Primary Contact – Sarra Lev
A Talmud Learning App
For a demonstration, please see our video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrdgTKtX3GY.
The talmud is a text that spans generations and was composed by groups of individuals through those generations (and not by a single author). It is, therefore, a living document that demonstrates and embodies both Kaplan’s philosophy that Judaism is an “evolving religious civilization,” and Reconstructionism’s commitment to developing Judaism in community. Moreover, the texts from which the Talmud is composed are generated by Jews living in “two civilizations,” whether they be products of the Roman World or of the Sassanian world. Kaplan considered it imperative that we look both at our roots and at our context, but it is not only its historical importance that makes the Talmud so relevant to us as Reconstructionists, but its *reception* history. The Talmud, that is, has continued to be central in many Jewish communities throughout the periods that followed its development, and continues to be a living document with which we can interact as our practice and our Judaism evolve.
Over the past decade I have searched for apps that would open Talmud to learners who have difficulty following the argument without being able to see it unfold before their eyes, without being able to organize the complex information. I have found none. This app does that and more. It allows learners to engage with the text through a Reconstructionist lens and to bring that learning into their present. Kaplan believed that in order to be a Reconstructionist, one had to know what they were reconstructing; to learn how a concept had evolved from Judaism’s beginnings until now. This app allows learners to engage in that process and to become active voices as they bring this central text to life. No other such app, or even written materials that accomplish this task, exist. Upon showing the demonstration video to a rabbinic colleague who graduated JTS, she exclaimed, “this will be the next generation of Talmud teaching everywhere!” We sincerely hope she is correct, and believe that this app can revolutionize Talmud learning.
Learning to Use the App
This method of teaching is not limited to rabbinical students. I have used it with lay-students at synagogues as well, delineating the different layers visually through font or colors. My students (whether rabbinical or lay) are thus able to discern for themselves how, as they adapted to new conditions, the generations of rabbis in the Talmud changed what it meant to be a Jew – their notions of what is important, their approaches to various subjects, and the meanings of the biblical texts that have been handed down to them. My students gain a vivid picture of the evolution of Judaism even within the rabbinic period.
The dream of this project began years ago. Because Talmud is so complicated, and learning it has so many facets to it, I began to teach my classes using an application that was developed in Israel for the purpose of teaching Talmud. The Israeli app visually represented the workings of a Talmud passage so that students could see the ways in which one part of a passage interacted with other parts. There was a basic conflict, however, between the functionality of the app and my teaching as a Reconstructionist.
While I was teaching my students to discern historical layers and agendas, the Israeli app developers had no interest in this philosophy and there was no way to have students represent these layers visually in the app. Students were constantly frustrated that they could not fully visually represent the skills that I was teaching them to apply to the text. Every semester, when I received these complaints, I would tell them that if they found me a software engineer, I would build them an app to teach in a Reconstructionist framework.
Last year, one of my students put me in touch with Michael Sokolovsky, who was excited about the idea and generous with his time, and we began to build. Michael’s Talmud learning had begun at SVARA shortly before we met, and so he was enthusiastic about the project’s potential, not only for rabbinical students, but for lay-students at SVARA and elsewhere. Together we walked through a series of Talmudic passages, trying to imagine what we would want learners to be able to do when the app was in its advanced stages. Our goal was to allow learners to visualize the various workings of a Talmudic passage. On the right-hand side of the app in its current form, the learner sees the linear passage, an area for translation and notes, and the ability to highlight the text in different colors that signify the different historical layers in the passage. On the left of the screen, the learner can organize the material visually in whatever manner makes the most sense to them, and can draw arrows linking one “box” to another, signifying the relationship between those boxes – is “Box B” a question about “Box A”? A challenge to “Box A”? An answer to “Box A”? The learner can also use the left-hand side of the screen to organize the text by historical layer and to read through each historical layer separately. The app allows students to isolate words, ideas, concepts and rulings that undergo change through historical periods and to outline the argument of a passage in its final edited state.
Michael has spent more hours than I can count coding, and although we are still in the early stages of development, I have been using the app to teach my students both last semester and this semester. Students use it to prepare their assignments each week, and it is shared on a screen during class so that any student can follow along or lead others through their thought process. Part of their Talmud learning experience includes each of them teaching their classmates in rotation. This year they have done their own learning and taught their classmates using the app. We have had two feedback sessions with students, who continue to offer ideas as they become more adept at analyzing texts, and thus come to understand their own learning and teaching needs. Our hope is to make this app available not only for Reconstructionist rabbinical students, but for learners in Michael’s SVARA community (a community from which, in fact, many learners go on to become Reconstructionist rabbis) and in synagogues and other Jewish communities. We plan to develop an English version of the app as well, which will be able to be used with translation This will enable rabbinical students to teach within their communities as they become rabbis out in the world.