Wednesday, January 04, 2006

From the codex to the commentary to the concordance to the computer

Reb Gil has an interesting post about a sefer on an arcane, specialized subject whose contents were compiled with* the aid of a computer. The sefer received a haskama which, I suppose endorsed the author and the work, but criticized the method:
However, the novelty is intensified in that you have completed this entire endeavor without the counterfeit aid (siyu'a she-ein bo mamash) of machines that are being innovated constantly (ha-mitchadeshim la-bekarim), like the invention of the "computer" and the like. For anyone who touches one of them is touching the apple of the eye of the Torah! For the Torah cannot being acquired through the pressing of the finger on a button, rather through strenuous labor that literally brings one close to death!
This is an interesting topic. The truth is that serious progress in Torah is in fact acquired with great effort. Rabbinic cites in this regard are legion, as well as common sense. No one becomes a scholar of anything via a short cut.

But this gets into the issue of what shortcuts are. Are concordances shortcuts? There was, after all, a time when they didn't exist. What about commentaries? For half a millenium Talmudists didn't have a Rashi to learn Talmud with. Or codices (books) rather than scrolls? Or...printing? What about access to a great library of seforim? In David Weiss Halivni's Holocaust memoir he writes of a single crumply page of Shulhan Arukh that he managed to acquire when he was serving time in hard labor. He and fellow inmates pored over it and treasured it like it was made of diamond. That's toil! But ideally one doesn't learn or acquire Torah under such dire circumstances.

Someone once pithily commented about some of the articles in, I think it was, the Journal of Halakha and Contemporary Society are basically written by doctors (or lawyers) with a Bar Ilan Responsa Project CD. True, having the ability to do research doesn't make one a great talmid chacham. And it is still a fantastic feat that people have Tanakh or Shas or posekim "at their fingertips" or "in their head." And no one is asking the authors of these articles to pasken for them. But in a way innovations like Rashi or concordances or searchable databases needn't lower the bar. They can raise the bar too.

I was once discussing the nature of the difficulty of the Talmud with someone. He said he "think[s] the vast majority of the difficulty is self-imposed, with language barriers, poor formatting, and other artificial (or at least artificially unimproved) barriers. Restructure it into paragraphs, add punctuation and nekudot, colorize it by layer and language, and add some footnotes on the rarer words or concepts."

Naturally this could transform the nature of talmud Torah, but then so does Artscroll (and concordances and Rashi and 'en mishpat ner mitzvah and...).

*edit: I completely misread Gil's post. This sefer was written without the aid of a computer and the haskama was praising that fact.

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