From tablet to table, from scroll to scroll - writes Amos and Fania Oz in their wonderful essay on Jewish textual traditions. The pun relates the Tablets of the Ten Commandments with tablets, and the scrolls that comprise the Five Books of Moses with the scrolling on computer surfaces. The meeting of these notions is not just a word-play, it points out very important developments hallmarking a new era in the access of cultural heritage. The heritage of Judaism (texts, objects, audio and video files) is made digitally available with multiple intentions and methodologies, in various points of the world.
Talmud and hyperlinks
The Jewish world’s quick reception of internet technology and digitization was probably made easier by the fact that the methodology of browsing and acquiring information on the internet is similar to the practice of traditional Jewish text learning. Similarly to a typical corpus on internet, the Talmud is a multidimensional text, not to be read in a linear manner. Hyperlinks connect the textual bodies and contents so that the reader can freely follow them according to his or her individual interest and knowledge. In the Talmud, this is traditionally solved by a special multi-column layout that engulfs the main text. In digital humanities this is made possible by linked open data, which is capable of connecting content preserved in different heritage institutions and interpret them together. It also offers an explanatory practice to the presented objects that follows a similar method of studying the Talmud.
Perhaps it is due to the strong textual tradition of Judaism that while digitization and online publishing of Hebrew texts were among the first ones, the world of tangible Judaica (Jewish objects) preserved in museums has only experienced a digital breakthrough in recent years. We are facing the same delay here that had already been seen in connection with the collection and the scholarly analysis of Jewish tangible heritage. It only commenced at the end of the 19th century, well after the research of our textual legacy. Along with the collections developed the infrastructure of academic studies focused on interpreting them. This happened after the first Jewish Museums were opened (1895:Vienna, 1898: Frankfurt and Hamburg, 1906: Prague, 1909: Budapest, etc.)
The destruction of the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel opened new dimensions in the field of Jewish heritage. Large part of the records and tangible heritage of European Jewish communities exterminated during the Holocaust were destroyed, therefore collecting them gained a radically new meaning as of 1945. It was no longer just a historical collection of resources, but an attempt to preserve the traces of a culture that was intended to be destroyed. This effort has not only scholarly and aesthetic but commemorational aspects as well. At the same time, the foundation of the State of Israel (1948) re-evaluated the concept of Jewish diaspora and focused attention to non-European Jewish heritage too: entire Jewish communities made aliyah from Muslim countries and their tangible legacy became endangered pieces of Jewish culture.
From a museological-methodological point of view, this period is reminiscent of the era following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70 CE), when oral transmission of the tradition was endangered. This is why the oral tradition (the Mishnah) and the Talmud were later put down in writing. Nowadays, the fear of losing the heritage of destroyed and transmigrant communities leads to the collection and preservation of these objects and records as public domain. In order to preserve losable knowledge, Jewish communities have always used the current media of the era: at the time of recording the Mishnah and the Talmud it was writing. Nowadays, when visual culture is being pushing in the forefront, it is the museums and digital mediation of knowledge. Digitization and online publishing, i.e. unrestricted access to heritage both in time and space, is a very important step in this process.
The reversed Tower of Babel
In their quoted essay, Amos and Fania Oz interpret this as an reversed Tower of Babel as in the era of the Jewish diaspora (since the fall of Judea, 587 BCE) this is the first time a significant corpus of the Jewish tradition is mutually intelligible and available from anywhere in the world. Moreover, this knowledge is no longer hidden in Jewish schools: thanks to online publication, texts are accessible from anywhere in the original language and in English translation. Therefore, contents that were only studied by religious Jewish men are now available even to groups that would have stayed away from them before.
Digitization and online publishing is very important to any group appreciating its culture. The selection of content to be digitized and the way of publishing it reveal much about the group’s identity, its political and cultural ambitions as well as its historical determinants. In the case of diaspora cultures, the digital era brought along a possibility of at least virtually connecting a community scattered around the world but cherishing the same cultural heritage.
Quantity or sensibility?
