Friday, March 9, 2007

The Word on Words

I come from a cultural background in which the book plays a significant role, and so when I think with one side of my brain to write, or with the other side of my brain to edit, I am in some sense responding to hard wiring. This is a factor I try to remember when I am awakened in the early morning hours by the sound of Sally, barking furiously.

Sally is responding to her wiring, I tell myself. She is barking to alert the other dogs in the pack of an intrusion.

Raccoons? Quite possible.

Coyotes? Also a possibility; they do gad about the neighborhood.

Squirrels? Less likely. Although they abound, I believe they are not nocturnal.

Sally's position, I have come to believe, is that these nocturnal trespassers are dragons, and like Republicans in control of the presidency and both houses, they are up to mischief. She is doing her all to protect me from these dragons and I must put up with her nocturnal alarms as a part of my general health plan.

The culture from which I descend (and link) is a volatile, argumentative one, divided roughly into three ethnic sources, the Ashkenazi, the Mizrahi, and the Sephardim. But already this opens the door to argument. Schmuck, some critic would inveigh, you have forgotten the Galitzianer. Not schmuck, schlemozzle, another critic would suggest; in his ignorance, he does not know of those from Galicia.

Well, it gets worse. In addition to the ethnic sources, there are philosophical gradations, as in orthodox, reformed, conservative. Schmuck, you forgot the liberals.

All of these, ethnic and philosophical, follow laws of ritual and behavior with the same perfervidity espoused by conservative and liberal interpretations of the Constitution of the United States. Or a dog, affirming her right to ward off dragons.

The Law, as I heard it referred to way back in the dim reaches of my youth, meant the laws that came first from scrolls and then from the evolved scroll, the book. (Did you know that the word shamus, now actually the name of a mystery-writers' award, and frequently thought to be a slangy variation of cop or PI, or 'tec, originally meant a synagogue functionary whose job it is to protect a scroll [Torah]?)

In about 200 of the Common Era, there were enough laws and interpretations of them that the oral tradition of displaying and dealing with them had to go. Although the metaphor is both a reach and an anomaly, it is still effective to think of the result of this informational log jam as being analogous to the shift from handwriting to typewriter or, indeed, from typewriter to computer.

The Law was set forth in a series of books called The Talmud. As is indeed the case with some of our civil and criminal law treatises forged from the Anglo-Saxon tradition, The Talmud sets forth such minutiae as what constitutes acceptable household behavior on the sabbath. The Talmud also contains--and here comes my point--commentary from rabbis (Did you know a rabbi is, in a real sense, a lawyer, a professional who has studied The Law, who counsels its use, and discourses on ways to live It? ). Thus The Talmud may be considered not only as legal commentary but as an on-going legal argument.

Reading through most available Talmud editions, you can actually eavesdrop on a multi-generational discussion (argument). To those of us who grew up in America and appear to have some of our hard wiring diluted by Diet Coke and saccharin and Lean Cuisine (pizza doesn't count; we can eat pizza with a clear conscience), and other distractions of this American culture, the mere mention of Talmud evokes a sense of family gathering. And what do families in our culture do? They argue. So the book becomes the generational argument, which may be one reason why few from our culture are likely to answer a question with a simple yes or no, but instead with an "But on the other hand--"

My point here is that Talmud in addition to an on-going gloss on moral order and behavior, including prayers and some recipes, is an enormous, multi-generational blog.

I got to thinking about this aspect of discussion and argument when Liz Kuball, of an excellent blog on photography, directed me to the site of a talented and respected photographer, Alec Soth, who was discussing/arguing issues inherent in the portraits of Marilyn Monroe rendered by Richard Avedon. Soth and his companions were seriously into such concepts as responsibility, complicity, and integrity in photography. As I regarded the text of the arguments, I could not help thinking, why this--this gloss, this discussion, this argument--is Talmud in its purest form, and we who chose to follow the word are linked to it by electronics, by our mutual and varied interests.

In my culture, whether Ashkenazi, Galititzianer, Mizrahi, or Sephardic, is another concept that glorifies Talmud and extends to what I now call Talmud of the Blog. We are all of us familiar with that glorious opening, even more sonorous than Call me Ishmael: In the beginning was the word. Well, guess what, that's a rather linear translation. In its original, the word "word" is rendered with the Hebrew aleph for the first word of the alphabet and the tav, for the last word.
In the beginning was the atav, the whole bloody, wonderful alphabet. The word from In the beginning was not merely one word but all possibilities of words to come from a given alphabet, all possible meanings to be attached to a law, a photograph, a short story, or a blog.

When I am interrupted from the Talmud of the Blog or my more secular writing by the sound of Sally, fending off dragons, I am linked in yet another way to a creature of my choice, each of us doing what we are hard wired to do.

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