah, and the biblical passages (also indexed elsewhere on the page) that inspired the original conversation. Rising up on the other side of the Mishnah and the Gemarah are the tosefists, Rashi’s descendants and disciples, who comment on Rashi’s work, as well as on everything Rashi commented on himself. The page is also cross-referenced to other passages of the Talmud, to various medieval codes of Jewish law (that of Maimonides, for example), and to the ShulkhanArukh, the great sixteenth-century codification of Jewish law by Joseph Caro. And one should add to this mix the student himself, who participates in a conversation that began over two thousand years ago.
Now all this is a far cry from the assault of recipes, news briefs, weather bulletins, chat rooms, university libraries, pornographic pictures, Rembrandt reproductions and assorted self-promotional verbiage that drifts untethered through cyberspace. The Talmud was produced by the moral imperative of Jewish law, the free play of great minds, the pressures of exile, the self-conscious need to keep a civilization together and a driving desire to identify and follow the unfolding word of God. Nobody was trying to buy airline tickets or meet a date. Moreover, the Talmud, after hundreds of years as an oral construct, was at last written down, shaped by (largely) unknown editors, masters of erudition and invention who float through its precincts and offer anonymous, ghostly promptings—posing questions, suggesting answers and refutations—so that one feels, for all its 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 take comfort in thinking that a modern technological medium echoes an ancient one.

For me, I suppose, the Internet makes actual a certain disjointed approach to reading I had already come to understand was part of my encounter with books and with the world. I realized this forcefully when I went looking for the John Donne passage that comforted me after the death of my grandmother. I’d tried to find that passage in my Modern Library Complete Poetry and Selected Prose without success. I knew the lines, I confess, not from a college course but from the movie version of 84, Charing Cross Road with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft. The book, a 1970 best-seller, is a collection of letters written by an American woman who loves English literature and a British book clerk who sells her old leather-bound editions of Hazlitt and Lamb and Donne, presumably bought up cheap from the libraries of great houses whose owners are going broke after the war. The book itself is a comment on the death of a certain kind of print culture. The American woman loves literature but she also writes for television, and at one point she buys Walter Savage Landor’s Imaginary Conversations so she can adapt it for the radio.
In any event, I checked out 84, Charing Cross Road from the library in the hope of finding the Donne passage, but it wasn’t in the book. It’s alluded to in the play that was adapted from the book (I found that too), but it isn’t reprinted, there’s just a brief discussion of Donne’s Sermon 15 (of which the American woman complains she’s been sent an abridged version; she likes her Donne sermons whole). So I rented the movie again, and there was the passage, read beautifully in voice-over by Anthony Hopkins, but without attribution, so there was no way to look it up. Unfortunately, the passage was also abridged so that, when I finally turned to the Web, I found myself searching for the line “All mankind is of one volume” instead of “All mankind is of one author and is one volume.”
My Internet search was initially no more successful than my library search. I had thought that summoning books from the vasty deep was a matter of a few keystrokes, but when I visited the Web site of the Yale library, I found that most of its books do not yet exist as computer text. I’d somehow believed the world had grown digital, and though I’d long feared and even derided this notion, I now found how disappointed and frustrated I was that it hadn’t happened. As a last-ditch effort, I searched the phrase “God employs many translators.” And there it was!
The passage I wanted finally came to me, as it turns out, not as part of a scholarly library collection but simply because Someone who loves John Donne had posted it on his home page. (At the bottom of the passage was the charming sentence “This small thread has been spun by …” followed by the man’s name and Internet address.) For one moment, there in dimensionless, chilly cyberspace, I felt close to my grandmother, close to John Donne, and close to some stranger who, as it happens, designs software for a living.
The lines I sought were from Meditation 17 in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which happens to be the most famous thing Donne ever wrote, containing as it does the line “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” My search had led me from a movie to a book to a play to a computer and back to a book (it was, after all, in my Modern Library edition, but who knew that it followed from “No man is an Island”?). I had gone through all this to retrieve something that an educated person thirty years ago could probably have quoted by heart. Then again, these words may be as famous as they are only because Hemingway lifted them for his book title. Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time.
