Talmud as Hypertext

The hypertextual sharing of information on the Internet makes us realize how high is the actual toll of business as usual! it would imply a whole new paradigm, or actually, an awakening from the bad dream that is our current paradigm, in which we treat ideas as commodities as soon as they achieve material expression in word, film, videotape, or in those ephemeral media of electric pulses and even bits etched in light. The revolution in which we overthrew the tyrrany of this strange concept would not really be, in its essential vision, new at all, but rather a return to an older tradition, to a sense of knowledge, authority, authorship and truth that proposes a complete altenative to the linear authority of an author that is intrinsic to book-based culture and the economics of information it implies. Nothing brings this challenge to the Paradigm of the Book as a Commodity into relief better than the alternative paradigm exemplified in the Talmud.

When Daniel Bomberg, a Viennese non-Jewish printer, gave the Babylonian Talmud its present form in the sixteenth century, he conceived of the brilliant idea of liberating the typography of the page from its linear, mechanical form. He achieved a work of art in which the medium is the message. Just a few seconds' study of the page of the Talmud reveals that this is not the book as a decree or an orderly procession of words and ideas, lined up and marching in lockstep, and forcing the reader, in turn, to proceed enfilade -- like soldiers in a line. This is not about authorship, though it is about authority, so much so that the Talmud becomes a sacred text of the Jews.

As an alternative to the book, the Talmud by its openness of form invites anyone with curiosity to enter into the symposium, the ongoing dialague across space and time - just like the Internet. "Vadok,"  or "Look into it!," is how the Maharsha (R. Samuel Eliezer Edels --14th century) ended many of his amendments or comments. This phrase is a perfect example of the spirit of the Talmud's openness, its invitation.

On another level, there is much from the contents of the Talmud that we could bring to bear on the question concerning copyrights. For instance, the Talmud says that there are seven forms of thieves, but the worst of all is gonev da'as habriyos [- 'the thief of information' or more literally 'the thief of knowledge about the covenant or Torah']." In other words, the Talmud implies that someone who steals someone else's ethical or religious knowledge is committing a very high form of sin indeed. But despite these Talmudic injunctions against spiritual plagiarism, and with all due respect to the learned rabbis, I would like to consider the larger form of talmudical knowledge itself which is simply reflected in the form of the talmudical page.

Even in the format of its page, the Talmud preserves, even enshrines, this special relationship to the text as a symposium.

In the traditional page layout of the Babylonian Talmud, the oldest texts occupy the center as succceeding margins unfold commentaries from subsequent centuries. And though the Talmud itself is considered a sacred text, publishers and editors of newer editions do not hesitate to include their own commentary, if only in the form of photographs, pictures, and clarifying comments (maps, datelines, etc.) or simple footnote marks -- like hot buttons for those of you who know hypertext. Indeed, as I've elsewhere shown, the Talmud is indeed a form of hypertext.

Rashi on right, Tosefot on Left, Mishnah in middle top, Gemarah middle-bottom.
See also Prof. Segal's excellent Web-page : The Talmud

In fact, the Talmud makes a very good analog of the Internet. The little notations on the sides are hot buttons. The different commentaries are very like frames, a common HTML implementation in which different sections of text can be read as accompaniments to each other, but can be, indeed must be, read at different times and speeds in separate spaces on the electronic page.

But beyond their physical similarities, both hypertext and the Talmud imply a way of knowing that is very different from the linear book. It attempts to capture the noise of a symposium, a hot and multi-voiced discussion of an important and ambiguous question, the basis for talmudical discourse. Many questions are left unresolved; while the voices which speak speak with the utmost authority, many times these speakers are anonymous, just like participants in chat rooms or bulletin boards or e-mail lists. The debate, furthermore, extends over time and space. While the central text is supposed to recreate the disucssions of the Sanhedrin, the successive layers include commentary by and among rabbies spread out from Babylon to France to Jerusalem to Cairo, and span fifteen... and now twenty ... centuries, an embrace of time that puts the Internet and the Web to shame.

The great French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas described the Talmud as

"mischievous, laconic...but in love with the possible, [it] register[s] an oral tradition that came to be written down accidentally...in which multiple, but not arbitrary, meanings arise and buzz in each saying. These Talmudic pages seek contradiction and expect of a reader freedom, invention and boldness." [Levinas 1990: 5]. Adin Steinsaltz calls it a "collection of paradoxes: its framework is orderly and logical, every word and term subjected to meticulous editing, completed centuries after the actual work of composition came to an end; yet it is still based on free association, on a harnessing together of diverse ideas reminiscent of the modern stream-of-consciousness novel ... as a reflection of life itself, cannot be artificially compartmentalized, but must develop naturally from subject to subject." [Steinsaltz, 1976: 62]
I will not elaborate here on all the contrasts between these two ideas of the Internet as a Book and the Internet as a Talmud But let me resort to this telegraphic chart to try to capture, in obviously over-simplified terms, the differences between these two models of the text and of authorship:

Furthermore, we can imagine that new technologies, far from challenging the old ways of doing the "knowledge business" of the Talmud might actually enhance it. "After the invention of the printing press, talmudic exegesis expanded at a tremendous rate. Thousands of works were composed to elucidate various talmudic tractates, specific issues or certain types of problems. But to the present day no new commentary has been written on the Talmud as a whole" [Steinsaltz, 73]. I imagine and predict that not only is the Internet a form of Talmudic knowledge-business, but putting the Talmud on the Internet would see a similar exponential leap in the amount of Talmudic discourse it invites.

Ownership, profit, text as commodity. Freedom, invention, boldness. Sharing, circulation, elaboration, negotiated meaning and collectivity. Room on the margins for everyone. If we take a moment to consider how the Internet really works, we will see how futile it is to try to control it by erecting gateways and taking a little toll every time someone signs on. As I see it, these choices are not matters of irrelevant philosophy but about very basic questions which will determine the future of knowledge and communications as we enter the 21st century.

The debate between a free, organic Internet as a public space where our culture can negotiate its meaning, and the desire to protect an author's ownership of his/her words drives us to a crossroads where we are very soon going to have to make a choice. In fact, several pieces of legislation are already in the works which will force Congress to choose. This choice essentially boils down to a simple one: in order to protect the profit rights of publishing corporations and individual authors, we will permit the commodification of knowledge to privatize the Internet; -- or we will discard an aberrant idea of knowledge in favor of a more open paradigm. In order for every original of knowledge to be protected in the open marketplace, a record will have to be kept of the time and source of every interchange. This accounting system, while it is automated now, will have to have overseers and regulators, toll takers on the information highway. The idea of collecting the toll is itself the moral toll of the information superhighway. And the protection of author's copyrights is merely a Trojan horse for this ethical abysm.

©ontra Invention of/and Copyrights Internet, Samiszdat and Hypocrisy The Talmud as a model for hypertext discourse Information, Violence, and Shelter from the Storm  Notes  Resources 

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