How Open is ‘Open’?

For those of you who couldn’t make it to last night’s event- we’re sorry, but we unfortunately failed to to take Germany-USA into account when reserving the space a few weeks back. I would like to summarize some of the topics and projects that were discussed for the benefit of the larger Talmud Blog community and also to help developers and digital humanists at large understand the problems facing talmudists.

After an extremely helpful introduction on what the term “open” means by the apostle of digital humanities in the Holy Land, Sinai Rusinek, yours truly attempted to briefly summarize the main stages of rabbinic text curatorship and which websites talmudists use while performing such “manuscript work.” One of the issues I raised is the simple inconvenience of having to keep track of what is out there: the internet is a big place, and the number of websites containing either images or transcriptions of manuscripts is constantly growing. Between the National Library’s online catalog, which links to every available online image of Hebrew manuscripts, and The Talmud Blog‘s “Toolbox,” one can get to all of these different resources, but it is unfortunate that there is not more of an attempt to centralize all of these different projects under one roof.

The conversation quickly turned to the question of what questions we can ask using our computers, and three different subfields quickly emerged. The first two dealt with working with manuscripts:

A) How can we use computers to help us edit rabbinic texts? This question was addressed via two parallel projects, one led by Hayim Lapin and another by Daniel Stoekl ben Ezra, both of whom began editing the text of the Mishnah ahead of English and French translations and are now working together. Different issues that arose under this topic were how to crowd-source such relatively mundane tasks as transcribing manuscripts and tagging lemma, using Hebrew in TEI, and to what extent should scholars make their synopsi or databases of manuscripts available to the public. For example, many of the transcriptions currently available online are presented as PDFs, but others may want to access them in different formats so that they can more easily (and legally, where those issues arise) use them in making their own editions or to ask other questions of the text.

File:Karl Lachmann - Imagines philologorum.jpg

Karl Lachmann (1793-1851)

B) Can computers help us ask questions with regards to what one participant termed “fundamental issues of how the Bavli was formed and transmitted?” Time and again, and especially now that the Cairo Genizah corpus is more readily available, a certain brand of philological work of the Bavli has problematized the notion that we can use Lachmannian stemmatics to try and understand the relationship between manuscripts. How can we use computers simply to keep track, quantify, and characterize the various differences between talmudic manuscripts? As mentioned, these questions pertain not just to how to “edit” the talmudic text- what the text can be- but also to the very question of what the talmudic text is.

C) Manuscripts aside, what other questions can we ask of rabbinic texts using computers? The questions that came up for the most part dealt with the Bavli, harkening back to some issues discussed here on the blog. Itay Marienberg-Milikwosky of Ben Gurion University’s Department of Hebrew Literature described some of the projects he has started working on in a Franco Moretti inspired lab for digital humanities at Ben Gurion. One of the projects he is working on is trying to restructure how we think of the sugya. Given that the term itself is somewhat foreign to the Bavli and is largely a construct of later interpreters, Itay has been using word-frequency statistics and other quantitative computations to map the Bavli differently, taking special note of how- and perhaps even why- the Bavli repeats itself (“חזרתיות” in his words). You can be assured that Shai and I will be pressuring Itay to guest-post on his findings.

Additional themes that arose related to the relationship between the academic talmudist and the programming or non-academic other. In terms of the latter, how much can projects such as Sefaria (presented by Ephraim Damboritz) and Sefer haAggadah (presented by Amit Assis) benefit from academic talmud? In terms of the former- how and where should talmudists be working with programmers? On the one hand, some talmudist participants were adamant about not studying programming and insisting on working alongside programmers instead. At the other end of the spectrum were those eager to create programming boot camps for talmudists and other humanities scholars. In between were the newbies who got lost after the ‘m’ of XML. Either way, it was clear that talk of “open resources” brings together scholars who are themselves rather open to new ways of thinking about their research.

Next Steps

I would like to see a couple of things come from this evening. First of all, it is clear that a growing number of talmudists are excited by the possibilities that digital humanities opens open up before them, and that many of them already have some idea of how they would like to use moderately sophisticated programs in their own research. I think it would be great if we could use The Talmud Blog- perhaps in the comments section here, through guest posts and maybe even by adding a forum- to create some kind of clearing space for ideas and projects.  Such a space is needed to connect people who may have similar projects in mind, to generate discussions about what we can do with digital humanities, and to address the more philosophical questions of how humanities scholarship is changing before our eyes in this digital age. Let us know what you think!

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One response to “How Open is ‘Open’?

  1. Regarding programmers and talmudists working together, both programming and working through the Talmud is hard work, although often can share the same kind of mindset.

    One who is an expert in Talmud will not become an expert at programming with just a few courses, certainly, not well enough to develop an advanced project.

    One who is an expert in programming but not Talmud, may very much miss the point about what a project needs to cover, as they don’t understand the full scope of the work.

    Talmudists and programmers working together is a noble idea, but the divide between the two fields and the lack of one understanding the requirements and needs of the other will lead to a subpar outcome.

    The obvious solution is to get people who are both skilled programmers and skilled talmudists to run and oversee the project. Then, and only then, they can get others who are only diligent in one field to help out where needed, with someone overseeing the proper scope.

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