An Interactive Dialogue: Talmud and the Net

Mel Alexenberg

Web of Life issue of Parabola, Summer 2004

“In the beginning God created et the heaven and et the earth” (Genesis 1:1). These are the first words of the Bible.  In the original Hebrew, et is a word representing the first creations, the media systems for creating heaven and earth.  In the English translation, the word et drops out since it has no English equivalent.  The word et as a grammatical form indicating a direct object linking verb and noun.  It links “God created” to “heaven” and to “earth.”  It is spelled with the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, alef-tav. Spanning the full set of 22 Hebrew letters from alef through tav, et represents media systems.  “Heaven” represents spiritual systems and “earth” natural systems.  Digital age thought gives us tools to comprehend the web of interrelationships between the divine creations in the first biblical passage – media systems that give rise to spiritual and to natural systems.  

Atoms and molecules are basic elements of natural media systems.  Science is revealing how these basic elements link all forms of life to one another on the inside through genetics and on the outside through ecology.  The genetic biodiversity of all plants and animals on planet Earth is written in DNA helixes with four letters c, g a, t (the nucleotides cytosine, guanine, adenine, thymine) forming four words, c-g, g-c, a-t, t-a.   Ecosystems webbing plants and animals together in their shared habitat are interlinked with all other ecosystems to form a global web of life.       

Spiritual Media Systems

Hebrew letters and words, the basic elements of spiritual media systems parallel bits and bytes, the basic elements of digital media systems.  We can encounter the spiritual media system revealed in the written Hebrew Bible through the Oral Torah, the inner esoteric Kabbalah and the outer exoteric Talmud.  Like genetics revealing the DNA code written inside the chromosomes of every cell of every living thing, Kabbalah reveals the hidden code that forms the spiritual core of Divine creation and human creativity.   The Talmud is a spiritual ecosystem, a living web of dialogic relationships that bridge space and time.  Each of its volumes is called a masechet, meaning “web” in Hebrew.  In its entirely it is called a yam, a sea always sending forth new waves for creative mind-surfing.   The classical text of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, teaches us: “Just as God is infinite, so is the word of God infinite, imbued with meanings that transcend any one particular interpretation.  It is upon us to drink from the word not as from a limited chalice but as from an eternal wellspring, and to fine ever-fresh meaning in it for each of our life situations.” Understanding the open-ended web structure of the Talmud can reveal spiritual dimensions of the World Wide Web. 

The Lubavicher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, teaches that the sweeping technological changes we are experiencing today were predicted some two thousand years ago in the Zohar.  It describes how the outburst in scientific knowledge and technological advancement would be paralleled by an increase in sublime wisdom or spirituality.  Integrating the wisdom of the mind and the wisdom of the soul can begin to usher true unity into the world.

“The divine purpose of the present information revolution, for instance, which gives an individual unprecedented power and opportunity, is to allow us to share knowledge – spiritual knowledge – with each other, empowering and unifying individuals everywhere.  We need to use today’s interactive technology not just for business or leisure but to interlink as people – to create a welcome environment for the interaction of our souls, our hearts, our visions.”1

A Living Dialogic Medium

When I was teaching at Columbia University, technoprophet Marshall McLuhan came down from Toronto to lecture there.  He talked about how the linear pattern of information resulting from print technology limited the thought patterns of people who learned from printed books.  Word follows word, line follows line, paragraph follows paragraph, page follows page, chapter follows chapter, in a single necessary order from the first page to last.  Learning through a medium that is a one-way street prevented creative, flexible, associative, open-ended, multidirectional, and multidimensional thought.  Instead of just being authoritative, books became authoritarian, demanding thinking in straight lines from a fixed point of view.  The book medium became a stronger message than its content.  Designed to be read in privacy, in seclusion from others, the book ended dialogue. It conferred the values of isolation, detachment, passivity, and non-involvement.2

I invited McLuhan to my office to show him how the Hebraic dialogic mindset, which could not tolerate unidirectional thought, used print technology to design multilinear books.  I took a volume of Talmud off my shelf and showed him non-linear pages designed in 16th century Venice.  I opened it to page 2 (there is no page 1) and pointed to the patch of text in the center of the page that starts with the Mishnah, written in Hebrew, followed by the Gemara, in Aramaic.  On one side is a column of Rashi’s commentary in a different alphabet from the central text.  On the other side is a column of Tosafot followed by references to Rashi in Tosafot.  In a narrow fourth column next to Tosafot, stacked vertically, are four different commentaries on commentaries that span centuries of dialogue over time and space. Sometimes, explanatory diagrams are printed on the side.  In the margin are numerous references to biblical passages and to other books.

