From Scrolls to Screens: Jewish EdTech Through the Ages

Developments in digital technology are moving faster today than ever before. Teachers who want to keep up to date need to follow a steep learning curve, as new tools are invented or improved every few months. As a Talmud teacher in a yeshiva high school, I was constantly aware of new developments, each one raising questions about whether, how and when to integrate them into the study of ancient texts. Fortunately, a rich literature documenting past approaches to technological change can serve as guideposts as we consider how to shape the Jewish studies classrooms of the future.


A Talmudic Take on Tech

Abaye asks the following question: May one write just one or two parashot from the Torah, rather than the conventional full Torah scroll, so that a child can learn from it? (Gittin 60a).

Like all good educators, the rabbis of the Talmud wonder whether to take a chance on something new. The Talmud gives careful consideration to arguments against creating an excerpted text to aid students in their learning. This question remains valid, argues the Gemara, regardless of whether you believe that the Torah was originally received as a whole or in parts.

The Gemara considers two ways that the Torah may have been given to the Jewish people: Some believe that the Torah was given one scroll at a time, while others believe it was transmitted as a complete five-volume set. If it was given one scroll at a time, perhaps that means that one is permitted to approach it one scroll at a time throughout history. Alternatively, perhaps the fact that the individual scrolls were eventually bound together into one means that the initial acceptability of individual scrolls has been superseded, and one is no longer permitted to divide the book into sections.

On the other hand, the Gemara suggests, even if the Torah was originally handed down as one single book, that does not necessarily preclude the use of a new methodology. Perhaps, posits the Talmud, “if it is not possible” to teach without breaking Torah into smaller pieces, it may be permissible to do so even if this was not the Torah’s original form.

In other words, the Talmud asserts that neither the oldest and most authentic technology nor the newest and most flexible technology necessarily dictate the way that students should learn. No matter how we perceive the contents of the Torah, the way that we received it was not necessarily the way best designed for children to learn.

Technology—in the Talmud’s case, the ability to write texts on scrolls in smaller chunks—provides students with more easily digestible pieces of texts. Shorter passages are easier to carry around and easier to use with less of the ancient kind of scrolling. On the other hand, dividing the Torah into smaller pieces inevitably means a loss of context. 

Rabbah rules definitively in response to Abaye’s question and says that one is not permitted to break up a Torah into smaller texts, even for the benefit of schoolchildren. The Talmud attempts to overturn his argument, but ultimately each counterproof fails. The Chatam Sofer defends Rabbah’s position, arguing that whenever you take Torah out of context, you inevitably erase some of the meaning. Every word in the Torah, he asserts, is linked to what comes before, and removing that link removes the possibility of discovering the deeper meaning of that connection. The desire to simplify, to isolate specific excerpts and help students focus, is a need frequently expressed by educators. Nonetheless, the Talmud resists this educational technology and presents a robust argument for keeping Torah in its original context.


Tech Enables Contexts

One consequence of digital technology is the ease with which words are lifted from their original context. None of us, and none of our students, learns from a Torah scroll on a regular basis. The “traditional” option for teachers today is a printed book, which may be a single volume of the Torah, or, indeed, a single parashah or set of parashot. Furthermore, these sources, whether Tanakh, Mishnah or Gemara, are often presented in a new context. We live in the age of the sourcesheet, or worksheet, where the educator pre-selects the texts, and students read only what is on the sheet and answer the questions or perform the tasks that the teacher sets out for them.

Both of these methods are highly valued by many of the teachers I have met in the past 10 years of providing professional development workshops for Sefaria. Books are often considered to be better for students’ brains, and many believe they represent a fuller and more genuine learning experience. Worksheets allow students to focus only on the material that is assigned, and provide teachers with full control in moving students through the narrative arc that they have determined in our lesson planning. As one teacher said to me in response to my enthusiasm about the availability of a large library of Jewish books online: “I don’t want my students learning whatever interests them. I want them to learn the material I put in front of them.”

