Commentary

Digital Discourse and the Democratization of Jewish Learning

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Zev Eleff

In the early 1800s, Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin was asked about forgetfulness and Torah study. To some, the question was a nonstarter. After all, the Talmud’s position on this matter was clear: it’s forbidden. Students of Torah must be diligent. Constant review is necessary to keep learning fresh, to improve recall of each chapter and verse of the Torah, the Talmud, and its codes. But Rabbi Hayyim disagreed. The strident warnings were pertinent for “earlier generations,” he explained, “because they studied orally.” In the age of printing, however, “this does not refer to us.”[1]

No doubt, Rabbi Hayyim did not excuse complacency or willful disremembering of Torah learning. He nonetheless recognized that newly available resources had irrevocably changed the character of Torah study. To many, his response was surely sensible. It revealed an awareness of stereotype technology that had improved and lowered the cost of printing in the eighteenth century. The result was a proliferation of print culture in that period and a shift from rote memorization to intellectual chance-taking along new creative pathways.[2]

Yet, Rabbi Hayyim was not alone in taking up this matter. Others addressed it in the decades surrounding the turn of the nineteenth century. Despite the changed Torah terrain, some rabbinic scholars held tightly to the Talmud’s admonition. Others agreed with the sage of Volozhin, but for different reasons.

The whole issue throws light on the purpose of Jewish learning.[3] What is more, the implications of this debate are particularly pertinent for the present moment. In this Digital Age, so much is accessible, and in a variety of translations. Like our forebears two centuries ago, we ought to acknowledge and assess the opportunities and challenges of our own time. With sincerity and sensitivity, we must start thinking more probingly about the way we engage Torah texts and our goals for traditional study.

An Unchanged Torah Experience
Not everyone was ready for a reevaluation. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi disagreed with the founder of the famed Volozhin yeshiva. The former cited a well-known statement in Avot attributed to the second century scholar, Rabbi Meir, who declared that someone “who forgets even a single word of his learning, the Torah considers it as if he has forfeited his life” (Avot 3:8).

The founder of Chabad might also have listed other harsh rebukes offered by the sages of the Talmud. For instance, Rabbi Eliezer cautioned that forgetfulness will prolong the exile (Yoma 38b). Reish Lakish suggested that “anyone who forgets one iota of learning commits a sin” (Menahot 99b). Other sources in the Talmud—for example, Kiddushin 33b, Sanhedrin 26b, and Temurah 16a—reveal a kind of horror-stricken fearfulness of Torah forgetfulness.

Owing to this, Rabbi Shneur Zalman described such forgetfulness as an immutable biblical prohibition.[4] To him, “it is of no help that at present the Oral Torah is written down and that everything forgotten can be verified.” The sin is tallied once a student slips, forgets “just for an instant.” The only remedy is to halt all other activities and return to that forgotten lesson. Rabbi Shneur Zalman did not see a difference between someone who could in his time consult a library full of books and a pupil in Rabbi Meir’s era who upon forgetting “could return and ask a teacher to figure out what was forgotten.”

Rabbi Shneur Zalman argued that Torah study was an experience, an exercise in assiduousness. Mnemonics and other tricks to commit the details of Jewish jurisprudence were the Torah scholar’s tricks of the trade. Printed texts, on the other hand, was the stuff of bush league, the yeshiva equivalent of creatine shakes and PEDs. It compromised the integrity of the individual learning experience.

A Paradigm Shift for Individual Torah Study
Rabbi Shlomo Kluger of Galicia sided with Rabbi Hayyim. Much like many (but not all) fifteenth and sixteenth century rabbis who believed that Johannes Gutenberg was Heaven-sent, Rabbi Kluger interpreted more recent print-related innovations like stereotype plates and cheaper forms of bookbinding as a reason for reconsideration. He therefore suggested a changed regime in the halls of the yeshiva aristocracy.

In the past, scholars envied individuals endowed with prodigious minds, able to recall every morsel of learning. Memory bested creativity. Long ago, the sages likened this person to Mount Sinai, the site of Torah revelation (Horayot 14a). The adage helped place Rabbi Yosef ben Hiyya at the head of the academy in Pumbedita. His Sinai-like recall elevated Rabbi Yosef above Rabbah bar Nahmani, known as a master oker harim for his creativity and analytical skills to “overturn mountains.”

