The Walking Book

The other week, Leil Leibovitz lodged a complaint against the e-sefer and bemoaned the way that the iPad and its peers strip away the sense of holiness from the traditional experience of studying Talmud. Leibovitz laments the loss of the traditional talmudic tome – a hefty medium that commands our absolute attention.  His complaint is particularly directed at the chussen shas‘ (the gargantuan set of talmudic tomes traditionally given to a groom before marriage) replacement- a sleek device that effortlessly allows its users to flit indiscriminately between Bava Qamma and Angry Birds.

On top of that, Leibovitz has this to say:

One reason Jews have managed to survive for millennia while other, mightier and more populous religious and ethnic groups vanished is our ability to engage in never-ending debate about the tenets of our faith. Rather than demand obeisance to tradition and rejection of modern developments or local customs, Judaism invites its adherents to argue, just as long as they’re all arguing about the same thing.

This is all low-hanging fruit, and some of it surprisingly misguided. As Yitz reminds me, the story of Jewish textual transmission has been one of adaptation. Jews  have moved along with the evolution of different media, even if at a pace different than their neighbors.  Scrolls gave way to  codices, which made way for the printed press. We have merely arrived at the next paradigm.

Over at the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik recently crafted a taxonomy of the great “the-internet-has-irrevocably-changed us” lament.  The same article might have been written about the loss of printed books and their replacement with e-readers – an act of mourning that I am surely joined in by readers of this blog (Here is merely the most recent and gorgeous example, by Leon Wieseltier). The point of Gopnik’s taxonomy, of course, is that a little perspective is in order. Indeed.

In one fundamental way the e-reader actually perpetuates an older trend in Jewish learning, that of the handy and portable talmudic volume, which could be taken anywhere and allow Talmud scholars to realize the rabbinic vision of constant study (“day and night”). Whether through the Hebrewbooks app, ובלכתך בדרך or iTalmud, I find myself carving out more time to study than ever. It is a kind of De Certeauian response to the unstoppable onslaught of media that races through our portable devices.

My old high-school principal, Rabbi Yosef Tendler, recently passed away. He was a gigantic man in more than a physical sense, and he cultivated a culture of total and constant dedication to Torah study. His mournful mantra – also constant – was “you’re wasting your life,” and in this he furthered the school of the Gaon of Vilna and its obsession with industriousness  - where sins were deemed particularly tragic because of the time lost while committing them. It was not for everyone, and some students could not handle the pressure.  For those of us who survived (and thrived) in this environment, the results have stayed with us even during stages and moments in life where such an ideal is all too often out of reach. The circadian rhythms of yeshiva life are indelible. Sometimes, vegged out on the couch on a late winter Thursday night (mishmar!), I still go into a funk.

Rabbi Tendler’s device of choice was an elegant portable talmudic tractate. As they like to say, he did not leave home without it.  Rabbi Tendler used it to both forge ahead in his private course of study and also to review learning already acquired. The message was the medium, and the medium signified the constantly-studying Jew. Yet the portable Shas was no fetish. It hearkened back to the “pervasive orality” (Elman’s term) of rabbinic literature, with its reciters and walking books. When I learned (over the internet) that Rabbi Tendler died in early February, I realized that one of those walking books would walk this blessed earth no more.

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6 responses to “The Walking Book

  1. “Leibovitz laments the loss of the traditional talmudic tome – a hefty medium that commands our absolute attention. ”

    He called it “dusty.” (“its traditional leather-bound, dusty and imposing form”) Freudian slip or not? And leather? More like pleather.

    As for the chosson shas in general, for most people who learn Talmud the chosson shas is an ornament, not what they actually use to learn, at least not outside of the home.

      • Perhaps what should be lamented is not the loss of the object but the way we think about the object. What has been gained is an ability to search for terms and what has been lost is an ability to remember ideas. In the oral era, ideas were accessed fluidly through mental associations; in the written era, these association became visual, attached to a page number, but more importantly to a page shape. The lamentations being expressed are more an indication of the fear of losing contact with the previous mode of thinking about the Talmud. The debates about whether or not the new modes of thinking allowed by the new technology are indeed better will also soon be lost.

  2. Let us not forget that rabbinic literature itself is full of laments for things lost. The Mishna purportedly marked the end of the truly oral law; Mishne Torah – practical Talmud study; Shulchan Aruch – local rabbinic legal autonomy; Artscroll – ameilut; etc. etc. all the way down to Haym Soloveitchik’s overly heralded lament over the loss of mimetic traditions; and now this.

  3. Pingback: Talmudic Culture and its Discontents | The Talmud Blog·

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