English, Technology

Talking about a Revolution

In the wake of the Artscroll dinner a few nights ago, there has been lots of chatter about a mega-app recently developed for the Artscroll Schottenstein Talmud. Yesterday, Artscroll released an over-the-top, hyperbolic clip that shows some of the amazing things this app will do…when it is released in time for the new daf yomi cycle this summer |(h/t to Menachem Mendel) .

Out of a nice conversation with my constant dialogue partner, the Adderabbi, the following thoughts emerged: Don’t get me wrong, Artscroll’s decision to embrace technology by creating a forward-thinking, e-book experience (and not merely digitizing books) is significant and laudatory. And make no mistake, even if they embarrassingly overuse the verb “elucidate”, you have to hand it to them. The first ‘Artscroll Revolution’ democratized Talmud study (including, certainly against their will, opening it up to women, to say nothing of non-Jews), and vastly changed the map of who was involved in Talmud study.

Yet, with all the bells and whistles the new app looks like it will continue to perpetuate the sense one has while reading from a Schottenstein Talmud; that this is a fully coherent canon, even if every generation adds new insights channeled through a group of bearded men with positions of rabbinic authority, whose thoughts are collected in footnotes at the bottom of the page. The exhilarating experience of approaching a text where so much remains open-ended, gloriously ‘problematic’, and unaccounted for – and hence awaiting serious readers of all stripes and types to realize its meanings in a myriad of ways – is lost.  A very well-funded, supposedly revolutionary app like this one is a kind of lost opportunity if it does not truly democratize Talmud study and turn it into a massive, ongoing, virtual conversation.

A couple of months ago, the Talmud Blog experimented with using google+ as a forum  for scholarly dialogue. Despite our efforts, it is mainly dormant now, though one wonders what might be if someone were to develop an app  that allows people who have new insights into words, readings, and meanings in the Bavli to converse with each other over some kind of virtual medium. The possibilities are tantalizing and endless. I suppose we’ll have to wait a bit longer to see future.


37 thoughts on “Talking about a Revolution

  1. Yehuda says:


    I’ve been working on something in my spare time for a while now. Its still not finished but it does hold some kind of promise.
    Its meant to enable the study of talmud in a lomdisha a-priori way – aka rav soloveitchik/rav lichtenstein. It gives the user the ability to define their own categories and reapply them/refine them.
    It supports pluralistic meaning by allowing a plurality of categories to be visually linked to the text.
    And it will (when I get there) support a sophisticated user defined taxonomy for category organisation.

    The categorisation facility is applicable to other learning approaches though e.g. shitat haRevadim. And with free commenting abilities,

    However, categorisation is methodological and thus subject to dispute and to taste.
    [One thing I did learn indirectly from the magic book you leant me: That the founder of speech act theory was critical of categorisation of textual meanings (says something like that on his wikipedia page).
    categorisation as a methodology (and especially the somewhat forced systematic approach that serious briskers use) is certainly not going to be agreeable to all.]
    Any program one could write to support a briska methodology would be limiting to non-briskas.
    (e.g. in Academic Talmud (of which I know little) I ask myself how much plural meaning is sought.)

    Also, User-friendly Visualisation of textual meaning is no simple feat either.

    So I don’t profess to have something of broad appeal and great ability.

    And I anyway generally keep quiet about it because its not finished.
    I mistakenly publicised it in a gush alumni magazine, prematurely, a few years ago in order to get a bit of support. Instead people who tried the demo couldn’t get it to work unsuprisingly and were disappointed.

    Seeing as you mentioned it I didn’t refrain this time.


  2. Yehudah Mirsky says:

    Shai – you’re on target. But why is this a surprise? The whole kunts to Artscroll is using the very latest in design, marketing and – let’s face it when it comes to their Talmud – very skillful pedagogy (not just translation, but pedagogy) to educate while reinforcing foursqaure traditional rabbinic authority. In that respect, the Steinsaltz Talmud in Hebrew was much closer to what you’re talking about/looking for inasmuch as the very typeface and layout bespoke this kind of Mapai/zionist realist aesthetic, and the commentary and surrounidng materials were clearly dsigned to empower the reader (who to begin with is more empowered than the Artscroll consumer since he or she can read Hebrew).
    As for the consumers, its unclear to me – and I really hope I’m not being as elitist as I sound – that the broad reading public of Artscroll is looking for a picture of tradition as fragmented, full of loose ends, unresolved debates, struggles about authority. They get enough of that in their work and professional lives and are turning to Artscroll for something different. At least that’s how it seems to me.

    • Yehudah, I couldn’t agree more. Artscroll is at the top of the media game, and it should not have surprised me at all. You are also probably largely correct about what most people are looking for in Talmud study, which I suppose is precisely the point. It is a document crafted for (and by) an intellectual elite who enjoy the challenge of the thing, and it was Artscroll (and others similar to it) that went against the grain to make it accessible for people who are not looking to be “complicated” in their religious learning experience. The Hevra Mishnayos could now become the Daf Yomi shiur.

    • Yehudah…..I’m surprised at you. Two glaring mistakes in your comment, 1) You really think that people study with Shottenstein so as no to think? It’s a straightforward verse. מחשבה לא תחיה.
      2) קונץ is spelled with az.

  3. Shlomo says:

    “The exhilarating experience of approaching a text where so much remains open-ended, gloriously ‘problematic’, and unaccounted for”

    The problem is that for most people, most of the time, this experience is immense frustrating rather than exhilarating.

    “using google+ as a forum for scholarly dialogue. Despite our efforts, it is mainly dormant now”

    Predictably, because the correspondence between conversations that have original scholarly value, and conversations that are fun to have, is quite weak. In the real world, problems are not all at the level which sustains your sense of challenge. They jump unpredictably between that level (wherever it is for you), and between the too-boring and too-hard levels, at a rapid pace.

  4. Charles Rubin says:

    I came out of a non-Orthodox background, and yet since I was pretty young had an interest in Talmud–which was impossible to go anywhere with, given the English translations available until R. Steinsaltz and Artscroll came along. I’ve been reading with the current Daf Yomi cycle, mostly in Artscroll, of course, since the English version of Steinsaltz did not come to anything like complete fruition. For what its worth, my layman’s impression of Artscroll (albeit the impression of a layman who teaches political philosophy) is not quite what Shai describes. I can certainly see that the editors are mostly trying to do what he suggests–and indeed to some extent I am quite grateful for it. But the power of the text itself and the manner of its presentation ultimately overwhelms their efforts and all of the traits that so excite him about the text cannot help but shine through. For those who are looking to accept the authority of the commentators provided, it is there to be found. For others–well, the pleasure (or despair) of coming across those not infrequent pages with a very few lines of text and many many notes is not to be missed. So despite my now pretty substantial investment in the books, I’m quite excited about the possibilities of this new app; it may at last be that long awaited excuse for buying an Ipad. . .

  5. The promo video is actually so over the top I considered whether it was a self-parody.
    I wonder if too much is being made of this app. If it is reasonably priced, I’d be happy to buy it and carry around an easy-to-read, portable version of the traditional Bavli along with some useful aids. The app itself looks nifty, about at the level of Logos and other well-designed apps. But revolutionary? No. Just the Schottenstein Talmud, with its pluses and minuses, in a different medium. It is hard for me to imagine that in many traditional learning circles everybody will now start to bring an ipad – maybe for those that study on the LIRR, but that’s about the limit of how this will might play out in groups.
    Shai and Yehudah also raise an interesting, secondary issue which I saw from the promo might be on the horizon in “version 2.0,” namely, the integration of social media and web 2.0 technology. That would indeed be interesting, but again, I doubt that by itself it would have significant impact either on traditional learning or scholarly study.

  6. Rochelle says:

    Artscroll are doing what they do and they are doing it well.
    The investment they are making is good. Cynicism & jealousy toward it is unwarranted.

    The iPad is a medium that cries out for this sort of thing. I don’t own one but my intuition tells me it is an excellent educational medium.