Mass digitization and almost unlimited access to content shows a new direction to scholarly thinking too. The question occurs whether quantity of knowledge is more important (many data, texts, objects) or it is more valuable to find the deductible lessons from them. Since there is nothing new under the sun, this question has already occurred in Talmud too: in choosing the leader of a school it was considered whether of the two candidates they should choose the one who knew almost all the texts by heart (Sinai), or the one who was a brilliant analyst of the texts (oker harim). The decision they made then –which showed favour towards the one who knew everything by heart – appears to us now with a later commentary. Rabbi Slomo Kluger (1783-1869), the rabbi of Brody, believed that in Talmudic times, when the texts were not yet written down, a scholar who knew everything was invaluable. However, in Kluger’s time, when texts could be retrieved and recalled due to the spread of book printing, the ability to take an analytical approach became more important. Commentaries on this text ultimately agree that both types of knowledge are indispensable abilities complementing each other. This duality is illustrated by the Judaica-digitization project, Sefaria, which I find most impressive.
Traditional Jewish thinking evolved from the repeated reinterpretation and re-commenting of ancient sacred texts and oral tradition as well as the continuous raising of new questions about the same texts.
According to Jewish tradition, the true meaning of things is inherently related to heritage and immanent in them. Their revelation happens through the continuous reinterpretation of tradition for all generations, connecting living Jews with their ancestors, their present problems and lives with that of their forefathers. In this tradition, visual culture has a smaller role as due to the strict interpretation of the second commandment, Judaism does not hold respect for images and icons. The concept of Jewish art has been subject to scholarly debates since the last decades of the 19th century. The results, which have only crystallised in the mid-20th century, constitute the basis of scientific research and processing of Jewish objects in museums. Harold Rosenberg, a New York art critic, introduced a new concept in 1966 which he called ’The Jewish art of the future’. This concept is the metaphysical Judaica: art portraying the teachings of Judaism with a philosophical content. It goes beyond visual material and formal content.
Seeing the results of the Sefaria project, I believe with digitizing and online publication we have come to the future that Rosenberg dreamed of. The essential goal of Sefaria was to digitize classical Jewish texts, in the course of which nearly the entirety of traditional Jewish literature is to be published in original language and translation as well. Its data upload methodology is open: it follows the practice of crowdsourcing, currently with 3439 active participants. They have so far digitized 84.141.295 Hebrew/Aramaic words and related to this have published an English translation of 18.989.055 words. So far this could be a traditional library. In the huge amount of uploaded classic texts 1.102.349 intertextual links have been made available by one click. The same knowledge that was indicated by Soncino, Bomberg and other printers from the 15-16.century – however, back then, the reader had to turn over the pages of another volume for “linking”, if he had the book at all. Otherwise he would have had to travel to another city to get it. Today, it takes only one click to switch. Further, in the spirit of the above mentioned continuous reinterpreting practice, users of digitized texts can compile "source-sheets" from texts selected in their "baskets", which can be used to study contextual questions and problems. By the 10th May 2017, 62.959 such source sheets are available, in thematic groups, sorted by subject. But that's not all. Sefaria, following the most beautiful practice of “digital humanities” visualizes, depicts the vast amount Jewish sacred texts. Their visualizations, on the one hand, show the nexus between texts, so they can be interpreted as learning facilitators. But perhaps they mean even more than that. The links between the several thousand year-old texts give a beautiful, symmetrical and/or repetitive pattern. In Secular-Art Theory, this is nothing more than the true, transcendent, metaphysical Jewish art that shows the Jewish spirit. For those who are more attached to Jewish traditions, however, it may even be more than that, since we are not talking about new contents. These contents have been there since the revelation on Mount Sinai but we were unable to see them before. The exploration and exhibition of this immanent aesthetic aspect is what we had to wait until the current stage of technological development. It must have been a similar experience for our ancestors in the 16th century to take the first printed copies of the sacred Jewish books and explore on the multi-column printed pages the text links, or the small signs that refer to other books or texts. I hope we will not have to wait another five hundred years for the next step and, with the help of IT technology, and we will soon, in our days, be able to explore a new layer of tradition that is not yet part of our knowledge.