On Reading, TV, and the Talmud

The most distinct feature that makes a human being, and differentiates it from all other beings, is the ability to speak. In the Biblical account of the creation of Man it says that God breathed into him, and then man became “a living soul” – nefesh chayah; and the Aramaic translation of these two words is ruach memalela, which, literally, means “a talking spirit.” Thus, for a human being to be “a living soul” means to be “a talking spirit.”

What makes speaking different from other activities? Most animals emit voices, some of them quite beautiful and complex, through which they express a variety of things. Mina birds are wonderfully good at it, and there are some parrots that can speak in six languages. But not one single parrot will ever say, “I am hungry,” when it feels hunger. Because speech is the extremely complex ability to express and transmit ideas through spoken signs. This is why ancient traditions, Jewish tradition encluded, divide everything in the world into four classes: inanimate, flora, fauna ? and speaking creatures.

There is, however, is an additional level, beyond speech, that is another important step forward: writing. The leap from speaking to writing is an enormous one. Writing is more than a mere continuation of the same evolutionary process that creates speech. When we learn to read at school, we are taught what sound corresponds to which letter. But what is it that happens in our mind when we read? The eyes see a series of marks – and suddenly there is a description of something: a tree, a man, an event. Some people may have a higher ability to visualize than others, but everyone possesses the ability to turn written marks into a vision. Moreover, if you give the same passage to two or three people, and ask them to describe the images that that passage created within them, you’ll get very different images, because every individual creates his or her own image.

Today there are sensors that can turn letters into electro-magnetic signs; but I have not heard of a computer that will read a joke and laugh, or read a tragedy and cry. We, human beings, know the difference; we read and we are not only informed, but also moved, sometimes even inspired. Some of us are moved by poetry, others by pornography; but whether we read the most exalted words or the most lewd descriptions, the very fact that we are affected means that we have within us a creative power that takes signals and turns them into something meaningful that has an independent existence.

Now, there are other forms of art and of expression, such as movies and television. The point of comparison between these forms and the written form is not in the contents; a TV show may be edifying and uplifting, while a book may be a very inferior one – as, I fear, most books printed nowadays are (indeed, it says that when Messiah comes, all the trees will rejoice [Psalms 96:12] possibly, because no bad books will be printed any more). I am not even referring to the fact that there is a fair amount of violence on TV, that children tend to imitate; society nowadays is so violent, that even if children do not see violence on TV, they’ll see it all around them.

The point of comparison is, what really happens when a person – most especially, children – watches TV. From the point of view of human evolution, it is a step backwards, a degradation of the human capacity. Before TV, the height of human capacity was reading. The problem with TV is not that it is easier to watch it than to read a book. The problem is that on TV, we are shown everything, which causes people to lose their ability to abstract, to visualize. Take an example: if you write the word “book,” each person will have a different image in mind: big, small, leather-bound, with or without pictures. Whatever my visualization may be, it is I who am doing it. But if you show me a book, you take away something from my independent power of creation.

Being shown everything exempts us from the need to make any effort, and turns us into totally passive watchers. True, one may say that readers are also, in some way, passive. But the major difference is that in reading, there always is some kind of an interaction with the written material. If I don’t understand what I am reading, then I am not really reading it. Reading means that I am interacting with the material not only in the sense of getting ideas, but also on the level of transferring things from one level to another, of creating new worlds.

Becoming passive watchers will eventually make us lose the ability to create things within our mind. As I said, I see this as a step backwards for everybody; but for children, it may even be dangerous, because it gradually atrophies that part of the mind that is in charge of creating. After being put in a plaster cast for a few week’s a person’s arm or leg becomes thinner and does not function well. If you atrophy the brain, or at least a part of the brain – and not for one day or one week, but for a few years – you get a person with a shrunken, shriveled kind of brain, one who has lost the most advanced human capability. I am not preaching about morality, just stating a biological fact. I am saying that in this medium, TV, lies more than a mere message: in it lies the power to destroy our humanness. The Greek philosopher Aristotle once defined human beings as two-legged, featherless creatures; and one of his opponents once brought a plucked chicken to the academy, saying: “Aristotle, here is your man.” It seems that watching TV turns us into two-legged, featherless creatures – with TV sets. This is becoming the new definition of a human being.

In Alice in Wonderland (which some of you may have read, and others  seen on TV), Alice sees a glass table on which there is a small bottle with an inscription: “Drink me!” Alice, as many TV watchers would, could have just taken the bottle, looked at it, and put it back in its place. And then there would have been no story. For it is only when you actually take the bottle and drink it that things begin to happen to you.

Any kind of learning requires participation. Otherwise, it is like playing tennis with your hands folded: if you do not return the ball, you are not playing. The word “Talmud” means “learning.” Any description of what the Talmud is would take a lot of time, and would not give any real understanding of it, because the main point about the Talmud is that it is totally impossible to read it without interacting with it – by asking questions, answering, finding out, reacting inwardly. In a sense, the Talmud is a book that has an inscription on it: “Study me!” which means, “Work with me, live with me.” The process of learning, of interaction, that is what the Talmud is all about.

The cultural gap between the world of the Talmud and the world of TV culture, then, is not just the difference of contents or of language (English vs. Hebrew-Aramaic): it is a profound cultural difference. In fact, rather than two different forms of culture, what we have here is one form of culture and one form of destroying culture. The Talmud is a book that poses more questions than answers, and that brings up so many perplexing issues, that one simply must delve into it further and further. Far beyond mere identification, the Talmud becomes a part of your existence, a part that is always alive, always asking, always questing. For 2000 years and more, our people’s culture has been centered around a book, whose first and foremost demand was: Work! Do something with me!

The culture of TV, then, is the culture of passivity; not the passivity of sitting, but the passivity of allowing the mind to die. In a sense, watching TV is like being fed intravenously. It may be far more efficient, but I doubt whether anyone would really prefer that over eating and drinking. So I am speaking here in praise not only of the Talmud, but also of another peak of the development of humanity: the ability to go beyond reading and interact with the read material. In fact, this was the very first temptation that was presented to Man: to share this Godlike, if not Godly, ability to create something out of almost nothing.

This essay was first a speech given at the Miami Book Fair in 2005.