The Talmud and the Internet- Part 1

I’ve discovered “communal tagging” — of books, of photos, of Web bookmarks, of information. A way to communally organize the “too much information” that we’re inundated with. See, which is about the 4th such site I’ve stumbled across in the last few days while learning about blogging. It inspired this post. Or Flickr for photos. Or for Web bookmarks, which I’ve been seeing as a link in quite a few places and finally looked up. (Odd to me that I never saw any of this before! What’s different about the kind of searches I’m doing now?) They’re all “social” organizing sites, related but not identical to the wiki idea, which is behind, of course, Wikipedia. (By the way, if you click on the wiki link and read the second paragraph, you’ll see the word “backronym” — which is simply another sort of midrash!)

Jonathan Rosen meditated for the length of a short book upon the similarities in structure between the Talmud and the Web. Hypertext is how midrash works, in a sense; it is in fact a frustration here, in my blog, that I can’t have a drop-down list of multiple link possibilities for a single word, a davar acher option. Talmud, or for that matter Mikra’ot Ge’dolot, is arranged with multiple commentaries on the same page, so you can see what Rashi says about something, and then go look at what a different commentator says about the same word.

(In fact, wouldn’t that be a wonderful visual interface to be able to build dynamically on the Web? I’m sure it’s already possible in theory! You click on a link, and your current window partitions to open a mini-window AS PART OF ITSELF, not as a separate pop-up which covers up what you are doing and disappears when you click again on the main text. You click again and another mini-window arranges itself on the page, leaving the original and secondary windows viewable. Hey, why isn’t anybody doing this already? It’s so obvious! I’m not in the computer world any more, as I was in college, I don’t even have the language to describe the level at which this would have to be implemented — would it require new HTML/XML? Would it have to invoke JavaScript? Would it require a new protocol? Is it just a variation on “frames”? I can toss these words around but I guarantee you, there is someone out there, probably Jewish, who knows what I am talking about web-wise and understands what I am saying Jewish-text-layout-wise, and why don’t you get started already?!!!

If you don’t know how classic Jewish texts are laid out, check out this cool interactive explanation, this color-coded explanation, or this English-laid-out-like-a-page-of-Talmud explanation.)

Anyway, I know that there are major similarities between this social knowledge-organizing thing and Talmud … but I have a feeling that once I really think about it, it’s going to have some illuminating differences, too. Elite vs. potentially universal, and the Web’s ability to search, are very important differences. So, as I was sort-of-ranting above, is the current inability to tile multiple windows and view them as your own customized “page.” Tabs help you switch back and forth easily from page to page but that’s just not the same thing as seeing it all at once.

I can’t find my copy of Jonathan Rosen’s book — it’s still in a box somewhere from moving — but I can pull a comment off the back cover because I can find it on-line, and perhaps this sums up what I am thinking about:

Connecting is a practice encouraged by both the Talmud and the Internet…
(Frank Kermode, New York Times Book Review)

And now that I’ve found that, I know what “The Talmud and the Internet – Part II” may be about. (Or it could be Part III, who knows? I might get to that similarities-differences topic first.)

When I do write Part II, remember that it was just this morning that the mother of the bar mitzvah quoted and then drashed Garrison Keillor’s closing line on “The Writer’s Almanac“: “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”