THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN
On Life At Internet Speed
I must share with you a bit of personal disappointment. I was in the running for a new role as the Menahel of a large religious institution - One on a grander scale than my Yeshivah, Yeshivas Chipass Emmess, with a bigger name and more recognizable global impact. I prepared for the interviews and discussions through extensive Toirah study. I reworked my resume, and participated in mock interview role plays. I engaged in Tefillah and Tzedakah. I even gave up Flexing the Flanken for a couple of weeks, if you know what I mean. But all to no avail.
Alas, it was Reb Ayman al-Zawahri who became the new leader of Al Qaida, and not me. Instead, I was offered the opportunity to serve as the Sandik at the Bris for Anthony Weiner's child, but I was uncomfortable with the prospect of being charged with indecency for holding a little Weiner. So I opted to console myself by engaging in a three way with Sarah (Imainu) Palin and Michele Bachmann, while Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and Moishe Katzav sat at the side, watching while reciting Tehillim and pleasuring themselves. Shoyn.
I share these tidbits with you as we are all swept up in the tide of information that overwhelms our society. Facebook. Tweeting. Blogging. Skype. E-Mail. One barely has time these days to engage in good old fashioned Loshon Harah and Rechiloos in Shul, at the Mikvah, or on line at the kosher Duncan Donuts on a Sunday morning.
How is one to function in a world where the old customs, practices, and behaviors break down, replaced by a new social order that is unfamiliar? How can we maintain age old traditions when the new generation speaks a different cultural dialect? How can we continue a communal Mesoirah when the fundamental understanding of the very nature of community is in the process of being redefined?
However, you Minuval, we are not the first generation to face such questions. Do you think that we live in such unique times, that all of history culminates in our day, and that Klal Yisroel never faced such challenges in the past? Do you think you are so special that the Toirah offers you no guidance, even about technologies that were not invented until last Tuesday? What kind of Am Haaretz are you anyway?
No. There is a famous Medrish that says that there were six worlds in existence prior to this one - Seven universes in total, seven eras of history, each one created after the previous world was destroyed. So this is not the first time we have faced this or any other challenge, you Mechutziff! Klal Yisroel subscribes to an eternal truth called Toirah, linked to the Reboinoisheloilum, the eternal Omnipresent, who exists outside of time and space. Everything that we experienced has happened before, perhaps not in the Oilum Hazeh, the world as we know it today, but at a different time and place. Perhaps not on earth, but in the Twelve Colonies prior to the nuclear attack by the Cylons, or on Planet Vulcan before its annihilation by the Romulan outcasts. It may have been a long, long time ago in a place far, far away, but we experienced it before.
Indeed, we are not living through the first "information revolution" since the giving of the Toirah on Har Seenai. For example, we traditionally do not refer to the Mishnah and Gemarrah as "Talmud"; we refer to them as Toirah Sheh Baal Peh, the Oral Law, since they were once exclusively passed down orally. It was at one time anathema to even consider putting Toirah Sheh Baal Peh into writing, since it was believed that this would harm the integrity of the transmission of Halacha, as well as take away good union jobs from the Amoraim, the guild charged with preserving the oral tradition. (Sadly, my Bashert, Feigeh Breineh, is a Karaite, and does not subscribe to the oral tradition, no matter how much I beg. Rachmana Letzlan.)
But the introduction of a new communications medium did not harm the integrity of Toirah Sheh Baal Peh. Rather, it democratized the Talmud, making it accessible to the masses: At first in manuscript form in the early and middle ages; then, in the Renaissance, printed on the printing presses of Europe; and later, in the 1940s, published in a serialized version in the Saturday Evening Post, right next to pictures sketched by Normal Rockwell, the week's Peanuts strip by Charles Schulz, and the latest anti-Semitic tomes of Henry Ford.
The Gemarrah itself cites a famous Machloikess on the decision to write down the Mishnah. According to Abaya, Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi, the Tanna Kamma, compiled the Mishnah in order to standardize Halachic traditions during a formative period in the history of Klal Yisroel. According to Rava, Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi compiled the Mishnah in order to standardize Halachic practices throughout the world's Jewish communities located across the globe – from Rome and Britannia in the West -- to Eretz Yisroel and Bavel in the Center -- to Persia and India in the East. According to Rav Puppa, Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi wanted to commit the Mishnah to writing so that he could get credit as the principal author, in order to earn royalties and secure the movie rights. But according to Rabbah, Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi canonized the Mishnah in order to impress a Mesopotamian stripper named Shayndel who he was secretly in love with.
