We, the Jewish people, are the “People of the Book”. Originally it was a scroll, as it was actually the early Christians who first adopted the codex, the proto-book, so as to distinguish themselves. But eventually we too had books, along with the Book of Books, for which, in the 8th century, the Muslims gave us that familiar nickname, “People of the Book.” We were the people of the Biblical text, but also of much more, of commentaries and codes, written words that were studied and pondered, and through which we found our spirituality and our anchor in a world that was often inhospitable.
But today, plain text is passe. Social media like Facebook beckons with its pictures, and podcasts and Ted Talks deliver information in an easy-to-consume, spoken package. When someone recommends online content to me, I look for a transcript to read; for me, this is how I study and probe something deeply. But often a written text is not provided. It seems people today would rather see and hear, than read.
People look twice at the books in my office, and I joke that I am a dying breed, with all that paper. The website Sefaria (from the Hebrew word sefer, book) has made so much of my library superfluous. But it isn’t really about whether the words are on a page or on a screen, it’s whether people relate to words at all.
Technology is shaped by the way we think, but it also shapes us in return. A trivial example: coffee. You can actually trace the adoption of the custom of all-night study on Shavuot and Sh’mini Atzeret to the introduction of coffee in different regions. By the 16th century, coffee, and the tradition of nocturnal study, had reached the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire. Decade by decade in the 1700’s, coffee spread to the Rhineland – and so did these holiday rituals.
So I worry about the change in the way we relate to text. What will happen to Jewish study if it is the sharing of images that comes more naturally than the sharing of text?
In many ways, Judaism is a non-visual culture. Our God has no body nor even an image of a body- ein lo demut haguf ve eyn lo guf. The second commandment forbids the worship of images of anything “on the earth, or in the sea below or in the heavens above the earth.” For some this has meant no images at all, as Islam has interpreted it. Many of us have read Chaim Potok’s novel, My Name Is Asher Lev, about a young artist whose great work, a tribute to his mother, is unacceptable to his family. Sure the story is about the incompatibility of art to a branch of traditionalist Judaism, but more deeply, it is about the freedom of the artistic temperament and the boundaries and distinctions that are native to Jewish thought.
This summer, a group from our congregation took a trip to Spain and Israel. Most of the trip was focused on the history of Sephardic Judaism, that part of the Jewish community that lived for a thousand years in Iberia only to be expelled in 1492. In Israel, we took the time to visit Sephori, the home of Yehudah HaNasi, the editor of the Mishnah, a place of Talmudic culture. And what did we find there? Jewish art – the Mona Lisa of the Galilee, in what appeared to be a Jewish home. And more than that, mosaic decorations in the synagogue, on Jewish themes but also including pagan motifs that were ostensibly banned by Jewish law. As those who have travelled in the Middle East know, these were not the only mosaics which have caused scholars to scratch their heads and rethink what they thought they knew.
Can an alternative to textual study offer us deeper levels of meaning? The Binding of Isaac, the story we read this morning, is known to me through its many reinterpretations in text, but it has another history. It is found in the ancient mosaics we saw on the synagogue floor in Israel, and in others throughout the Diaspora. And it was also found in the illustrations of some high holiday prayer books, and in an amazing illuminated Chumash. These artistic renderings in their own way offer midrash. In a version that was placed over the Ark, in the early 3rd century, we see the Hand of God, and a silent figure– could that be Sarah, waiting in her tent, unmentioned in the text? Were they trying to include her in a story from which she is conspicuously absent?
This 6th century mosaic in the land of Israel reminds us of how young Isaac might have been, and in case we don’t get the message they found in the story, it has the words al tashlich, – “don’t put forth your hand” and ve hineh ayil – “here is the ram.” In an illustration in a High Holiday prayer book from 13th-century Poland, the knife is a Crusader’s sword and the story is told as part of a plea for God to move from judgement to mercy.
Among all the Jewish traditions, the High Holidays change last. So, if you only spend these two days with us, the changes in American Jewish life over the past few decades might not be that noticeable. Our Judaism and our religious education will have to change to meet the generations coming up behind us who experience life and study differently than we do. But having seen that change has been present in Jewish life, through the centuries, we should have confidence that the essence, the meaning, will survive this translation, from text to screen, as it has survived the other radical shifts from scroll to book, from daytime study to night, from fear of the other to inclusion.
Our task has been enunciated well by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, le chadesh et hayashan, ulkadesh et he chadash, to renew to the old and to bring sacredness to the innovative.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This post is adapted from a Rosh Hashana sermon delivered at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, California).