As a former high school Talmud teacher, working to anchor students’ attention in a sea of distractions, both Talmudic and otherwise, I find this view highly relatable. I am also aware that it severely limits the horizons of what my students might learn and even how they consider the activity of learning.

Advances in digital technology provide options that the rabbis of the Talmud could never have imagined, including searchable text with the option to zoom in on one piece of a pasuk or daf while remaining fully connected to the larger context. In fact, rather than removing context, the advent of hyperlinking citations means that words of Torah are more intricately contextualized, and in a more accessible way, than at any time in Jewish history. These new developments provide us with the chance to use the technology of the future to engage more deeply with sources from the past.

Educators now can model authentic learning by presenting a text on a screen and demonstrating how to find commentaries or related texts. Within the confines of a well-defined lesson plan, teachers can show students in real time how to generate questions and pursue answers. A 21st century learning toolbox includes the ability to find and research Torah online. This need not be to the exclusion of that other groundbreaking modern technology, the printed book. History tells us that many scholars and laypeople, Jewish and gentile alike, resisted adopting printed texts, just as we struggle today to determine the best course of action around digital learning. But we would be remiss to not include online tools in our teaching. Not only are digital tools ubiquitous in our students lives, but there are real educational advantages to deploying them in the classroom.


Navigating Focus and Freedom

The challenge—and the promise—of current digital technology is for teachers to move away from sourcesheets and to consider ways that digital libraries might complement books in the classroom as well as in the course of assignments. Worksheets may well remain a technique for drilling students on particular skills, but learning directly from sources, interwoven with additional sources, will help students develop an inquiry mindset. Educators can empower students to read texts, ask questions and develop the skills to discover the answers on their own, with age-appropriate scaffolding.

For example, a teacher can open any chapter and verse in Tanakh and ask students to read it. Access to digital libraries make it easy for students to see what came before and what comes after, even if the full book isn’t on their desk. Alternatively, the teacher may be the only one reading a text digitally, while students follow along in books. Regardless, a question such as “What do you notice about this verse?” or “What questions do you have about this sentence?” can lead to a conversation about commentaries and other types of sources, easily displayed on screen. The teacher may choose to retain control of where to click and when, in order to keep a class focused. However, empowering students to navigate texts within the larger beit midrash ecosystem demonstrates the depth of our tradition and shows that there are always multiple ways to seek more information and gain new perspectives.

Speaking of scaffolding, students deserve to know that dictionaries and other learning aids exist both in print and online; a robust 21st century education will include both technologies. Tanakh, Mishnah, Talmud, Halakhah and more—each discipline can be enriched through judicious balancing of the available technologies on the part of the teacher. Learning to use multiple tools will help develop adaptable, flexible learners, ready to bring Torah into the next age of technology, whenever that might come about.


Continuing the Talmudic Approach Today

This kind of experimentation can be frightening for educators whose expertise in learning and teaching comes from a different technological era. However, in resisting changing our methodologies, we risk becoming obsolete. Students will discover new tools with or without us; we remain relevant and helpful guides by engaging and learning with our students how best to use these tools.

Most importantly, resisting new tools doesn’t open up a thoughtful discussion of the pros and cons of new technologies. Rabbinic literature is full of debates about the best media for learning Torah. Embracing shiny fresh technologies simply because they are new and cutting edge is also a repudiation of the careful weighing of new strategies that the Talmud models for us. Today’s educators have the opportunity to open up a rich conversation with our students and our communities. The quick pace of digital development affords opportunities for today’s Torah leaders to weigh in on the future of Jewish learning.

Digital tools allow students to learn sources anchored in context, interwoven with the rest of the Jewish canon, and in concert with other tools, old and new. Instead of rejecting new technologies because they are unknown and threatening, educators need to engage with these tools and bring our students and communities into the modern equivalent of the back-and-forth of the Talmud in Gittin: a discussion about what we hope our students gain from their learning and how best to accomplish those goals. It is a conversation that goes all the way back to the Talmudic arguments about Jewish educational technology.

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AI and Tech
Fall 2023
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