In any case, the shift in format from oral to written served as a catalyst for increasing access to and fluency in our tradition. One no longer needed physical access to a center of study; one only needed to understand the language of the Talmud. Of course, this was not a trivial undertaking itself. The Talmud Bavli, the Babylonia Talmud, was edited in the Sixth Century CE with a light layer of redaction that added a modicum of structure, but was still a complex, meandering text written in the East Babylonian dialect of Aramaic. The Bavli had a special emphasis on prayer, holidays, and religio-legal issues. The Talmud Yerushalmi, compiled a century earlier under the duress of Roman persecution, had even less structure, and was written in the alternate Western dialect of Aramaic. The Yerushalmi was particularly interested in detailed laws related to the Land of Israel, such as Maaiser (tithing of crops) and Shmita (the agrarian sabbatical year). And the Talmud Koreani, compiled at the same time in Seoul during Samhan rule, prior to the invasion of the Goguryeo, was written in the Korean dialect of Aramaic, and had a particular focus on recipes for cooking dogs and cats.
The complexity of the Talmud was addressed head on by the RAMBAM, Maimonides, who in the twelfth century created a highly structured codification of Jewish law and beliefs, the Mishnah Torah, with the express intent of making Yiddishkeit more accessible to Klal Yisroel. His decade long achievement was celebrated within Klal Yisroel by the making of bonfires, in which some of his manuscripts were burnt by opponents. But the vast majority of scholars and communities welcomed his contribution, and his contribution is celebrated to this day in Israel during the annual "Maimunah", and in Iran on "National Turban Day".
The codification approach became the standard for Halachic transmission: The Arba Turim, the Shulkhan Arukh, the Mishnah Berurah, the Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh, Shmiras Shabbas Kehilkhesah, Conservative Judaism's "A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice", the Reform Movement's "So You Think You Are a Hooknose", and the Reconstructionist Movement's "The Jewish Law Handbook: Hundreds Of Cultic Practices to Complicate Your Life and Leave You Dazed and Confused".
So, indeed, as information has become more accessible, Klal Yisroel has thrived. In truth, the fundamental challenge does not lie in the existence of the new forms of media themselves, but in how the new forms are used. Are they used for willy nilly gossip? Are they used for Tifloos? Are they used for Pritzus? Are they used for Latzanus, Chass V'Sholom? (Such a phenomenon would be deeply condemnable!) Or are they used for sharing the wealth of Toirah learning, doing Maisim Toivim, acts of loving kindness, and selling useless trinkets to the Goyim at a hefty profit?
I am reminded of a Maiseh Shehoya. In the 16th century the followers of the MAHARAL MiPrague came to him one day, proposing that they burn down the local printing press, since they had learned that in addition to publishing the MAHARAL's commentary on the Baba Kama and his biography of Mar Zutra, the printer had also published the Kama Sutra. The MAHARAL was deeply troubled by the news, but was also steadfastly committed to the principle of free speech. So the MAHARAL objected to the proposal, but as a compromise, he suggested that his students steal samples of ALL the publications produced by the printer, so that he could review them in his study with his personal secretary, Ingrid Bar Zanzibar.
Rabboisai, history does not flow at a steady pace. There are long periods of stability, which for Klal Yisroel have often been periods of wretched stasis. (Think back to the existence of most of our Ashkenazic ancestors in the Pale of Settlement for hundreds of years, or to our Sephardic ancestors living a second class, insecure existence across the Ottoman empire.) But there are also periods of great leaps – social, national, and technological.
We are indeed living in such a period. It is quite natural that we crave the stability and predictability of the past, of a simpler time. But the nostalgic longing for the past is frequently illusory. Who would want to return to the period of the Czars and the Pogroms? Who would want to return to a time of immense, unfathomable poverty? Who would want to return to a time when everyone was isolated, when a person could not see beyond his Daled Amois, his immediate sphere? Who would want to return to a time of less transparency, a time without peer awareness, a time when only a select few could raise their voices, while the teeming masses were silent, for wont of the ability to make their voices heard? Who would want to return to a period when all the lights are out and the curtains are completely drawn during Tashmish HaMitah?
Rabboisai, in order to forge a better tomorrow, we must embrace the future rather than fight it. There are indeed risks associated with the information revolution, but the benefits far outweigh the risks. And indeed, even if one tries to fight the information revolution, he is destined to fail. Such is the same for many social and national issues. Like skilled sailors, we must master the inevitable strong tides to secure our own interests and ensure our own benefit. And, most important, we must retain perspective and foresight, so as not to expose ourselves and our Wieners.
Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval