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.