    Academia would do well to lower its head once in a while and invest the time and effort educating the masses in the way it sees fit.
    The vast majority of people have no idea about methods, criticism and language when it comes to learning Talmud. Nor do they know why these things are important. Yet the Torah is the property of all Jews.
    The high-mindedness of academics blinds them, clefts Academia – making it inward rather than subservient to society. Ultimately it is corrupting.

    As you say Shai, we await the day when the academic establishment or those teaching in more enlightened sems and yeshivot will make more enlightened approaches to learning available on the iPad. Bar Ilan classic library just doesn’t cut it.
    I salute Yehuda’s efforts and wish him well.

    • AS says:

      I disagree. I think that academic Talmud study is perforce a specialized discourse not aimed at educating the masses, but at understanding the Talmud. There are enough people – both in and outside of academia – who see its value and have imported some of its methods and findings into broader educational initiatives. That kind of translational work is very important, but it need not be the agenda of academics who do not have the time or skill to do it well.

      • Rochelle says:

        Its that attitude that just makes me livid.

        How dare an academic criticise Artscroll for educating the masses when Academic Talmud is so utterly inaccessible and esoteric?

        Its just condescension born out of blindness!

        • AS says:

          I don’t see where anyone here criticized Artscroll for “educating the masses.” Nor do I see it fit to characterize academic Talmud as “utterly inaccessible and esoteric.” Like any field it has writers who are more or less accessible, and some who are impenetrable to most people unfamiliar with the field because they are either doing very technical philological work or using a hyperstylized idiom imported from literature departments. But there are plenty of authors who basically anyone with a bit of knowledge of Talmud who can read at a college level can pick up and understand, and I daresay enjoy.

          And what attitude is it that makes you livid? The attitude that academics in the humanities who do serious work ought to be appreciated for what they do without having to respond to the charges that we don’t do enough to create a product to sell to “the masses”? There’s a thing that we are paid to do called teaching in colleges and universities. Is it unreasonable to expect that the vast majority of our students who don’t enter academia nonetheless gain from this and that a number of them who pursue careers in other educational settings will play a role in the dissemination of these ideas?

          Look, I work in an interdisciplinary field and spend a lot of time thinking about how specialized writing in my “home” discipline can be applied to areas of much greater interest to the average person. But that’s my chosen job. I don’t expect the brilliant lights of my field to have to answer the question of why their work is important to you – any more than I expect a typical Rosh Yeshiva to answer that question.

        • S. says:

          “How dare an academic criticise Artscroll for educating the masses when Academic Talmud is so utterly inaccessible and esoteric?”

          There is a middle ground. A lit bit of old fashioned philology, realia and even Talmud source criticism never hurt anyone, but it is (mostly) absent from Artscroll, because it is (mostly) absent or disapproved of in Orthodox learning today.

          But all of that said, Artscroll is not going to just magically start doing what we wish it, or something else, will.

          • Rochelle says:

            I think its a mistake to think that orthodox learning doesn’t approve of this.
            Daniel Sperber is an example. The owner of this blog – Dr. Shai Secunda is another.

            An approach to the middle ground is required. Its no use criticising Artscroll. They are doing something different to what Academics do. If Academics don’t like it its no use wincing. They need to DO something about it.

            Winning funding for research is not easy. But it must be done. Similarly, and in a broader way, institutes of higher Academic learning who seek funding have to make their case. No-one expects them to be in sales mode constantly. They do have to sell themsevles sometimes though. We all do. Fact of life.
            No-one expects them to spend all their time thinking they are public servants. But they do have a duty to the public. Academics shouldn’t take the laity for granted.

            One recent personal example: The Safrai edition of the mishna – A beautiful edition of the mishnah – Academic (and Orthodox by the way). How easily available is it. How well known is it. When was the last time you saw it advertised? Yet it is the sort of the thing that is within intellectual reach of many.
            Why on their website do they ask you to be in personal email contact in order to purchase one? Why have I still not heard back from them 2 weeks later?

            Criticising Artscroll shows a loss of touch with their strong client base. Teaching uni courses and dissemination of ideas is important but the people who use Artscroll, while self-motivated, aren’t going to attend them. Nor are they going to take out membership in the Hebrew University library or peer review papers.

            The middle ground is sadly neglected.
            People who are thirsty to know but who find it hard to gain access.
            People who accept the Academic way of doing things even though it conflicts with tradition.
            This is the ground that I occupy. I am educated, self motivated & yes, neglected.
            And that’s why it makes me livid when Academics just don’t get it and instead criticise those that do spend their time educating broader audiences.

            I have family and work. We have an Artscroll in the house. We also have a few scholarly works. But I don’t know what to read (i.e. to self educate) half the time. I don’t know where to start. I feel I need intimate contact with the academic community but I don’t know any well enough. I don’t have the time to attend courses and take exams.
            but I care about what Academics do and say.
            It seems clear to me one must spend time in well endowed university libraries including paying them membership. But if like me you live in a city without one?
            Indeed where does one start with all this stuff?
            Are there journals? Does anyone know about them who hasn’t been to a course in a university or personally know an Academic talmudist? I don’t know of any sadly. How would I find out about them?

  7. AS says:

    Don’t you realize how revolutionary it is not having to use two fingers to keep your place? 🙂

    As for the main critique, I try to avoid Artscroll – not so much because it presents Talmud as a fully coherent cannon, but because it makes me a lazy reader. There is something about going back and forth from the text to a very seamless translation/elucidation which creates an implicit expectation that the translation (and the reader!) has succeeded in explaining (not simply translating) the text, so I am subconsciously primed to ignore difficulties and move on.

    Shai, I was intrigued by your response to Yehuda Mirsky. You seem to imply that the Talmud is self-consciously esoteric in some ways, and I wonder if this inaccessibility is more an accident of its history that led to a perception of it as a relatively inaccessible corpus that was consciously perpetuated to promote an elitist conception of Torah study (and not merely because they enjoyed the challenge of the thing, but enjoyed the perception of doing something challenging). Or do you see a desire for inaccessibility as an ethos that influenced modes of transmission and redaction in process.

    • I think my comments were not sufficiently sharp. I generally agree with your point, but I think its no historical ‘accident’, rather has to do with the settings in which the more or less finished corpus developed.

  8. Pingback: Did Someone from Artscroll Study at the Conservative Yeshiva? « Menachem Mendel

  9. What jumped out to me is the irony of ‘revolutionizing’ by an organization that is essentially archaic and anti-change (see their translation of Shir HaShirim.) The thing that bothers me though is the continued farce that Talmud is meant for popular consumption and is actually useful. This is so modern and so misguided I can’t get over my cynicism. The Talmud was meant to be learned, not read. It was meant to be thought about and considered. With digested rishonim and acharonim on every page there is little room for actual thinking.

    • I am amazed by how much this non-event rattled people. I think first off, we all need to take a deep breath. There are issues to hash out about the relationship between the academy and the community, between Orthodoxy and orthodoxy etc. And for crying out loud, even if its hard let’s chill out with the cynicism.
      It’s already so old to say that the Artscroll Shir hashirim lament is so old, so I won’t say anything. What I will say, however, is that if you think that revolutions and orthodoxy don’t mix, then you have some history to catch up on.

  10. S. says:


    Sorry for replying down here, but I somehow don’t see a reply button to your comment up above.

    “I think its a mistake to think that orthodox learning doesn’t approve of this.”

    I said “it is (mostly) absent or disapproved of in Orthodox learning today” and I don’t think you said anything which is incongruous with that.

    “An approach to the middle ground is required. Its no use criticising Artscroll. ”

    I said as much in my comment:

    Middle ground – “a lit bit of old fashioned philology, realia and even Talmud source criticism never hurt anyone” as opposed to real hardcore academic Talmud. This was my middle ground.

    No use criticizing Artscroll – “Artscroll is not going to just magically start doing what we wish it, or something else, will.”

    Although I do disagree that there is no use in criticizing Artscroll, because they have internalized some criticism and made improvements over the years. For example, many of the outright mistakes which one found in earlier works, those cataloged by B. Barry Levy, are less likely to occur in Artscroll books now. Also criticizing and griping fills an important *popular* role. One, it raises awareness among the masses that there is something else. I know a number of people who had no idea that there was anything awry in Artscroll’s works until they read stuff by Levy. Two, it is also balm for some of the disconnnected masses that sense something is wrong with Artscroll, but don’t know what it is.

    As for the rest of your points, I agree. Since academics are people too, and academics are also part of Jewish communities, including Orthodox ones, they cannot only gripe and fail to supply education and product to the masses and also expect or wish for anything to change.

    As for your final point about feeling out of the loop and not knowing where to start – you found a pretty good starting point, which is online networking. If you know about Sperber and Secunda, what is to stop you from emailing them? I’m not sure if Rabbi Sperber is so into email, and I’m sure Dr. Secunda is busy, he’s also a really nice guy and accessible. Years ago when I had a sense that I was interested in academic Jewish studies I just went hog wild and emailed a bunch of professors and asked them if they could tell me what 10 books influenced them and why.

    There are also many classic, if not necessarily contemporary, works of academic Talmud online, even on hebrewbooks.org. If you don’t have institutional access to databases, network with people who do and who will be happy to email you articles on topics and from journals which you are interested in. Jstor has archived the entire Tarbiz. There is enough material online for a person to spend the next 20 years doing nothing but reading. Just reach out, as you have.

  11. AS says:

    Continuing with Rochelle’s last point I am very sympathetic to your lament about having a sense that academia has something important to say about the Talmud but no access to this scholarship, and that it would be nice to have some kind of introduction for the lay person. Unfortunately, writing such a volume or series well would be a huge undertaking because the object of study is vast and the amount of scholarship is vast as well as methodologically diverse. If anyone can muster a few million dollars I know of more than a few underemployed scholars who would be happy to spend the next few years gainfully employed engaged in such a project.

    But more to Shai’s original point, he is not necessarily advocating for more academic Talmud study for the lay person. In fact, I doubt he thinks that as a matter of pedagogy or religious engagement it is necessarily the best way for a layperson to approach the Talmud. He was instead pointing to the fact that really engaging with a text like the Talmud is best done with an appreciation for the fact that its meaning is in many ways underdetermined by the available evidence. You can open up a sugya and interrogate it from many perspectives and with many different tools and methods. Most academics are keenly aware that there is no single right way to approach the Talmud and that many of the questions that a reader with an open mind can bring to the table – questions that in a yeshiva would often be derided as “balebatish” – are worth asking and are frequently hard to answer.

    That said, a volume that introduced some of the methods and general findings of academic talmud study would no doubt be useful specifically if it invited the reader to pursue ways of thinking about Talmud that they would not otherwise be exposed to. But this is very different from something like a running artscroll-style academic “elucidation” of the Talmud which could easily be subject to many of the same critiques that Shai directed toward artscroll.

  12. I guess I should not be surprised by the comments and responses here, but I am. Let me start by saying that I agree completely with Charles Rubin’s post. Yes, I am an academician in a field, that while not Talmud or Jewish Studies impinges on these areas: ancient history and classical archaeology. I have come to Talmud rather late in life partly for personal resaons and part from a desire to see if there was material here that would help with understanding Late Roman Jewish and non-Jewish life. I started with a synagogue Talmud class using the old conservative Talmud pamphlets and moved to Steinsaltz and then Art Scroll.
    There seems to be an attitude that either one is part of the academic approach and/or Orthodox. However, there is use of and study of Talmud in Reform, Reconstruction and Conservative and other communities. While Talmud may have been a closed book for a long time and is still thought of in that way by many, it really is not. I agree with the description of the new ArtScroll video as over-the-top, but if it does even half of what is claimed it will be a great help to those who wish to move into the world of Talmud. As Prof. Burton L. Visotzky of JTS noted in a discussion at the Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins several years ago, his students already have Talmud downloaded on the computers in a searchable form and use it in class to find material; many times this is faster that he can recall it from memory. This is a good thing.
    Moreover, the study and knowledge of the details of Talmud have entered the larger academic world. As Tayla Fishman noted in her new book, Becoming the People of Talmud,(University of Pennsylvania Press, 20122 ISBN 0-385-48345-7), those who are studying areas that touch on Talmud or for which Talmud can provide a view are no longer free to ignore it. Indeed, as the more recent volumes of the Anchor Bible commentaries have shown, they can no longer ignore Talmud which the earlier volumes certainly did.
    All of this means that while some will relish the “old days” when Talmud was the perserve of the Orthodox yeshiva and dedicated scholars who then fed an occassional morsel to the waiting Jewish People, those days are over.

