Around the Web, English, Ruminations

Defending the Talmud in the Digital Age: Four Reflections

1. When we relaunched The Talmud Blog, back in 2011, I set a Google reminder for the word “Talmud.” After all, we claimed to provide “Talmudic news, reviews, currents and criticism,” and what better way to stay current than with handy email reminders from the indexers of the Internet. At the time, the Internet was a simpler place, or at least so it seemed. We may have had our suspicions of the influence of Facebook and ad tech on our lives, but certainly not to the extent that we do now. Rather quickly, however, I discovered that my expectations of the Google alert were rather naïve: the vast majority of the material on Talmud that Google dredged up for me in daily emails could best be described as anti-Semitic drivel. And while this may be a “current,” the focus on the Talmud in anti-Semitic diatribe is of course far from new. One of the results of the Internet’s democratizing tendencies is that it provides new media in which anti-Semites can operate, as they spew hate under the guise of anonymity, the comfort of distance, and even from a façade of authority, and it allows them to do so in concert, as they form networks spanning the globe. Given the antiquity of the trope, it certainly did not seem newsworthy. After receiving a number of daily reminder that thousands of anti-Semites around the world spend hours of their day bashing the Talmud, I shut down the Google alert.

2. The news of the Tree of Life Massacre in Pittsburgh reached me as the Sabbath ended on October 27th. I had spent that afternoon with Yaakov Sussman’s Thesaurus, the most authoritative and by far the most extensive catalogue of Talmudic manuscripts ever published. Over the course of decades, Sussman, with a team of research assistants, visited hundreds of libraries, looking for every surviving manuscript of the Talmud and for every surviving scrap of a manuscript of the Talmud. Such a process is not simply antiquarianism. Locating and cataloguing these manuscripts is arguably one of the most important projects of Wissenschaft des Judentums. Doing so has allowed us to now understand some of the most important works in the Jewish tradition—the Mishnah and Talmuds—in ways and at depths previously unimaginable. The Thesaurus also permits us to ask questions that were practically impossible to ask even just a few years ago. On that fateful Saturday, I was thinking of some of those questions, for example, “what did Jews study in the middle ages? Which areas of halakha and literature were particularly popular? How did Jews use Talmudic manuscripts?” Sussman’s Thesaurus raises the possibility of providing quantifiable answers to these questions.

Before long, when asking these questions, one is faced with what, on that Saturday afternoon, appeared to me as a methodological hurdle: what to do with the fact that Christians in the middle ages destroyed thousands of Talmudic manuscripts, often by burning them? Given that the evidence gathered by Sussman and his team is by nature fragmentary, can we even answer the questions I was interested in?

It is hard to remember what I first thought of or how I felt when the news hit. Looking back, I think it may have been images—of the synagogue service I was in that same day, at the same time; of what the massacre may have looked like; of the faces of those killed. Pretty quickly I thought of friends from Pittsburgh and tried to reach them. But already that evening, I reflected on my “methodological hurdle” from earlier that day. In my search for intellectual history, I had forgotten the social and human: the fact that looking at the Christian confiscations and burnings of the Talmud as a “methodological hurdle” is almost unethically distant from the way in which contemporary Jews must have experienced those events.

3. Is it worth defending the Talmud in the digital age? As scholars of religion, such positions are often thrust upon us. When I tell people that I’m doing a PhD in Religion, I often get asked questions along the lines of, “so what’s the deal with Islam?” and in some contexts, questions about “what I think of the Talmud,” whether or not “I agree with what’s in it”—questions which are obviously not questions at all, but opportunities for others to express their own beliefs.

Many of these questions have a long history. And for many of us, these questions relate to core aspects of our identities. Just as Christians destroyed Talmudic manuscripts, they also forced Jews—even under the threat of physical violence—to defend and apologize for the Talmud. So, no, in 2018, I won’t be doing that. As a Jew, my answer is that I am tired of apologizing for the Talmud. I won’t be forced into a position in which, as a Talmudist, a scholar of religion, a Jew, I must apologize for the Talmud.

4. The Internet is a scary place. One wrong click and it’s not cat videos and memes, but death threats and bigotry. And in 2018, when the extent of personal data-based manipulation entered public discourse like never before, the Internet has gotten even scarier.

There is, however, one aspect of the poetics of the Internet that I particularly do enjoy. Last week, Yair Rosenberg published an article on Tablet pointing out that the acclaimed author Alice Walker lauded an anti-Semitic author in a New York Times interview. Rosenberg’s piece of commentary sparked thousands, probably even hundreds of thousands, of other comments, on news sites and elsewhere. As is often the case, many of these comments clocked in at under 280 characters. Talia Levin (@chick_in_kiev) pointed out that, sadly, this is not new, that the Talmud has been blamed by this person before. A thread by Judah Fishmonger (@praisegodbarbon) gained particular traction: over 1,600 users liked one of its component tweets, which was also retweeted some 350 times, leading to comments—some in direct dialogue and others not—about the relevance or relatability of the Talmud, and these comments, in turn, were then commented on by other tweeters. According to Fishmonger, “[t]he truth about the Talmud is that 99.9% of it is just incredibly boring instructions on how to properly groom an ox and the other 0.1% is old men disagreeing about astrology.” In a meta-poetic tweet of meta-commentary tinged with Talmudic references,  Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg (@TheRaDR) responded that “[t]his is true,” but “[i]t’s also true that Talmud study is profound and amazing and full of challenges and wisdom and layers. And both I and this tweeter are right. These and these are words of the living God. Teiku.” Also in the realm of poetics, our very own Shai Secunda (@shaisecunda) reflected that “[c]onspiratorial, Anti-Semitic depictions of the Talmud ranging from Alice Walker to a former VP of Iran” remind him “that this incredible work really does destabilize cultures, in the most fascinating & productive sense. That’s part of what’s so threatening to these Orthodox hatreds.” Over the course of just a few days, the commentary swelled. Still other threads were retweeted, allowing additional people to add to the same core conversation but in separate locations, and with separate outcomes. “Talmud” was trending, even if for unfortunate reasons.

We’ve come a long way since Jonathan Rosen’s The Talmud and the Internet. The poetics of the Internet have evolved since the early aughts. Hyperlinks have morphed into hashtags, blogs into Tweets, links into search results. And all the while, the texture through which we engage with one another over this amorphic, bizarre platform has grown increasingly intricate: our web of networks, the ways in which we engage with ideas, with people, with text, have shifted into something that parallels but yet still fails to capture the full complexity of human experiences, leaving us with just a tantalizing glimmer of the other, or a glimpse of something that could be, if only in theory.

Some say, it’s Talmudic.


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