Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A few days ago, Apple released yet another new device aimed at integrating words written, spoken, and seen, and freeing them from the limitations of time and space. It joins an array of other products making texts and audio-video materials available as never before.

Is anything being lost here? The Talmud declares: "Written words should not be spoken, and spoken words should not be written." What the rabbis specifically sought to impress on Jewish minds was the difference between the Written Torah, fixed, immutable, divine, and the constantly accreting commentaries known as the Oral Torah, spontaneous, dynamic, human yet also somehow partaking of the divine.

The distinction has proved hard to maintain. Though the Mishnah, the second-century law code, was first "published" orally, it was soon written down, and so, before long, was the vast rabbinic corpus surrounding it. The transcription of oral Torah created a Jewish culture drunk with the love of texts, first in manuscript and then, with the advent of movable type, in an explosion of print. Among the first works to be printed was the Talmud itself—in codices like those used for Roman law, with the text in the middle and commentaries along the sides. The result was a dazzling typography whose horizontal and vertical crosshatching perfectly fit the Talmud's own endless and exuberant cross-referencing, often said to prefigure the "hypertexts" of today.

Not all welcomed the development of mass printing and distribution, fearing that it would lower the bar of scholarship. Today, the blizzard of words, images, and sounds raises worries of a different sort. With attention fragmenting into increasingly narrow bits, the voice speaking to us, human or divine, recedes into a blurry distance. The Talmud says the Torah is "black fire written on white fire": an essence that neither devices nor websites, even as they afford unparalleled access, can ever capture.

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