I’ve heard that Internet is ‘banned’ by the rabbis in various Jewish religious communities,” runs a typical question to Chabad.org’s Moshe Goldman. “Obviously, however, Chabad does use the Internet as a tool to serve G‑d. What does the Torah say about using this medium?” Or—to quote the title of that advice column—“Is the Internet evil?” (Goldman’s answer: No, it is neutral, like a knife.)
Such Jewish responsa (rabbinic Q&As) are abundant online: Tikkun runs a service, as does the Reform movement. They also appear in a fictional form in Joshua Cohen’s new novel, Book of Numbers, as when a concerned reader writes to askandtherabbianswers.com to ask if it is permissible to write out the name of God online. (Answer: Yes, because “the digitized Name is purely symbolic.”)
In a similar way, Book of Numbers attempts to sift through online phenomena in order to answer an array of similarly anxious questions about the Internet. The resulting novel is a eulogy for book culture, a polemic against the online-content economy that has replaced it, and an international, interreligious romp. (It’s also a breakup novel and a satirical pseudo-biography posing as a ghostwritten memoir.) It is interested in the place of the sacred (or that which has taken its place) in a culture increasingly premised upon degradation, searchability, and metrics.
To explore these questions, Cohen has created a fictional identity: Our narrator, also named Joshua Cohen (or “JC”), is a struggling writer whose struggles were compounded by the publication date—9/11/2001—of his first novel. He also shares a name with the founder of tech giant Tetration.com—a third Joshua Cohen. (Tetration is a kind of amalgam our modern tech empires: Apple, Facebook, and, most of all, Google.)