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Previously in Crosscurrents:

"Master of Reveries," by Sven Birkerts (September 7, 2000)
Why Proust? And why now? Sven Birkerts puzzles out the current vogue and the counterintuitive appeal of In Search of Lost Time.

"The Rest Is Silence," by Wen Stephenson (August 13, 2000)
Michael Almereyda's Hamlet, Frank Kermode's Shakespeare, and the Prince of Denmark in the age of digital reproduction.

"Geek Studies," by Harvey Blume (July 13, 2000)
Hackers, freaks, outsiders, Homo Superior? Call them what you will, geeks are everywhere, and their stories help explain how science is shaping us.

"Soul of the New Economy," by Scott Stossel (June 8, 2000)
A new genre, call it "The Businessman as Revolutionary," has corporate culture co-opting counterculture in the Internet economy. Yet, as Jeremy Rifkin argues in The Age of Access, it's capitalism itself that may be transformed -- and not necessarily for the better.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

More on technology and digital culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Discuss this article in Post & Riposte's conference on religion and public life.

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A Page of Talmud
"In this Web page, a typical Talmud page will serve us as a port of departure on a voyage through the history of Jewish religious literature." A hypertextual tour of a page from the Babylonian Talmud, created by Eliezer Segal, a professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary.

Faith and Cyberspace

Two new books offer strikingly different perspectives on the relationship between religion and new media, piety and public life

by Harvey Blume

October 18, 2000

Discussed in this essay:

The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey between Worlds
by Jonathan Rosen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
132 pages, $16.00

by Benjamin Zucker
Overlook Press
224 pages, $40.00

Third-millennium America is a curious and unstable mixture of futuristic technology and old-time religion. The status of religion is especially evident in politics, with politicians seemingly reluctant to defend their views on purely secular grounds. This anxious regard for religious sanction gives the political scene a faintly medieval cast. Republicans, for example, routinely divulge how many times they have been born. But pietism dominates both sides of the narrow political spectrum. Consider President Clinton's behavior during the impeachment proceedings -- a time when, as Philip Roth puts it in his recent novel, The Human Stain, there was a revival of America's "oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony." Despite being savaged by a Republican Party commandeered by its religious right, Clinton said nothing that might have been interpreted as a principled rebuff to overreaching religious authority. Instead he hid behind a religious authority of his own choosing: a pastor to whom he publicly turned for shelter.

Or consider Al Gore's pick of Joe Lieberman to be his running mate. As a Jew, I can only welcome the choice, though as a secular Jew I can only wonder if it brings the day any closer when someone of my background who neither observes the Sabbath nor orates about God and miracles can be trusted with high office in this country. Gore is not usually credited with the keen political instincts of a Clinton, but in picking Lieberman he has cannily exploited the remarkable fact that religious schism is still a force to be reckoned with in twenty-first-century America. The schism in question, however, is not between Christianity and Judaism but between the religious and the secular, with all the momentum currently on the religious side and the secular very slow to respond.

A protective attitude toward established religion -- an urge to make concessions to it, to be soft on it, to spare it the rigors of having to account for itself -- and, in particular, a sentimentality toward religious texts, suffuses Jonathan Rosen's new intellectual memoir, The Talmud and the Internet. A novelist and former editor of the New York City-based Jewish newspaper The Forward, Rosen was moved to write the book when the journal he was keeping about his grandmother's illness and death almost vanished in a computer crash. He had imagined the file, abiding in a magnetic medium, as a gosen -- a Talmudic term for a body "neither of heaven or earth." When the file was recovered, that, to his mind, suggested further analogies between the Talmud and the Internet -- both, for example, were like the yam, or sea, in which nothing is lost. Such meditations led Rosen to conceive a work that would "reach back into the murky Talmudic past and forward into the elusive technological future." The Talmud and the Internet, then, is ostensibly the author's effort to reconcile tradition and modernity, his religious and his secular roots, faith and cyberspace. The problem, though, is that his piety repeatedly intervenes and undercuts that ambition.