Things were different, perhaps, in the nineteenth century. Like other faiths, Judaism could express a “belief in the power of print.”[5] Rabbi Kluger argued that the new print technology signaled a need to reconsider that wisdom. “It seems to me that we cannot draw from the judgment of Hazal who did not possess printed books and therefore preferred the Sinai. Nowadays, he concluded, the “clever scholar—who cannot just intuit but is able to discern based on innate talent—is preferable.”[6]

Memorizing was good. But an ability to probe texts and draw out new meaning and ideas was henceforth better. The former was outmoded, the victim of a growing (and printed) rabbinic literature sprinkled with footnotes and bibliographies. Instead, these resources enhanced the Torah learning experience, empowering the new ideal, the champion Torah scholar seeking a novel and well-grounded hiddush.

A Democratized Communal Torah Discourse
Rabbi Avraham David Wahrman of Buczacz agreed that Torah forgetfulness might “not be a concern in our time since all of Torah is recorded.”[7] But his rationale had nothing to do with defining the best Torah study practices. To the contrary, the Talmud’s apprehension over forgetfulness, as Rabbi Wahrman understood it, had nothing to do with maximizing the individual student/scholar experience.

After all, in most cases there is a recourse for the Jew who misrecollected an item relating to standard religious practice: other Jewishly literate people. “The halakhah,” wrote Rabbi Wahrman, “is also within the grasps of others who have studied them.”

Rather, Rabbi Wahrman argued, the Talmud’s fear of forgetting concerned communal knowledge. Only hiddushim, original thoughts untapped by prior generations, are truly irretrievable. Rabbi Wahrman’s concern was for the communal conversation. Missing out on a hiddush diminishes the quality of that intergenerational dialogue.[8]

Our Digital Moment
In 1979, a group of researchers at Bar Ilan University published a “status report” of the Responsa Project in the proceedings of the Associations of Orthodox Jewish Scientists. A dozen years earlier, Aviezri Fraenkel conceived the ambitious project to index, collect, and reproduce thousands of rabbinic texts. In the late-1970s, the Bar Ilan team anticipated that its efforts would revolutionize Torah study for the traditional scholar as well as the “historian, the sociologist, the linguist, the educator, and, in fact, any scholar interested in this literature.”[9]

In its earliest stages, the Bar Ilan research garnered tremendous attention because of its attempt to democratize Torah learning. Other experts and institutions offered to collaborate.[10] The project encountered political and financial challenges, but persevered.[11] To date, the latest version of the Bar Ilan Responsa Project contains about 100,000 teshuvot and many essential biblical and rabbinic works.

Add to this more recent tools like Otzar HaHochma, Sefaria, HebrewBooks.org, JSTOR, ProQuest and, of course, Google. These searchable databases present the same sort of tools that provoked rabbinic writers around the turn of the nineteenth century to reconsider the aims and execution of Torah study.

We must take advantage of the Digital Age. With so much data available, our quest should be to improve our powers of analysis and produce hiddushim that invigorate and inspire. Apprehension to change provides needed warning but cannot undercut a good vision. With proper chariness, we can transform our classrooms and pulpits from slow-paced Lancastrian information-transmission centers to creative laboratories full of revitalized discourse.

Rabbis and educators will lead these conversations on the grounds that they have been trained to think better, not just because they know more. The Orthodox recognize that the once-vast knowledge gap between rabbi and lay person has been shrinking for some time. In the 1990s, for example, Shalom Berger surveyed alumni of the post-high school yeshivot and seminaries. He found that three-quarters of these young women and men anticipated continued text-learning during adulthood. Ninety percent expected “that their library of Jewish texts will be a central part of their home.”[12] Since then, the preponderance of freely available digitized texts makes an even better case for knowledge parity.

What are rabbis to do? They’ll lead the search for responsible and integrity-minded hiddushim. It was not too long ago, before the expansion of university-based Jewish Studies, that leading scholars occupied pulpit positions. In Chicago, for example, Hebrew Theological College produced rabbi-scholars like Rabbi Charles Chavel and Rabbi David Shapiro. In the twenty-first century, Rabbi Shlomo Kluger might have doubled-down on his call to focus on analysis-training and creativity-cultivation.

