The Talmud in the Digital Age: Fragments From the Cutting Room Floor- Shai Secunda and Elli Fischer

The most recent issue of the Jewish Review of Books is now on the stands and online. On the cover of the magazine there is an endearing drawing (below) by Mark Anderson of three cheder kids completely entranced by an iPad running a Talmud application. The image was commissioned by the JRB to illustrate a review of the ArtScroll Talmud App co-authored by our own Shai Secunda and Elli Fischer. The article is not just a review of a piece of technology, but a meditation on revolutions in Jewish learning media and the future of Talmud study in the digital age.

The topic is as massive as it is important. Inevitably, not everything could be included in the final draft, and given the medium, sources and references were not cited. In the following post, the Talmud Blog includes some thoughts from the ‘cutting room floor’ on digitization, media saturation and their implications for Talmud study.  An upcoming post will list some of the many articles and books that functioned as dialogue-partners for the review.

The advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century had famously revolutionary effects in the Christian world (think Martin Luther), and less known but still substantial repercussions in Jewish culture.  Yet, the next truly dramatic innovation in the media of Jewish study was inaugurated only in 1963. It was then that a project got underway  at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel to digitize rabbinic texts, mainly responsa, for the purpose of historical research. By 1979, the project had migrated to Bar Ilan University and its database was available at terminals on and off campus. The real breakthrough came in the early 1990s when the entire database was made available on a compact disc. Not only were the contents of a formidable Judaic library encoded in a small bit of plastic, but these contents were searchable. The vast erudition that characterizes the greatest talmudic scholars could now be replicated by a computer, inducing anxiety on the part of rabbis.

The Bar Ilan Responsa Project is now on Version 19 20 and is considered an indispensable tool for teachers, scholars, and indeed rabbis, though one can still hear occasional polemics about reaching halakhic conclusions based on keyword searches. In truth, though, by now the Bar Ilan Project is a small part of the mind-boggling volume of data that is easily accessible and fully searchable using basic internet search engines. PCs and especially laptops have lessened the physical exertion and dampered the thrill of accumulating and working through a mountain of tomes in search of a solution to a particularly thorny exegetical riddle. For those who availed themselves of the digitized Torah libraries (and it should be acknowledged that many traditional Talmudists did not) the frenetic activity of the traditional study hall ground to a halt. There is no longer any need to consult the bookshelf or library when everything is a few clicks away. There is also little room for a study partner or any sort of live conversation when seated at a computer desk. The vast differences between the quiet library and the noisy beit midrash have been lessened somewhat. Not long after the release of the Bar Ilan CD, its traditionalist opponents complained that the classical notion of ‘toiling in Torah’ would go missing if Talmud scholars began learning off of computers.  We laughed then, but from this vantage point, one begins to wonder.

The Bar Ilan CD is no doubt a powerful reference tool that supports and enhances the study of printed texts. Yet, it keeps users tethered to the computer screen. Digitization and searchability may have changed the nature of talmudic and halakhic research, but they did not replace the book. This is actually the legacy of media saturation, the shockingly recent transformation of everyday life into a wired reality of screen ubiquity and wireless connectivity. Now, the computers are actually tethered to us, and they simultaneously tally Syria’s dead, recall the date of Shakespeare’s birth, and ferry messages to and fro.  Our mobile devices are little more than sleekly packaged portable brains in jars. Actually, they are far more.  The grey matter in my pocket is magically, creepily connected to the brains in yours.

The mobility that the portable devices introduced to the experience of Talmud study seems like a relatively minor addendum to digitization, but its effects are profound. It is no longer necessary to stay confined to the beit midrash, like Bialik’s pale-skinned matmid, when the the bookshelf can be transported to the beckoning outdoors. There is something unprecedented in the presence of massive digital libraries on small portable devices.  Within the dark confines of a pants pocket, a movable Borgesesque talmudic bibliotheca has grown up.

Media theorists and New Yorker cartoonists have been diligently documenting the diverse cultural changes heralded by this newest wrinkle in the digital revolution.  It is the transformation of the book that for many causes the greatest unease.  To be sure, digitization has not yet finished off the physical book – and certainly not rabbinic texts – but that honor may well go to the e-reader and tablet computer, and soon.  Along with the demise of the traditional book, bibliophile Luddites also fear for our brain chemistry and our family life.  Media saturation with its ubiquitous hypertext links, pop-up ads, and assorted bells and whistles has pulled our attention in a thousand directions, making it difficult to pursue any one subject with single-minded focus. Educators, including Talmud teachers, lament their students’ lack of interest in the subject matter, offering Lamarckian theories about how skimming and skipping through material renders one unable to actually read. How can the mind that absorbs information in packets of no more than 140 characters be expected to get through War and Peace, with its one hundred thirty characters?

