Recently, while casually surfing the web, I came across “a hilariously unsuccessful for-profit online education project” known as Fathom.com, which ran during the internet bubble. In a time when forecasts floated around saying that “distance education” would be “a $9 billion industry by 2003”, Columbia University and other formal and informal institutions of higher learning banded together to “provide high quality educational resources to a global audience through the Internet.” Although the site hasn’t been updated in a few years and a lot of the links are broken, its courses are still up (now for free), and include some in Jewish Studies. To my great delight I came across one entitled “An Introduction to Hebrew Manuscripts“, co-authored by an all-star cast made up of the art historians Joseph Gutmann and Evelyn M. Cohen; the former JTS librarian and professor of Medieval Hebrew Literature and Jewish Bibliography Menahem Schmelzer; and the preeminent codicologist Malachi Beit-Arié. Beit-Arié, who is professor emeritus at Hebrew University, a member of the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and past director of the JNUL, is currently at work on a project to create an online database of codicological information collected by the Hebrew Palaeography Project. The “study of books as physical objects” is quite an important field to be familiar with when approaching the Talmud and I immediately read through the seminar’s four sessions.
Yet while reading about the different ways in which Jews have transmitted knowledge on paper I could not help but think of how I was learning all of this from a format which had in itself become passé. Within a decade of its publication, the really excellent seminar had already fallen by the way side as its medium fell out of use. Online learning still exists, but in slightly different formats, through the extremely successful iTunes University and Academic Earth. Except for podcasts like Prof. Michael Satlow‘s series “From Israelite to Jew“, most online courses nowadays are video or audio recordings of actual university courses. Both iTunesU and Academic Earth really have a huge amount of valuable information (with some overlap), but only a limited amount of Jewish Studies courses, which is why I was surprised to see that Fathom even had a Jewish Studies section on its site. A couple of years ago my friends and I discovered Prof. Christine Hayes’ online course “Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible)” and we were bothered that we could find practically no other full courses in Jewish Studies. Yeshiva University has a few academic lectures available on iTunes U and the Orthodox adult education organization “Torah in Motion” also has a number of academic lectures available for a dollar or two each. In Hebrew, the Youtube channel of Hebrew U has a few lectures worth watching, like Prof. Avigdor Shinan’s Introduction to Aggadic Literature and videos of the last World Congress of Jewish Studies. Still, this is scarce when compared to both the plethora of other courses available in the humanities and the amount of money which goes into Jewish Studies in the academy. When the number of potential listeners is also taken into account, it is pretty surprising that more Jewish Studies courses or guest lectures aren’t available online.
Perhaps students of Jewish Studies would do well to take the cue from Prof. Beit-Arié and try and curate a website based database that brings together links to the various free courses available online. Such a collection would not only make finding what is already available easier, but might convince more institutions to take part in online learning.