Still, if the books had all been converted into computer text, and if Donne and Hemingway and 84, Charing Cross Road had come up together and bumped into each other on my screen, I wouldn’t have minded. Perhaps there is a spirit in books that lets them live beyond their actual bound bodies.
This is not to say that I do not fear the loss of the book as object, as body. Donne imagined people who die becoming like books, but what happens when books die? Are they reborn in some new ethereal form? Is it out of the ruined body of the book that the Internet is growing? This would account for another similarity I feel between the Internet and the Talmud, for the Talmud was also born partly out of loss.
The Talmud offered a virtual home for an uprooted culture, and grew out of the Jewish need to pack civilization into words and wander out into the world. The Talmud became essential for Jewish survival once the Temple—God’s pre-Talmud home—was destroyed, and the Temple practices, those bodily rituals of blood and fire and physical atonement, could no longer be performed. When the Jewish people lost their home (the land of Israel) and God lost His (the Temple), 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. They became the people of the book because they had no place else to live. That bodily loss is frequently overlooked, but for me it lies at the heart of the Talmud, for all its plenitude. The Internet, which we are continually told binds us all together, nevertheless engenders in me a similar sense of Diaspora, a feeling of being everywhere and nowhere. Where else but in the middle of Diaspora do you need a home page?
The Talmud tells a story that captures this mysterious transformation from one kind of culture to another. It is the story of Yochanan ben Zakkai, the great sage of the first century, who found himself living in besieged Jerusalem on the eve of its destruction by Rome. Yochanan ben Zakkai understood that Jerusalem and the Temple were doomed, and so he decided to appeal to the Romans for permission to teach and study outside Jerusalem. In order to get him out of Jerusalem ben Zakkai’s students hid him in a coffin and carried him outside the city walls. They did this not to fool the Romans but to fool the Zealots—the Jewish revolutionaries—guarding Jerusalem, who were killing anyone who wasn’t prepared to die with the city.
Ben Zakkai wasn’t prepared to die with the city. Once outside its walls, he went to the Roman general Vespasian and requested permission to settle in Yavneh. His request was granted, and it is in Yavneh that the study of the oral law flourished, in Yavneh that the Mishnah took shape, and so it is in Yavneh that Talmudic culture was saved while Temple culture died. In a sense, ben Zakkai’s journey in his coffin is the symbolic enactment of the transformation Judaism made when it went from being a religion of embodiment to being a religion of the mind and of the book. Jews died as a people of the body, of the land, of the Temple service of fire and blood, and, in one of the greatest acts of translation in human history, they were reborn as the people of the book.
I think about Yochanan ben Zakkai in his coffin when I think about how we are passing, books and people both, through the doors of the computer age and entering a new sort of global Diaspora in which we are everywhere—except home. But I suppose that writing, in any form, always has about it a ghostliness, an unsatisfactory, disembodied aspect, and it would be unfair to blame computers or the Internet for enhancing what has always been disappointing about words. Does anyone really want to be a book in John Donne’s heaven?

A few weeks after my computer crashed, I gave in and sent it to a fancy place in Virginia where—for more money than the original cost of the machine—technicians were in fact able to lift off of my hard drive the ghostly impression of everything I had ever written on my computer during seven years of use. It was all sent to me on separate diskettes and on a single, inclusive CD-ROM. I immediately found the diskette with my journal and, using my wife’s computer, set about printing it out.
As it turns out, I’d written in my journal only six or seven times in the course of my grandmother’s two-month illness. Somehow I’d imagined myself chronicling the whole ordeal in the minutest recoverable detail. Instead, I was astonished at how paltry, how sparse my entries really were. Where were the long hours holding her hand? The one-way conversations—what had I said? The slow, dreamlike afternoons with the rest of my family, eating and talking in the waiting area? Where, most of all, was my grandmother? I was glad to have my journal back, of course, and I’d have paid to recover it again in a second. But it was only when I had my own scant words before me at last that I realized how much I’d lost.
THE TALMUD AND THE INTERNET. Copyright © 2000 by Jonathan Rosen. All rights reserved. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.