"Though it may seem sacrilegious to say so," Rosen writes early on in the book, "I can't help feeling that in certain respects the Internet has a lot in common with the Talmud." Such timidity does not auger well for the book's satisfying the expectations raised by its title. As it turns out, Rosen is not deeply engaged by electronic media; there are no references to Marshall McLuhan, for instance, or to other media theorists to balance the weight of references to Talmudic sages. In fact, the Internet is little more for Rosen than a trope for modernity. This is too bad, because a book that allowed for a head-on collision between the Talmud and the Internet might reveal as much about media as an atom smasher does about particle physics.

The Talmud, let it be said, is the written record, compiled in the first centuries of the Common Era, of what had once been the oral law of Judaism. It retains something of the character of a conversation frozen in time, what with discontinuity, disagreement, and digression all thrown in and picked apart by later commentators. The term "polyvocal" has been applied to the Talmudic process, in which meaning is a work-in-progress, a rolling textual experience rather than anything that could be called formal and complete. It is said that the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, used to assign Kafka to his Talmud students, expecting that Kafka's penchant for paradox, obliqueness, and unfinished business would give them a taste for Talmudic logic.

But the seductive aesthetic of Talmudic form should not obscure its point. The Talmud was no text-based interactive game, no recipe for an open-source religion. Its function was to regulate Judaism in the Diaspora, when it was no longer possible for Jews to discharge their religious obligations in a cult centered on a temple in Jerusalem. However labyrinthine its methods, the Talmud's rulings were binding. Although Diaspora Jewry never had a central figure like the Pope, it did not lack for religious authority. The Talmud, and the rabbis who interpreted it, were authority enough, as Kafka's Joseph K., humbled by the structure of the Law, might readily attest.

You'd never get a sense of this aspect of Talmud from Jonathan Rosen. His Talmud neither prescribes nor proscribes; if it has any implications for his own religious observance you'd never know it from his book. Rosen's Talmud appears, at first blush, to be a work of the literary imagination to set beside the works of John Milton and T. S. Eliot, both of whose pages, he tells us, suffer in comparison. Approaching scripture as literature can be a rewarding angle of attack, as Harold Bloom demonstrated in The Book of J, his treatment of the Five Books of Moses. But Rosen, perhaps fearful of slipping into sacrilege, doesn't follow through on this approach. Instead, he wants it both ways; he wants a Talmud that is both world-class literature and sacred text -- a book that is not only better literary fare than T. S. Eliot but a better vehicle for divine intent than Christianity. But it's not really acceptable these days to argue openly for the superiority of your religion -- liberal intellectuals like to think we have moved at least that far from the era of religious wars -- so Rosen is compelled to make his case for the superiority of Talmudic Judaism indirectly and by way of condescension.

Henry Adams gets the brunt of the condescension. As recounted in his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, and other books, Adams turned from the rampant industrialism of late-nineteenth-century America, and what he termed its cult of the dynamo, to the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe, where he hoped to find respite in the cult of the Virgin. What he found at Chartres, Mont Saint Michel, Amiens, and Rouen, however, were only glorious artifacts of a bygone spiritual life; there was no living cult of the Virgin left to set against the cult of the dynamo. Rosen clearly admires Adams's writing, and feels only benevolent toward him. He wants nothing more than to lead Adams away from the monuments of stone and wood that had so disappointed him, to the texts of Judaism, as fresh today as they were during the Dark Ages. "I'd like to tell Adams," writes Rosen, "about a ritual that was in force for medieval Jews at just the time that Chartres was being built. It is the initiation ritual ... when a child is carried at age five to his Torah teacher and given cakes with biblical inscriptions on them."

