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September 16, 1996

Latest Internet Religious Offering Is High Holy Days Services

By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN

It's the High Holidays," proclaims the banner headline. "Can't Get to the Temple? Get to the Computer."

It is unlikely that many Jewish worshipers among us will indeed sit in front of their screens, but that is close to what the World Wide Web site of New York's Temple Emanu-El has in mind. Over the weekend, for the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the synagogue broadcast a taped audio portion of a service every half-hour over the Internet.

Next Sunday, beginning at noon in New York, it will do the same for Yom Kippur to coincide with the beginning of the holiday at sundown in Israel; the half-hour replays of the tape will allow the solemn day's arrival to be marked in many of the world's time zones.

This is, obviously, not quite what Jewish rabbinic law had in mind: not only would computer use be anathema to those strictly observing the holiday, but the solitary screen watcher would also be missing the explicitly communal nature of the prayers. Who does the "we" refer to in the holy day's declarations of repentance when the word emerges from a pair of multimedia speakers?

But for those who are isolated from Jewish communities, the opportunity to hear a service may prove quite powerful. And Emanu-El, which already broadcasts its Friday night services on the radio, has become an aggressive believer in the communicative and religious powers of the Internet.

It is not alone. It can sometimes seem as if all of the world's religions have reached a messianic era of intimacy in cyberspace, where Taoism is just a click away from Islam, and Buddhism shares a page of links with pagan magic worship.

It is possible to find the entire text of the Koran, the texts of the Christian Apocrypha and a reference index for the Talmud that is a work in progress.

The Web of course, is host to just about everything these days, but there may also be another reason for its close connection with religion. The Auden scholar, Edward Mendelson, has argued in The New York Times Book Review that the very technology used to link Web pages is related to the techniques used by scribes who copied out the Bible a millennium ago. Medieval manuscripts of the Bible were marked with cross-references and marginalia that referred to other passages, leaping across time and text.

And this is, of course precisely what the Web's hyperlinks allow, underlined words instantly creating connections with other sites, mouse clicks joining servers in a nexus of internal references.

In fact, Mendelson suggests, hyperlinks and biblical marginalia "may be the only two systems ever invented that give concrete expression to the idea that everything in the world holds together, that every event, every fact, every datum is connected to every other."

Of course, there is no body of belief behind the Web's web, which gives it a weightless and inconsequential character. But the similarities of form may, in the long run, have an even wider impact than the one Mendelson mentions. Biblical marginalia, for example, are reflections of early rabbinic practice of annotation and reference that was codified in the 11th century in the Talmud.

This compilation of debates and discussion about Jewish law is actually written in a form of hypertext on the Web pages of Eliezer Segal.

Segal, who teaches Jewish history and Talmud at the University of Calgary, shows a typical page of the Talmud in which one form of text wraps around another, written in different scripts. Each paragraph of the main text contains references to the Bible and to rabbinic interpretations of the law; the framing commentary, which also appears on each page, contains references to legal codes, related citations and conflicting opinions. Each page of the Talmud is an intricate conversation, linked by connections to a sacred text.

CD-ROMs have already begun to exploit the Talmudic possibilities, but this is what the Web seems made for: links leading to links, interpretations layered atop interpretations. It almost justifies the awkwardness of hypertext -- a text full of links leading outside itself -- which has been hyped for all the wrong reasons.

Hypertext for ordinary reading is not an art form, but an artifice. Uncomfortable and distracting, it usually undermines the text rather than illuminates it. Arguments are interrupted, tales cut off, lines of thought discarded -- long before any natural conclusions are reached -- in favor of fresh sensations.

But hypertext comes into its own when studying more complex and important texts, particularly sacred works. A sacred text is not meant to be simply read. Almost by definition, a sacred text is a form of hypertext. Each word carries importance, resonating with references to the religious order, to world history and to other texts.

A sentence in the Bible, might be interpreted as a literal prophecy, a law and a reference to related sentences elsewhere. A text is considered sacred partly because it succeeds in creating connections, unifying experience.

It would be an immense achievement to create intelligent hypertext versions of sacred texts; it would create high-tech Talmuds for each of the world's religions, providing tools for study and further interpretation.

In the meantime though, the Web is just imitating what is possible elsewhere, offering transcripts of texts and broadcasts of religious services -- preludes, perhaps, to future forms of worship, when revelation becomes a hyperlink.


TECHNOLOGY is published weekly, on Mondays.

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