In the words of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz: “The Talmud is thus the recorded dialogue of generations of scholars.  It has all the characteristics of a living dialogue.  Freshness, vivid spontaneity, and acute awareness of every subject permeate every argument and discussion.  The spirit of life breathes on every single page.” 3 It is not a set of books to be read in quiet solitude.  We give life and continuity to the dialogue that began millennia ago by engaging the hundreds of voices talking across the folio pages in active dialogue with a learning partner.  The two learners, a hevrutah, enter a page and move around within it while arguing with each other and calling for support from all the scholars before them.  They can begin their learning on any of its 5,894 pages.  The multivolume Talmud has no begin and no end.  The hevrutah can jump around within a page, between pages, between different Talmud tractates, look into the Bible, kabbalistic texts, or any other sources.  A study hall in a yeshiva filled with many learning teams is a busy, dynamic, noisy environment, quite different from the eerie silence of a library for linear books.

 From Talmud to World Wide Web

When I began surfing the World Wide Web, it seemed a familiar place to me.  I felt I had been there before.  Talmud study had prepared me for its vast multidirectional options, hyperlinking and its non-sequential organization.  I felt at home seeing home pages that had an uncanny resemblance to Talmud pages.  As a member of the panel, “Toward an Aesthetic for the 21st Century: Networking, Hypermedia, and Planetary Creativity,” at the 1990 conference of the College Art Association, I explored this confluence between traditional Jewish media experiences and encountering the emerging Internet. A decade later, Jonathan Rosen wrote in The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey between Worlds:

“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….  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 take comfort in thinking that a modern technological medium echoes an ancient one.”4

Canadian professor Eliezer Segal goes one step further.  He uses the new medium to explicate the old.  He created an interactive Image-Map site of a Talmud page, Page.html to serve as a port of departure on a voyage through centuries of vital dialogue.  The visitor to his site can click on any portion of the Talmud page image and be linked to a description of that patch of text.  He explains the contents and purposes of the text in English, also describing when and where that patch of text was composed.

Groups of learners worldwide study one page of Talmud every day completing the entire Talmud in seven years.  To mark the end of the seven-year cycle and the beginning of the next cycle, the many daf yomi (a page a day) learning groups throughout the New York area pack Madison Square Garden in celebration.  Cybercomunnities of daf yomi learners can be located by searching the entry “daf yomi.”  The search engines Google and Yahoo yield more than 200,000 “daf yomi” websites.  In English we say, “he’s an educated man” in past tense, as if he had completed his learning and no longer needs to be a student.  The Hebrew equivalent for a highly educated man is talmid hakham, meaning “wise student,” one who forever remains a student, one whose learning is daily and lifelong. 

In the on-line magazine, Computer-Mediated Communication, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor David Porush writes that the Talmud is an early example of hypertext. 

“A page of Talmud is structured around a single text surrounded by concentric layers of commentary and commentary on commentary.  By form and content, it announces the unfinished quality of constructing knowledge and the collective construction of shared values.  Even in its layout on the page, the Talmud suggests a kind of time and space destroying hypertextual symposium rather than an authoritative, linear, and coherent pronouncement with a beginning and ending written by a solitary author who owns the words therein…. The notion of private self, or the notion of singular origin of knowledge, pales into insignificance in the face of this talmudic-hypertextual-Internet-like vision of communally-constructed knowledge.”5

 Response Art: Cybersight@Tikunolam

Artworks can be created that infuse the Internet with a down-to-earth spirituality that can bring compassionate action into homes worldwide.  The challenge facing contemporary artists is to make art that brings material, spiritual, and media worlds together in creative interplay to make the world a better place.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches: “We must strive to draw spirituality down into the world and into every part of our involvement with  it – the world of our work and our social life – until not only do they not distract from our pursuit of G-d, but they become a full part of it.”6  

The acclaimed novelist, E. L. Doctorow gives voice to a clergyman in City of God

“If there is a religious agency in our lives, it has to appear in the manner of our times.  Not from on high, but a revelation that hides itself in our culture, it will be ground-level, on the street, it’ll be coming down the avenue in the traffic, hard to tell apart from anything else. It will be cryptic, discerned over time, piecemeal, to be communally understood at the end like a law of science”.

