America’s oldest Jewish publisher has embarked on a project to bring the study of Judaism’s most ancient texts into the digital age.
The Jewish Publication Society, a 120-year-old organization devoted to publishing ancient and modern texts on Jewish subjects, has begun work on a project to publish the Jewish Bible, or Tanakh, as an electronic, online text, integrating the original Hebrew with JPS’s English translation and selected commentaries. But the most radical part of the project is an ambitious plan to make the text of the Tanakh into an open platform for users of all stripes to collectively erect their own structure of commentary, debate and interpretation, all linked to the text itself. The publishers hope that the project will radically democratize the ancient process of Talmudic disputation by bringing it into cyberspace.
“The Talmud only had a limited amount of space to allow Rashi and Tosafot and the bigwigs of the Jewish world to have their interpretation,” said J.T. Waldman, director of JPS Interactive and the project. “Now we want to allow everybody to have a space at that table.”
The JPS project, nicknamed the “Tagged Tanakh,” is not the first attempt to digitize ancient texts, Jewish or otherwise. But JPS is staking out ambitious new ground by proposing to enable users to seed the entire text with “tags,” or electronic links to words or phrases in the text, that allow users to append comments, additional materials and links to other relevant documents, and to classify passages by topic for future users. Readers will be able to read the thoughts of commentators ranging from Maimonides to a nurse in Milwaukee or a rabbi in Cleveland, and to offer their own thoughts in turn.
The JPS project would harness the enormous resources of the Internet — and, like Wikipedia, the collective energy of individual users. Those behind it hope to use the Hebrew Bible as a foundation for an online version of the beit midrash, the traditional house of study where Jews study sacred texts through a process of discussion and debate.
“If you’re able to bring to bear better information, to facilitate more questions and more engagement than in a printed text with a document about which we have a lot of information, then you have a chance to achieve a major goal, which is to imprint [the text] more deeply on someone’s mind and heart and to provoke a dialogue,” said Gregory Crane, editor-in-chief of the Perseus Project at Tufts University, a similar online effort with classical Greek and Roman texts, who has consulted with JPS on the Tanakh project. “It starts a chain reaction of inquiry that can pull you in.”
The ground that JPS is treading is not entirely new. Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, for example, has digitized the complete Hebrew text of the Tanakh, the Talmud and other sacred texts and commentaries, many of them linked to one another and searchable.
There is also precedent for the notion of Jewish content assembled by users as well as scholars and institutions. Starting in the late 1990s, writer Douglas Rushkoff and others argued for “Open Source Judaism,” a more participatory, decentralized model in which Jews use modern technology to assemble their own interpretations of Jewish tradition. Rushkoff told the Forward that he had tried in 1999 to create an open-source Bible similar to what JPS is proposing but was never able to secure the funding.
“I’m amazed it’s taken this long,” Rushkoff said.
The Tagged Tanakh has a long way to go before it sees the light of day. The project, in its current form, was conceived in November of 2007. In July 2008, JPS received a grant of $200,000 from the Ziering Family Foundation to put together a prototype and to work out a business plan.
According to JPS CEO and editor-and-chief Ellen Frankel, by the beginning of June 2009, JPS expects to make the first 20 chapters of the book of Exodus, tagged and with links to established commentaries, available for a limited group of testers. By early 2010, a preliminary version should be available to the public. It will take three to five years to get the Torah — the Bible’s first five books — tagged and online, and another five years to put up the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Frankel estimates the total cost at $2 million to $3 million.
Though JPS has a fairly clear concept of how it wants the project to turn out, there are major obstacles to navigate. JPS must figure out how to link across the original Hebrew and the English translation, how to screen users to ensure that their comments are appropriate, how to integrate existing software tools, and how to create an architecture flexible enough to incorporate new and unexpected functions that may not yet even exist.
The most unpredictable part of the project may be how people will actually use it. Will it be a path to serious engagement or succumb to the lowest-common denominator of discussion prevalent in many Internet forums?
Still, the notion of linking from one passage to another across texts is not foreign to the Jewish tradition. Indeed, it parallels the method used in the Talmud.
Jonathan Rosen, editorial director of Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters series and author of the 2000 book “The Talmud and the Internet” (Farrar Straus Giroux), noted that the tension between scholarly authority and popular access is as old as the texts themselves.
“It’s always the balance — and I think Judaism is good at balancing that — between authority and democracy, and between lay participation and contribution and scholarly authority,” Rosen said. Regarding the Tanakh project, he said, “I think it’s only a good thing.”