Christianity teaches that the New Testament interprets or "completes" the Old Testament (Judaism's Hebrew Bible). Within Judaism, the Talmud serves much the same function.
As author Jonathan Rosen puts it in "The Talmud and the Internet" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16), Jews have not just a New Testament but "numerous new testaments, all unfolding one into the other and circling back to that first biblical testament."
Rosen, who wrote the novel "Eve's Apple," calls the Talmud a "peculiar blend of stories, folklore, legalistic arguments, anthropological asides, biblical exegesis and intergenerational rabbinic wrangling."
The Talmud compiles centuries of Jewish discussion that developed from biblical material, reaching final form in about A.D. 500. The scale is stupendous. The Babylonian Talmud, the larger and more widely used of the two editions, contains some 2.5 million words.
So central is the Talmud in defining Jewish tradition that medieval Jews who followed only the Bible, known as the Karaites, were scorned as heretics. A Karaite remnant survives today in Israel. Liberal or Reform Judaism also rejects the religious authority of the Talmud while using it as a resource on Jewish heritage.
The New Testament says that "the word became flesh" in the coming of Jesus Christ, Rosen says, but in the Talmud "the flesh became words." He means that when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, Judaism was no longer centered on a single building, city or even nation. The words of the Talmud became a portable temple that could be carried anywhere in the world that Jews roamed.
Rosen's book is a meditation on matters personal and Jewish that offers the merest introduction to the Talmud. Even that much is useful, since most Christians are ignorant concerning this great work, and many modern Jews know little more.
His title signifies that the Talmud, like the Internet, is a limitless ocean of information where this leads to that which leads to something else, in random succession.
The Internet is "a world of unbounded curiosity, of argument and information, where anyone with a modem can wander out of the wilderness for a while, ask a question and receive an answer," he says. "I take comfort in thinking that a modern technological medium echoes an ancient one."
In both cases, the scope is gargantuan and "even the illusion of mastery is impossible."
One difference between the Talmud and the Internet is that the former is to be studied face to face, with a partner or in class, whereas individuals troll the Internet in isolation -- something that worries social commentators.
The material in the Talmud lacks systematic arrangement. "Its contours are a reflection of life itself," explains Adin Steinsaltz, who is editing a standard Talmud edition for our time.
The structure, such as it is, divides the work into six "orders": "Seeds" (agricultural laws), "Appointed Times" (the Sabbath and festivals), "Women" (marriage and divorce), "Damages" (civil and criminal jurisprudence), "Sanctities" (temple worship and sacrifice laws) and "Purities" (ritual purification rules).
About two-thirds of the work treats the religious laws that are binding on traditional Jews. The rest is "Aggadah" (narration), with greater freedom of interpretation allowed, and covers ethics, history, legend, science and philosophy.
A typical page looks like this: There are a few lines of Mishnah, the early layer of rabbis' commentary, then a few lines of Gemarah, rabbis' later commentary on the Mishnah.
The Bible passage under discussion and commentary by the medieval sage Rashi appear on the inside of the page. (It's said this protects the words in case a volume is accidentally dropped in the mud.) Finally, there are commentaries on Rashi's commentary.
Due to lamentable Talmud burnings by medieval Christians, the only full manuscript of the Babylonian Talmud to survive was the Munich Codex of 1334. The Talmud was first printed in Venice, Italy, in 1520-24.
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