His friend’s response: “Yeah, they’ll put it on a silicon chip.”7         

Cybersight@tikunolam is an artwork that strives to reveal spiritual dimensions of digital technologies and the World Wide Web.  It is a responsive artwork that offers blind people opportunities to experience imagery through their sense of touch using a digital system that traces images from a computer monitor on their fingertips.  Through the Internet, they can gain tactile access to those things they would most like to see if the had vision.  This web of compassionate interaction is extended to sighted people who contribute pictures to the website for an image bank for the blind. 

People who were born blind or became blind at a young age were asked: “What are four things that you would most like to see if you had vision?”  Responses were received from countries as disparate as Australia, Ethiopia, Czech Republic, Fiji, India, Israel, Korea, Lebanon, Lithuania, Niger, Poland, Slovenia, Zambia, United Kingdom, and United States.  The amazing similarity of responses from such diverse cultures demonstrates the common vision of humanity.  They most wanted to see things they cannot touch – sky, landscapes, and printed letters.   Their desires correspond to the first sentence in the Bible with then description of the creation of media, natural, and spiritual systems. The results of this cross-cultural research were posted on the website with an invitation to contribute pictures of things that blind people most want to see.  In response to these contributed images, corporate sponsors will donate money for medical research to prevent and cure blindness. 

It is an artwork of global dimensions through which actions in cyberspace rectify defects in real space, tikun olam.  Innovative digital technologies that enable blind people to “see” pictures through the sense of touch are linked to the website.  A special computer mouse has been developed in Jerusalem that gives blind people direct access to pictures on a computer monitor.  Beneath fingers placed in indentations in this specially designed mouse, there is a grid of needles that move up and down independently to trace the image on the computer monitor onto the blind person’s fingertips.

Unlike disinterested contemplation of art in European culture since the Renaissance, art that actively responds to the cries of the world is most exalted in Jewish tradition. Rabbi Nachman of Beslov teaches: “The key to the workings of the entire universe is charity.  The entire flow of spiritual and physical blessing into the world can be seen as God’s ‘charity’ to His creatures, to bring them to know Him.  When we ourselves give charity, we are participating in this process, which is why charity is such an exalted mitzvah.”8 Judaism teaches that the four-letters of the divine name, yod, heh, vav, heh, contain the mystery of charity.  Yod is the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet that symbolizes a coin.  Since heh is the fifth letter of the alphabet with the numerical value of five, it alludes to the five fingers of the hand.  Heh is the hand that gives.  Vav is shaped like an outstretched arm. When used as a prefix, vav is the conjunction “and,” the connecting word.  The final heh, is the hand of the one who receives.  Indeed, the very name of God teaches about the centrality of charity in Jewish life.  The World Wide Web can greatly expand the connective power of the vav, linking hands across the global network.  


1 Menachem M. Schneerson, Toward a Meaningful Life, adapted by Simon Jacobson (new York: William Morrow, 1995) p. 191.

2 See Marshall McLuhan, Guttenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (New York: New American Library, 1969) and Understanding Media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994).

3 Adin Steinsaltz, The Talmud, The Steinsaltz Edition. Reference Guide (New York: Random House, 1989), p. 9.

4 Jonathan Rosen, The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey Between Worlds (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), pp. 7-8, 11.

5 David Porush, “Ubiquitous Computing vs. Radical Privacy: Areconsideration of the Future,” Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine, vol. 2, no. 3, March 1, 1995.

6 Menachem M. Schneerson, Torah Studies, adapted by Jonathan Sacks (London: Lubavitch Foundation, 1986), p. 32.

7 E. L. Doctorow, City of God (new York: Plume Book/Penguin Putnam, 2001), p. 254.

8 Rabbi Noson, leading pupil of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, The Fiftieth Gate: Likutey Tefilot.