The same goes for the classroom. To a large degree, teachers have surrendered their monopoly on facts. Today, more than a few educators have introduced Sefaria and “Bar Ilan” into their classrooms to ensure that students are not limited by a single static text.[13] Greater fluidity improves the chances that young people will ask questions and engage the text on their own terms. An effective teacher will manage the classroom and keep to a lesson plan that anticipates the give-and-take of student-centered discourse.

But the heft and depth of learning cannot be compromised, as Rabbi Shneur Zalman warned. The Alter Rebbe was no doubt correct that the experience of Torah study ought to be an encounter enriched by new resources, not circumvented by them. New digital resources cannot replace amelut, the hard work of traditional study. As well, E.D. Hirsch’s concerns in the late 1980s for “cultural literacy” and sincerity is still a relevant reminder of the perils of shallow reading and lazy shortcutting.

A personal example: after I was admitted to graduate school, I asked my teacher, Jonathan Sarna, how I might use the summer to prepare for my studies in American Jewish history. He advised me to spend time reading through the journal of the American Jewish Historical Society, a periodical that dates back to 1893.[14] I spent much of the summer reading that journal, at least two articles in each issue. At the fall semester orientation, I happily informed Dr. Sarna of my summer labors, expecting to receive some sort of congratulations for my efforts. “Alright,” he responded with a smile. “The American Jewish Archives Journal began in 1948. Start reading.”

The lesson was all too clear: even in our time, clever scholarly calculus—in any field—must be fortified by the arithmetic and skills gained through painstaking bekiut.

Perhaps most of all, the Digital Age must democratize the conversation, to ensure that we make space for hiddushim that might otherwise go missing. Like Rabbi Avraham David Wahrman explained it, our communities, through initiatives like The Lehrhaus, can nurture new and nuanced voices.

If we believe that our educational systems have performed admirable work then it makes good sense that the thoughtful people it has produced should not be stymied from lifelong learning and discussion. At present, social media has an uncanny ability to furnish community. They serve as platforms for individual expression, sometimes preferable to a non-digital community that provides limited opportunity for this democratized discourse.

Cultivating that discussion, removing its unseemly and unwieldy parts, may well be our greatest challenge yet.

Nonetheless, in place of dogged cynicism and an overreliance on the status quo, these sentiments and challenges must animate our discussions of the aims for Torah study and Jewish education. Too much, we mustn’t forget, is at stake.


[1] Rabbi Hayyim Volozhiner, Nefesh Ha-Hayyim, ed. Yissachar Dov Rubin (Bnei Brak, 1989), 422.

[2] See Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 141-44.

[3] On this see, Zev Eleff and Yitzhak Ehrenberg, “Be-Inyan Shekhehah shel Torah bi-Zman ha-Zeh,” Beit Yitzhak 45 (2014): 478-81.

[4] Rabbi Shneur Zalman, Shulhan Arukh Ha-Rav, Talmud Torah 2:4.

[5] See, for example, Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 141-44.

[6] Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, Hagahot li-Pri Megadim, Orah Hayyim no. 136.

[7] Rabbi Avraham David Wahrman, Divrei David (Kolomyia, 1892), 122-25.

[8] For a slightly different interpretation of Rabbi Wahrman’s view, see Levi Cooper, “Forget-Me-Not,” Jerusalem Post (July 3, 2009): 42.

[9] Yaakov Choueka, Menachem Slae and Samuel W. Spero, “A Computerized Retrieval System for the Responsa Literature—Revisited,” Proceedings of the Associations of Orthodox Jewish Scientists 5 (1979): 21.

[10] See Aviezri S. Fraenkel, “A Retrieval System for the Responsa,” Proceedings of the Associations of Orthodox Jewish Scientists 2 (1969): 3-42.

[11] See “Yeshiva May Lose Responsa Project,” Hamevaser (October 5, 1981): 1.

[12] Shalom Z. Berger, “Engaging the Ultimate: The Impact of Post-High School Study in Israel,” in Flipping Out: Myth or Fact, The Impact of the “Year in Israel” (New York: Yashar Books, 2007), 36.

[13] See Julie Wiener, “Open-Source Text Site Could Expand Jewish Learning,” Jewish Week (June 21, 2013): 1.

[14] On the history of the journal, see Jeffrey S. Gurock, “From ‘Publications to American Jewish History’: The Journal of the American Jewish Historical Society and the Writing of American Jewish History,” American Jewish History 81 (Winter 1993/1994): 155-270.