  13. Thank you, Michael. Yes, the “old days” are over, and whether the Artscroll folks like it or not, the Talmud is now open to women, non-Orthodox Jews, and even non-Jews – who can see for themselves that halacha has not always been so monolithic and ossified. This is a particular boon for women, who have been excluded from Talmud study throughout history and thus unable to participate in making Jewish Law that affected them.
    In the 20 years I’ve studied Talmud, my Hebrew [never mind my Aramaic] was never good enough to read Steinsaltz without a whole lot of effort that I preferred to expend to understand the arguments and discussions. Thus Schottenstein was, pardon the expression, a Godsend. I kept wondering when [not if] they would provide a digital, searchable version, and my main questions now are how affordable the app will be and whether the entire Talmud will be available, or only one tractate at a time according to the daf yomi schedule.

  14. Zohar says:

    when I was learning in yeshiva, i viewed the talmudic edifice as a monolith. within the box there is nothing you can do other than build that edifice even higher. you can think of nothing new (kind of reminds me in some weird way of bible criticism today, which has been researched soooooooo thoroughly) but with academic talmud the entire wall comes crumbling down — (and the field is wide open in relation to bible.)
    of course artscroll is building the wall, that’s their job. and our job… (soundtrack: pink floyd)

    • AS says:

      Well, from a sociological perspective Artscroll tore down an outer wall, albeit with the purpose of reinforcing an inner wall. But as some have suggested here, once the outer wall is breached all the diverse people climbing the inner wall can weaken it.

      But since you bring up Pink Floyd, it’s apropos to mention what one of my former rabbeim essentially said to me many years back when I told him I was getting into academic Talmud (or was it philosophy – I can’t remember): “How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat!?” (not verbatim, but a similar sentiment quoted from Rambam).

      • Zohar says:

        Indeed, “and the worms ate into his brain” — don’t forget that Artscroll and other hareidi publications are written by scholars often frustrated by the fundamentalist limitations imposed by the editors. A lot can be gained by reading between the lines rather than taking the commentary at face value. When you find a barrage of apologetics in the notes, you know there is a serious issue under the hood even if you didn’t pick up on this in the text of the gemarrah itself. This is like reading the ahronim for the kashez and rejecting the forced terutzim. Artscroll is very useful especially for those who do not have a yeshiva background or can’t or don’t have time to do real learning. In fact, that’s why Rav Shach refused to give a haskama.

  15. Tania says:

    I do not necessarily see how the virtual Talmud will impede appreciation for an open-ended approach to Talmud study. For many–both within and outside the hallowed halls of academia–ready access to a reasonably well-translated text, with references to some of the major rishonim on the sugyah, is of paramount importance. With these tools in hand, one can, if so inclined, go on to plumb the depths of the sugyah, appreciate its complexity, and develop their own analyses. The tools are there, but one must “zil gemor” (go ahead and study).

  16. Daniel Shain says:

    Has anyone used the Talmud Ha-Iggud? Is it a useful and/or meaningful way to study Talmud? Is it accessible to non-academics? Also is it available? – now when I click on the “buy it” link on their website, it does not work….

    • The quality of the different volumes is somewhat uneven, but it is a great tool to get to know how the Shamma Friedman school learns a piece of gemara. It is specifically written in an accessible way. I know that it is easily available in Israel. I just had Hebrew University’s bookstore order them for me.

  17. Michael Carasik says:

    I would just add … “elucidation” is not merely pretentious. It is used to avoid (as much as possible) calling what they do a “translation” of the Talmud, something I believe they view as impossible as a “translation” of the Koran is for Muslims. My assumption is that Artscroll borrowed “elucidation” from Muslim usage.

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