I See Dead Professors On Zoom (Yevamot 96b-97a)

Ripe for parody, this article at Slate about an online lecture-course hosted at Concordia by a professor of art history who had passed away sometime before says a lot about the neo-liberal university and the degradation of higher education, about profit, academic precarity, and death. At its best, the art of education builds upon the live combination of spontaneous dialogue and expert instruction. Critical in tone, the article speaks to the limits of technology and machine learning to meet in a complete way the demands of pedagogy and other arts of social interaction. We can moan all we want about late capitalism, about the collapse of time into a digital miasma. But where will it get us?

A product of capital and a part of its culture, the phenomenon indicates the degree to which digital technology is constituting something like a spectral apparatus. Books and old movies and musical recordings have always done this. But not really. When I read a book or watch a movie or listen to a recording, it’s all in the third person. This is different. The sense of being addressed directly, the sense that here is the professor in a place where there is supposed to be give-and-take, right over there across from me, performing, or rather continuing to perform, teaching as if in real-time at a recognized institution of higher learning (as opposed to on Youtube) will have crossed more deeply those lines that separate the living and the dead.

While not forming a perfect analogy, the story about the online class, already a year or so old, reminds of this teaching from the Babylonian Talmud about dead sages. It turns out that the Babylonian rabbis were not so unlike scholars today. They too got enraged when their teachings were taught without attribution. Unlike us, however, they had a more robust lens into the hereafter.

“For Rav Judah stated in the name of Rav: What is the meaning of the Scriptural text, I will dwell in Thy tent for ever? Is it possible for a man to dwell in two worlds! But [in fact it is this that] David said to the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Lord of the Universe, May it be Thy will that a halakha may be reported in my name in this world’; for R. Yohanan stated in the name of R. Shimon b. Yohai: The lips of a [deceased] scholar, in whose name a halakha is reported in this world, move gently in the grave. Said R. Isaac b. Ze’ira, or it might be said, Simeon the Nazirite: What is the Scriptural proof of this? ‘And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine that glideth down smoothly for my beloved, moving gently the lips of those who are asleep, like a heated mass of grapes.’ As a heated mass of grapes, as soon as a man places his finger upon it, exudes immediately so with the scholars as soon as a traditional statement is made in their name in this world, their lips move gently4 in the grave” (Yevamot 96b-97a).

Would that my own learning could take on that same semblance of a heated mass of grapes before being pressed into wine.

[h/t Dana Hollander and Martin Kavka]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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