Writing All The World Only With The Talmud - Poem by gershon hepner
WRITING ALL THE WORLD ONLY WITH THE TALMUD
"Of Moses we all feel ashamed, "
the Israelites declared, since he'd delayed
descent from Sinai. While he aimed
to bring them back commandments, they had made
a golden calf. They could not yet,
illiterate, read God's mind, till they'd learn
what Moses taught, his alphabet
inscribing all the laws that they would spurn.
With the alphabet they could,
as Thomas Mann explained, write all the world,
beyond what's evil and what's good,
This may well be the reason Moses hurled
the tablets down the mountain. He
intended Israelites to stay within
a legalistic boundary,
kept from the world by fear of God and sin.
They spurned laws before they could read,
and spurned them after they became most lit-
erate, but Moses knew we need
far more than laws and alphabet to quit
what's wrong, for knowledge of what's good
and evil cannot be in hard stone set.
The world cannot be understood
by knowing laws of God and alphabet.
the Talmud for the Jews would be
a vehicle no less poetic
than the Bible, and a sea
in which wise men can swim upon
a plank they call a daf, each letter
on the mark, alive, dead-on,
like two tablets, only better.
Robert Alter ("How to Hiss and Huff, " LRB,12 2/10) reviews The Tables of the Law by Thomas Mann, translated by Marion Faber and Stephen Lehmann:
The climactic moment of Moses' undertaking is of course his ascent to the summit of Mount Sinai, where he will incise the new law on stone tablets. Here Mann introduces one of his most arresting inventions, which provides thematic justification for itself despite its historical impossibility. Why, Mann's narrator wonders, did Moses need a full 40 days - a formulaic number in the Bible - to chisel in stone a few dozen words? A product of good Egyptian education, he certainly knew hieroglyphs and probably, Mann conjectures, cuneiform as well. But these complicated and arcane scripts would not serve the lapidary purpose of the new imperative law. Moses spends much of his time on the mountaintop painstakingly working out a different system of writing:
He gathered together the sounds of the language that are formed by the lips, the tongue, and palate, and by the throat, while setting aside the few open sounds that appeared in the words intermittently, enclosed by the other sounds and becoming words only because of them.
Joining together these graphic indications of ‘how to hiss and huff, to mumble and rumble, to spit and smack', a person could not only represent the consonantal sounds of Hebrew words but of any language. Now, Moses, if he was a historical figure, surely did not invent the alphabet, though inscriptions found at the site of a 19th-century bce Egyptian copper mine elsewhere in the Sinai suggest that it was invented there, and not by Phoenicians but by Canaanite mine-workers who borrowed Egyptian hieroglyphs and made them represent the initial consonants of the equivalent words in Canaanite.
The alphabet, which among the sundry systems of writing in the world seems to have emerged only at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, from whence it spread to Greece, then Rome, and eventually far beyond, was an immense leap forward in the technology of culture. Writing was no longer limited to elaborate systems involving hundreds or often thousands of characters and therefore destined to be the property of a learned, often sacerdotal elite, but could be carried out with a set of little more than 20 readily acquired characters. The alphabetic medium of Moses' writing is equally important for Mann's conception of his character and for his understanding of the intrinsic nature of the Mosaic code.
Alphabetic writing, liberated from the image-hordes of other systems of inscription, is eminently malleable and is also exportable. As Mann's narrator says of the signs that Moses has devised, ‘lo and behold, you could write the whole world with them, whatever occupied a space and whatever occupied no space, what was made and what was made up - absolutely everything.' This list of what the alphabet can do shows a distinct kinship with what the novelist can do: ‘write the whole world', freely mixing objects and ideas, things that are and things that never were. And when Moses comes down from the mountain with the second set of tablets, he explains to the Hebrews that God ‘wrote it in your language, but in symbols that, if need be, could write all the languages of all the peoples; for He is the Lord throughout the whole world, and for that reason His is the ABC, and His language - even if it is also intended for you, Israel - necessarily becomes a language for everyone'. The alphabet, then, in this lively recasting of the biblical story, is the formal manifestation of the universalism implicit in the message Moses brings to Israel.
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