As we are rapidly moving to a paperless world within offices and academies, I suddenly began to wonder what this might mean for the sustaining focus of my own religion, Judaism. Jews are called the “people of the book” because we have sustained our faith for over 5000 years by passing on the word of God and the writings of our wisest sages through the sacred text of our Torah (the five books of the Hebrew bible, beginning with Genesis). The pivotal moment of our liturgy is the opening of the ark on the bema, the removal of the torah scrolls from their covering, and the reading of the designated passage or parsha for that week.
We bless the Torah with prayers and song; we kiss the book or prayer shawl that has made physical contact with its surface. On Simchat Torah, a holiday that celebrates the yearly completion of the reading of the 5 books, we literally unfurl the full torah scroll and dance as a community around its ancient parchment. A young man or woman (bar or bat mitzvah) gains entrance to the adult world by reading from the actual torah scroll in the presence of the congregation. The book is clearly the fulcrum of our faith.
Yet as I worked from my home this summer, I started to realize how radically my relationship to books is changing. As a professor and researcher, the summer used to mean carting huge numbers of books and journal articles back and forth between my office and home. Summer has always been my peak writing time and that would mean books everywhere. No more. Now I find almost everything I need on PDF or by links to websites or downloading on to tablets. When my father, who was also a professor, retired, he had 8 5-drawer filing cabinets of journal reprints. The full weight must been well over a ton. When I retire, my folders of reprints will be contained within digital space, they will be weightless, except for whatever electronic reader system temporarily displays them.
What hit me recently is that in some subtle sense the fact that my work and the work of the other scholars I read is increasingly only in digital form seems to make it feel somehow more transient, and, even more subtly, like it matters less. I have to confess that I feel less ownership of it, less invested when I do not see the fruits of my scholarly labor in concrete, tangible (in the literal sense of “graspable”) form.
This brings me back to the Torah. There is a famous legend of the 10 Jewish martyrs who were subjected to gruesome executions by the Roman emperor, Hadrian, for the crime of teaching Torah. They were willing to die for their commitment to the sacred text. Almost 2000 years later, the Nazis gathered up thousands of Torah scrolls during W.W. II, burning many, but also preserving numerous scrolls to display in a future museum that would document the life of an exterminated people. Even these greatest enemies of the Jewish people understood how inextricable these hand-lettered chronicles are to Judaism’s essence.
Will this connection to the Torah remain as solid, as physically compelling, when all that we read and study will be digital? Will there be a day when the Torah will be projected on a screen? Or will the rareness of an object with printed words upon it make our love for this religious totem even more precious - make us see its mystical aura more acutely? Or will our digital habits slowly efface its significance, turn it to an oddity, an obsolescence, similar to Stonehenge, which holds a patina of the sacred, but whose meaning is now obscured? Even more deeply, I am wondering if, as we live more and more in the electronic ether rather than the physical world, will our attachment to the significance of our corporeal reality increasingly dissipate? Does our investment in the digital sphere slowly loose our ties to and interest in the earthly one? Does it begin with a withdrawing from the printed page and end with melting of all that we once found substantial?
Perhaps worried traditionalists made the same argument when printing presses first created mass cultures of books and people turned away from story circles to read in the privacy of their own rooms. Perhaps early critics of the silent films bemoaned the loss of contact between live actor and audience. I am sure that someone less invested in memory than myself might quiet my fears by reminding me that we are always adjusting to new media, yet we find ways to interact, to come together, to keep our physical connections intact.
I hope so, but I have suddenly come to treasure the presence of the Torah scrolls in my synagogue ark even more than I had ever thought possible. If my world is slowly converting to an elaborate PDF, then at least for the time being, the heart of my religious life can be found inside the painstaking letters hand-written on a scroll hundreds of years before my birth.