Rosen's efforts to relieve Adams of the disappointments inherent in his Christianity are as well-intentioned and as embarrassing as the desire expressed by some feminists to relieve D. H. Lawrence of the disappointments inherent in his masculinity. But Rosen's paternalistic tone disguises a critique of media that, if made openly, is trenchant and ultimately reflects back on the Talmud itself. Contrasting the Talmud with Gothic cathedrals, Rosen describes it as an edifice consisting entirely of "words and laws and stories." This upholds the fundamental commitment of Judaism, its basic wager: stick to text, NO GRAVEN IMAGES, writing rules. So it was on Sinai, as per the Second Commandment, when God raised text above all other media, and so it has been for Judaism since. Centered on text, Judaism has delivered a standing critique of other media, including icons, idols, and anything made of sticks, stones, or even gold. When Moses comes down from Sinai, remember, the first thing he does is demolish the Golden Calf.

But the Judaic critique has a blind spot: text itself. Judaism doesn't entertain the possibility that text, too, can be worshipped and adored, set on a pedestal and ringed round by holy terrors of sacrilege -- in short, idolized. This is where it would have served Rosen to pay more than nominal attention to the Internet. With the Internet, all media arise from and dissolve back into the bitstream; no medium rests on a pedestal long enough to be conflated with divinity. Initially, for example, it seemed the Web would be defined by point-and-click graphics. Soon, commentators noticed that text had returned as the driving medium of cyberspace. The advent of broadband will no doubt bring with it an expanded menu of media possibilities, none of them final, many of them working in concert with one another. The Internet completes a critique of media begun in the Second Commandment. It makes it harder for the religious impulse to settle upon and congeal around a particular medium -- it weakens the terror of sacrilege. Cyberspace frustrates the urge to sacralize media; when it comes to religion, its effect is to pry apart the medium and the message.

Benjamin Zucker, author of the novel Blue, knows this implicitly. Blue, which was published in July, is an update of Talmudic form that might give more orthodox types the jitters. One way of thinking about the book is to imagine the Internet coming to rest, just for a moment, on the printed page. Another way is to think of the Talmud opening itself up to all kinds of graphic elaboration and pictorial commentary. Every page of text in Blue contains a centerpiece of pure story line, just as the pages of the Talmud center on the Mishnah, its earliest layer. Surrounding the novel's central narrative are commentaries that reflect on the story and on each other. In the Talmud, commentaries are supplied by seers and rabbis. In Blue, the commentators include the parents of the main character, as well as Bob Dylan, Vermeer, James Joyce, and Joan Baez. Derrida gets his two cents in; Kafka is a constant presence.

The blue of the title is the blue of the sky, of sapphires, of Robert Johnson's songs, of the infinite. In one margin of a page, Bob Dylan may be singing "It's all over now, baby blue." In another, Isaac Luria, a storied founder of Kabbalah, contemplates the blue of his sixteenth-century Safed synagogue. The story the novel tells is about love -- brotherly, romantic, and parental -- and about a search for gems and/or the divine. Blue has Christians and Muslims joining Jews in chewing over, Talmudic-style, choice bits of the narrative; it invites religious adepts and apostates, chess players and abstract expressionists.

Opposite every page of text there is a graphic -- a color reproduction of a Vermeer, a Jackson Pollock, or a Monet, or a photograph of Kafka or Bobby Fischer. Nestled in the middle of the book is a reproduction of a page of Talmud -- suddenly gorgeous, complex, and alluring in its Hebrew typography, prepossessing even in the midst of all the surrounding visual glory.

Pages 54-55 of Blue, with Vermeer's The Art of Painting at left

Zucker's book is in no sense a page-turner. I suppose it's possible to keep your head down and stay with the central narrative, ignoring the textual and graphic splendor on all sides -- but that would be a joyless exercise. Zucker, as he tells us in a brief author's note, devoted years to composing this, his only novel, and it takes time to peruse it. Blue has a Talmudic stickiness -- keeping you lingering, reconsidering, and coming back. Yet it is sticky without being saccharine or sentimental -- there are none of the tales of Torah and baby cakes that Jonathan Rosen repeats a few times too many. What equally recommends the book is that it expresses a religiosity that has nothing in common with the "ecstasy of sanctimony" Philip Roth finds all too abundant in contemporary American life.

What do you think? Discuss this article in Post & Riposte's conference on religion and public life.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

More on technology and digital culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Harvey Blume is a contributing writer for Atlantic Unbound and The Boston Book Review.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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