June 14, 2004

The Original Internet

The Rabbis in the Talmud talk about God one moment, sex the next and commerce the third. Rather than seeming like a broken state of affairs it seems – especially after Freud and Marx and Darwin – astonishingly human, and therefore astonishingly whole.

None of this is to suggest that one reality be substituted for another – on the contrary, it is to suggest that they can live side by side. It’s the side-by-side culture of the Talmud I like so much. “On the one hand” and “on the other hand” is frustrating for people seeking absolute faith, but for me it gives religion an ambidextrous quality that suits my temperament.

The Talmud (literally: Learning) is the encyclopedic record of the Jewish oral tradition, written down over a period of a few hundred years starting almost two millennia ago. Follow the link, and you will see a typical page. Notice the non-linear layout. The Talmud has an organic structure, like the Internet. One thing leads to another in an endless series of links. But it is also highly organized, by a set of rules compiled by Rabbi Shmuel Hanagid in his Introduction to the Talmud.

The quote above is from The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey Between Worlds, a highly moving account, which will also give you a good idea of the nature of the Talmud, without necessitating actually learning it.

Both the Mishnah and the Gemarah [parts of the Talmud – DB] 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 Shulkhan Arukh, the great sixteenth-century codification of Jewish law by Joseph Caro.
Posted by David Boxenhorn at June 14, 2004 10:57 PM
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