When I was teaching at Columbia University, technoprophet Marshall McLuhan
down from Toronto to lecture there. He talked about how the linear pattern of information
resulting from print technology limited the thought patterns of people who learned from
printed books. Word follows word, line follows line, paragraph follows paragraph, page
follows page, chapter follows chapter, in a single necessary order from the first page to last.
Learning through a medium that is a one-way street prevented creative, flexible, associative,
open-ended, multidirectional, and multidimensional thought. Instead of just being
authoritative, books became authoritarian, demanding thinking in straight lines from a fixed
point of view. The book medium became a stronger message than its content. Designed to be
read in privacy, in seclusion from others, the book ended dialogue. It conferred the values of
isolation, detachment, passivity, and non-involvement.
I invited McLuhan to my office to show him how the Hebraic dialogic mindset, which
could not tolerate unidirectional thought, used print technology to design multilinear books.
I took a volume of the Talmud off my shelf and showed him non-linear pages designed in
16th century Venice. I opened it to page 2 (there is no page 1) and pointed to the patch
of text in the center of the page that starts with the
font than the central text. On the other side is a column of Tosafot followed by references
to Rashi in Tosafot. In a narrow fourth column next to Tosafot, stacked vertically, are four
different commentaries on commentaries that span centuries of dialogue over time and
space. Sometimes, explanatory diagrams are printed on the side. In the margins around the
page are numerous references to biblical passages and to other books spanning centuries. In
new editions of the Talmud, commentaries and references extend into our postdigital age.
In the words of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz: "The Talmud is thus the recorded dialogue of
generations of scholars. It has all the characteristics of a living dialogue. Freshness, vivid
spontaneity, and acute awareness of every subject permeate every argument and discussion.
The spirit of life breathes on every single page."
solitude. We give life and continuity to the dialogue that began millennia ago by engaging the
hundreds of voices talking across the folio pages in active dialogue with a learning partner.
The two learners, a
each other and calling for support from all the scholars before them. They can begin their
learning on any of its 5,894 pages. The multivolume Talmud has no beginning and no end.
tractates, look into the Bible, kabbalistic texts, or any other sources. A study hall in a yeshiva
filled with many learning teams is a busy, dynamic, noisy environment, quite different from
the eerie silence of a library for linear books.26 cameMishnah, written in Hebrew, followedGemara, in Aramaic. On one side is a column of Rashi's commentary in a different27 It is not a set of books to be read in quiethevrutah, enter a page and move around within it while arguing withhevrutah can jump around within a page, between pages, between different Talmud
Professor Mel Alexenberg, Head of the School of the Arts, Emuna College, Jerusalem, Israel, former art professor, Columbia University, head of the art department, Pratt Institute, and research fellow, MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies
Author of The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness and Educating Artists for the Future: Learning at the Intersections of Art, Science, Technology, and Culture (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press) and in Hebrew: Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art (Jerusalem: Rubin Mass House)
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