Concerns have also been raised about what media saturation is doing to the fabric of the modern family. Many of us cannot pull our eyes away from Retina™ displays long enough to look into our children’s faces. This sorry if ubiquitous state of affairs has recently received thought-provoking artistic expression by the contemporary Armenian artist, Tigran Tsitoghdzyan. One powerful image from his ‘Millenium’ series (2012)  plays with the intriguing feature of many classical madonna icons in which strangely, to modern sensibilities at least, Mary looks off to the side of the frame, apparently ignorant of attachment parenting’s most sacred rule – ‘lock thy gaze’.  In this untitled artwork, Tsitoghdzyan depicts a modern madonna looking to the left, past the baby seated on her lap; her eyes and fingertips fastened to a smartphone.  In the far right of the frame one can make out the dark edge of a television, which captivates the baby’s attention.

But all this is old hat. Intellectuals, especially public Jewish ones, have for some time been whining about the disappearance of the book, the death of the publishing industry, and other assorted textual tragedies. Peddling dystopia is easy, and words weary. As we have seen, this is not the first time that changes in technology have altered the way humans obtain and process information, nearly always to the chagrin of the old guardians of knowledge. Perhaps the human mind is simply freeing itself from the illusion that ‘books’ ever really stood alone –  hypertextuality makes intertextuality obvious – and rebelling against McLuhanian hot” books that insist on progressing linearly. Is it possible that an entire generation has been misdiagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder? Alternatively, is it possible that a brain wired to rapidly shift between stimuli is not disordered at all, and in fact better equipped to excel in a media-saturated environment?

Despite the modern air-brushed veneer of Tsitoghdzyan’s madonna, which seems to preach to us about modernity and its discontents, the traditionalist iconography reminds us that we have been here before.  As any voraciously reading, bookish parent knows, even prior the advent of the mobile device, texts of all types – magazines, newspapers, books, and really anything fit to print –  fought for attention with the loving flesh and blood beings who make life worthwhile.  In some ways, media saturation has simply made this bad habit a more common ill.

In traditional Jewish society, a scholar who carries around a small volume of Talmud to peek at during spare moments is actually not deemed rude or distant, but industrious. He is really just an evolved form of the Jewish walking book – the “reciter” of the Geonic academy. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, due to certain technological and religious developments, highly portable talmudic tractates perfect for reviewing studied texts began to appear on the European continent. These quaint little books encapsulated a rabbinic ideology that hearkens back to Deuteronomy 6 and its exhortation to speak the Divine commandments “when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Until recently, the modern version of these slim volumes were commonplace on New York city trains, Jerusalem buses, and London cues.  Now, they are increasingly replaced by mobile devices that house unadorned digital Torah libraries.

Digital mobility has now freed the Talmud from the study-hall; digital connectivity, from the sometimes isolation of Talmud study; and the hypertextual architecture of the web from the linearity of the traditional printed  book. If only someone would design an app that could realize the explosive potential residing in the Talmud. Now that, would be ‘cool‘.

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11 responses to “The Talmud in the Digital Age: Fragments From the Cutting Room Floor- Shai Secunda and Elli Fischer

  1. Fascinating and trenchant observations. I would add that, like the Internet world generally, the developments you describe endanger thought and depth of understanding, and substitute superficial encyclopedic knowledge for perception and creativity. This has many implications. Two that I can think of right now are mechanical halakhically decising, and the leveling of source authority. Iow, if it exists it must be authoritative, whether said byRashba or the Ibn Tibbon from Smibbon.

    • “Ibn Tibbon from Smibbon”? I prefer, “People don’t know the difference between Rabbeinu Tam, Rabbeinu Dick, and Rabbeinu Harry.” And if you insist on Ibn Tibbon, say, with your best creole accent, “Ee-bon Tee-bon the Cay-jon Ree-shon.”

      That said, I’m not sure I would call the phenomena you mention as a “danger” to anyone except the currently empowered rabbis. Our thesis is that the same happened during other technological shifts – the Geonim lost power with the rise of the written book; local rabbonim lost authority with the printing of the Shulhan Arukh. Yet despite the doomsaying of the threatened rabbis, we survived and even managed to reconstruct talmudic/rabbinic authority. We will do so again.

      • I disagree. I am all for democratizing knowledge. That’s what Rashi did. However, treating citations as data, all of equal worth, is dangerous and could verge on anarchy. I might add that יראת שמים has to play a role here and the empowerment brought about by the touchpad and mouse vitiate that (as does an establishment rabbinate).

        • Couldn’t you say that Ovadiah Yosef treats data all of equal worth? Or at least, he does not seem to assign the appropriate weight to rabbis of stature.
          So you don’t need the internet to fall into this trap…

  2. Thanks for writing this article. The content is important and the prose itself is so delicious that it makes me jealous. And I even learned a new Talmudic joke – about Rabbenu Tam, Rabbenu Dick, etc.

  3. The Responsa Project is now on version 20, and I happen to have recently bought an extra copy (USB drive version 20 plus) for a family member who ended up not needing it. If anyone is interested in procuring an unopened copy…

  4. I don’t know if I am missing the boat commenting on a blog months later, but I am writing a paper about digital media and Talmud Torah for a graduate school class, and I was wondering if you knew of any articles in addition to your own that specifically deal with the topic?

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