The Ancient Talmud Has Found a New Digital Lease on Life

American-born scholar Shamma Friedman, who is to receive the Israel Prize for Talmud Studies, is a great advocate of using the Internet data base for better understanding the text.

Joanna Chen
Joanna Chen
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Joanna Chen
Joanna Chen

Sitting in his miniscule, book-lined office on the first floor of Jewish Theological Seminary building in Jerusalem, Talmud scholar Shamma Friedman expresses satisfaction at the work being carried out by the Society for the Interpretation of the Talmud, a collaborative project he founded in 1992. “More people study the Talmud today than at any other time in Jewish history,” he says with a soft smile, adding that the work is far from over.

It’s academic consensus that Friedman has made a tremendous contribution to the study of Talmud, the seminal text of Jewish law and lore. Friedman is professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He teaches at the Schechter Institute and is Adjunct Professor at Bar-Ilan University. Last week, he was named recipient of the Israel Prize for Talmud Studies, in recognition for what has become a lifetime’s work.

Digital tools

In this and other scholarly projects, Friedman has advocated open access to sources using sophisticated digital tools that are geared for the intermediate and advanced level scholar of Talmud. He does not claim that the Talmud has been removed from the traditional ivory tower, insisting that the idea is not to popularize the Talmud but to provide computerized aids to understanding its development and producing in depth studies.

To illustrate the advantages of such tools, Friedman leaps out of his chair to show me a thick sheaf of papers relating to Talmudic interpretation, written by him many years ago in precise, black-inked handwriting. Back in Pennsylvania in the 60’s, when Freidman was writing his doctoral thesis, he did so by pouring over countless rare books in specialized libraries.

Now the professor turns to his computer screen to demonstrate the relative ease with which the manuscript differences of any given Talmudic page can be evaluated online today.

Over the past decade, this digital platform developed by Friedman and his colleagues has become a meeting zone for the academic who sees the study of Talmud as an intellectual pursuit, and for the layperson outside of the yeshiva or academia, who is searching for material to provide a sense of cultural identity in a constantly changing world.

There are a number of simple liturgical applications on iPad and iPhone, such as DafYomi and iPray Jewish, available since 2011. Ziv Laxer, a 34-year old Israeli retailer who has been working in Dublin, Ireland, for almost 10 years, is a regular user of applications like these: “I am a secular Jew, but the ability to dip into these texts protects my religious identity and also makes me feel closer to home,” Laxer and his finance, Melinda, who is converting to Judaism, regularly read biblical texts and prayers online before leaving for work in the morning.
“We discuss aspects of Judaism that arise, and we definitely benefit from the openness of these applications.”

Talmud and Internet: the similarities

Structurally, the Talmud lends itself well to the Internet age. In his popular book, The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey Between Words, writer Jonathan Rosen outlines the parallels between the Talmud’s multi-faceted composition and an Internet page, whereby a double-click reveals a variety of sources all available on the same virtual page.

Accessibility to knowledge is only natural in today’s digital world. Sinai Rusinek, who co-founded the Digital Humanities Israel in 2013, an inter-university project that digitalizes scholarly sources, is adamant that easy interfaces and the ability to open commentaries with a click, is intrinsic to today’s world: “You are not just the recipient of commentaries or textbooks, but can explore it yourself as a research question.”

Rusinek would like to see the Talmud linked to other scholarly subjects, such as Hebrew literature or geography. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” she asks, “to link the Talmud to Bialik through intertextual links?”

Knesset member Ruth Calderon has been a feisty proponent of popular Talmud study for many years. She posts a daily excerpt of Mishna on her Facebook page that, she claims, has become a global bet midrash, where people participate in heated virtual discussions on the ancient text.

“Not so many years ago, you had to sit in a dark library in order to read these texts, but the Internet has facilitated the fact that Talmud today has become a meeting place for both religious and secular people learning together.”
Calderon does not, however, make light of this. “Talmud is not an easy text you can schmooze through,” she warns, “it’s a challenge, an intricate work of cooperation that takes years to unravel.”

Like working with clay

Prof. Friedman has done much to unravel these intricacies. “Working with texts like the Gemara is like working with clay - the text does not ramble but is actually very tight, with its own independent, literary existence that has tremendous cultural value for today.”

Undoubtedly, Friedman’s wide and liberal base of knowledge gleaned from his traditional family upbringing and education in the United States has been instrumental in motivating him to pursue Talmudic studies with such rigor. His grandparents were immigrants from the Ukraine and Russia, and education was of foremost importance in what Friedman describes as a warm and loving family, which upheld the basic traditions of Judaism, such as seder night at Passover and principles of kashrut.

It was not until age 10, when he was sent to Hebrew school three afternoons a week at the local synagogue in preparation for his bar mitzvah, that Friedman was first exposed to the Hebrew language. This, he says, is what initially drew him towards the ancient Talmudic texts, and out of which he developed an intense love for the aesthetic qualities that they offer. Later, Friedman went on to study a liberal arts degree, majoring in semitic languages and philosophy, and reading Shakespeare.

“There is intellectual relevance in the Talmud for our world,” Friedman says, as classical music plays gently in the background, “not in the same way that chemistry and math are relevant but like any great cultural or religious work is relevant. The Talmud has literary, historical and social significance that engages the soul.”

Copies of the Talmud in a Jerusalem yeshiva. Digital tools have made study of the ancient texts accessible to many more. Credit: AP
Professor Shamma Friedman.Credit: Jewish Theological Seminary

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