One of the potentially deleterious effects of the digital revolution is a flattening of consciousness—or so some fear. What sort of leveling takes place as we click relentlessly through the endless web? At what point do the words—thoughtful, meaningless, moving, inane—all bleed together? How to maintain any sense of the preciousness of language itself?
Several texts recently come to light manage, each in its own way, to remind us that a whole, irreplaceable world can rest in a few furtive lines found who knows where.
Phrases inked on pottery discovered at an excavation in Israel have been dated to the late-11th or early-10th century B.C.E., making this the oldest known Hebrew inscription. The very existence of these stray words on a potshard stirs wonder at Hebrew's longevity and its connective reach across vast historical divides.
At the Yale Law Library, thanks to the Italian Inquisition's massive confiscations of Jewish books and their metamorphosis into raw materials for bookbinders, a different sort of Hebrew fragment has gone on display. This is a manuscript snippet from Maimonides' monumental halakhic and moral code, Mishneh Torah. In its lines, peeking out from the binding of a 16th-century Milanese law book, it is hard not to see a tangible representation of the historical struggle of Jewish learning to sustain itself and grow, via exegesis and commentary, amid alien majority cultures that have tried, in this case quite literally, to close the book on it.
Finally, a French publisher has published the wartime notebooks of the religious philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995). A prisoner of war scribbles his thoughts between shifts of brutal labor, and in these comments—on the indelible traces left by human action, on the power of human touch—we discern the seeds of his extraordinary postwar effort to salvage the ethical core of philosophy and civilization alike.
In his very last letter to his friend Walter Benjamin in 1940, Gershom Scholem wrote that "every line we succeed in publishing today—no matter how uncertain the future to which we entrust it—is a victory wrenched from the forces of darkness." Against that background of mortal threat to the very survival of the Jewish people, today's worries about information overload must seem trivial indeed. All the more powerful, then, amid the digital torrent, is the charge from the past never to lose sight of, and always to preserve, the essence of what we have and stand for.
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