Talmud, ISIS, and the Decapitation of Civilization
When decapitations occur, the connection between heaven and earth has been severed
Today, September 2014, I’m unable to shake the images that infected me from watching videos of beheadings by ISIS. These are horrific, but with all due respect to the victims, it’s hard not to appreciate them as brilliantly successful social media retroviruses injected into the worldwide teletechnoculture. They have achieved their authors’ goal: after billions of views on YouTube and elsewhere, a few savages with an instinct for stagecraft and low-budget indie production values have awakened the giant American war machine.
Beheadings aren’t new. Jewish law was concerned about them thousands of years ago, but not as a means of revenge and spreading true faith. Rather, beheadings are symbolic of a problem that concerns the rabbis in the Talmud. A beheading plays the central role in a mystery that worries them. They imagine a corpse, victim of a murder, found half way between two cities. Who is responsible for pursuing the criminal? Judging the crime? For burying the body? And if the crime is not solved, how do we rid the world of guilt when when there is no clear authority? Chaos threatens. For the sages, beheadings were symbolic of the retreat of holiness rather than as a means to achieve it. But the symbolism runs even deeper.
Writing and reading are acts of telepathy. The author tells me what’s in his mind. I try to decipher it. It can be an ecstatic communion, or dull. But assuming there’s another mind may help us out of the postmodern moral abyss.
Yes, the author’s story is just a version. The characters are just representations. The author tries to reduce the arbitrariness of selecting these few signs out of an infinity of possible others through force of will and practice and erasure. If we resonate with what we read, we respect and admire and can be pleasured by word art. But who is to say what is right or wrong in anything?
Welcome to the postmodern abyss, where morals throw themselves off the cliff to die. Where ethics are a matter of local taste. Where the world is anything you make it. Chacun á son goût. Or a“Negative Theology,”what Charles Taylor saw in Derrida’s philosophy.
When you open a book, are you already judging the author against some ideological test? Or do you try to know the author’s mind first before deciding he had failed your personal litmus test?
Reading the Talmud is good training for suspending your judgments.
The Talmud is a hypertextual text of a symposium among hundreds of rabbis and scholars spread across continents over the first five centuries after the Destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
The Mishnah plus Gemarah that make up the canonical Talmud, along with inclusions of sanctioned commenatries by Rashi and others, are at least 6000 pages long. But the Talmud project has never stopped growing and promises to keep growing as commentators comment on commentators to adapt the Torah to an evolving reality. Easily millions of pages have been written about it. Not only is it a cryptic attempt at capturing a convoluted conversation, the conversation itself is an attempt to reconstruct a text that was never supposed to be written down, the Oral Law of the Jews. In short, the mere act of learning to read the Talmud requires years of study just to give it a fair hearing, to try to understand what the sages were trying to say before deciding if what they said had any merit.
Anyone can dip into this sea of interpretations and stories and pronouncements and duels among rabbis and extract something out of context to prove a point. But just to learn the names of the “authors,” the eras and cultures in which they lived, the assumptions underlying their discourse, and the pretexts for that discourse, requires a lifetime. It’s good practice for suspending your self-interested interpretations when reading a mere 300-page novel by a single author.
How I learned to stop worrying and love Google for their telepathic creation of me
“Virus on Host” NPR.ORG image
In other words, privacy is over and it’s awesome. Google and Yahoo and Amazon and Facebook, with help from the NSA, have won. They have removed any shred of hope we could retain our privacy. But I don’t worry. In fact, I find the occasion joyous.
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