Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Medium is the Midrash

So, since it's the night of the second Seder, and while we're on the subject anyway, the great Hasidic master, Moishe Mack Lewin also said, "The medium is the Midrash." Midrash is a Hebrew word that literally means inquiry (note that when Neil Postman formally introduced the term "media ecology" he referred to it as a "field of inquiry"), but is more commonly translated as interpretation, referring both to the method of biblical exegesis first developed during the Babylonian exile associated with the destruction of the first Temple, and also to the body of work of rabbinical commentary compiled prior to the Talmud. Midrashim (plural of Midrash) often were based on metaphorical analysis (note again that one of Postman's variations on McLuhan's "the medium is the message" is "the medium is the metaphor"--this is not to imply that Postman was consciously making a connection between media ecology and Midrash), metaphor being a mode of interpretation.

The problem that the written word introduces is decontextualization. Language is taken out of the context of face-to-face communication; out of the context that includes tone of voice, facial expressions, posture, and innumerable other nonverbal cues; out of the context of a living being who can respond and take responsibility for the message sent, answer questions, defend arguments, and the like; out of the context of a physical setting, a time and place, a situation; out of the context of co-presence and a co-present moment in time. In the absence of context, the reader must supply one, fill in the blanks, read between the lines and therefore engage in interpretation.

Oral traditions are characterized by multiformity and flexibility. They are homeostatic, changing over time to meet the needs of changing circumstances. When nothing is written down, let alone written in stone, change comes easy. On the other hand, when tradition, religious or otherwise, becomes committed to writing, and canonized, it becomes less relevant and more difficult to apply or even understand over time. To keep a tradition fresh under such circumstances, a kind of orality or oral-like form of communication needs to be developed to work with the written text. Interpretation serves that function, allowing the meaning of a fixed text to be made fluid and adaptable. Our legal system, with its accumulation of precedents, works along similar lines.

So, the medium of writing most certainly leads to the need for Midrash. But to the extent that all forms of mediation distance the receiver from the source, and decontextualize communication, all media require some form of Midrash. Interpretation is necessary even when we speak to one another face to face. We might further note that while all media are Midrash in that they require some form of interpretation, the mode of interpretation varies from one medium to another, writing for example requiring much more formal exegesis than speaking. So, the medium influences if not determines the mode of interpretation required, which is to say that the medium influences if not determines the Midrash itself.

I've heard colleagues at Fordham (a Jesuit theology professor comes to mind, actually) use the phrase "debate Midrash," as in, "I don't want to debate Midrash," and I have always wondered what is the problem they have with Midrash, exactly. Seems to me that debating Midrash is all about the search for truth, and all about understanding media. But, of course, most people aren't really interested in understanding media, are they?

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