From an Packed Storehouse to a Heap of Pebbles: The New Jewish Literacy

A Starting Point

Clearly the writer of this Talmudic passage had no intention of surveying the differences in height among the leading sages over a period of approximately 200 years. Rather, it was his intention to convey the general impression, regarding the world of the sages, that “each generation was less knowledgeable than its predecessor.” Such an insight is almost inherent in our reflections on ourselves. In every generation we have the sense that the generation that preceded us was greater in terms of its knowledge, culture and literacy. This sense becomes stronger when we wish to examine what has been called the “new literacy,” that literacy that is developing, before our very eyes, as a result of the challenges and opportunities that have arrived along with the digital age.

Contrary to the sense that this literacy represents a deterioration or retreat in human literacy, in 2009 the results of extensive research carried out at Stanford University under Professor Andrea Lunsford, were published. Lunsford’s research followed 14,672 students over a period of 5 years, and examined their reading and writing activities. According to her research, the present generation of students is the one that writes the most, compared with all previous generations in human history. Over one third of this writing activity takes place outside of the learning context, in the students’ leisure time. In the following paragraphs I would like to outline some of the characteristics of this new literacy, probing where it creates a challenge for Jewish literacy, and where it provides an opportunity.

What is Jewish Literacy?

When we speak of literacy, we are talking about the way in which we read and write, but also about the way in which we remain accessible to information, and can expand on it, beyond the sporadic addition of texts. Reading is a cumulative process in which we learn to identify terms, structures and relationships between phenomena, and slowly build for ourselves a kind of network that organizes the information, and which will then serve as a sound infrastructure for absorbing additional information. This internal network uses numerous different systems of coordinates: chronological, geographic, thematic and so on.

When we speak of Jewish literacy there are two additional significant elements that play a more important role than in other cultures: the canon, and the active dimension of literacy.

The collection of canonical texts that underlie Jewish culture constitute the basis for dialogue—between Jews of the same generation, and between Jews of different generations—as well as a kind of map on which we define ourselves, whether or not we agree with the text. Moreover, we are commanded, at all times, to be in a state of active learning. Jewish literacy focuses not only on the outcome—the acquisition or achievement of knowledge—but primarily on the activity. The ancient commandment calls on us to teach our children; it does not state that our children should know.

What’s so New about the New Literacy?

Human culture has traversed enormous distances in the past few decades, particularly when it comes to technologies allowing the communication, expression, presentation, recall and transmission of information. These changes have had a dramatic effect on the way in which we read and write, and, in the view of certain researchers, even the way we think. These changes may be divided into three groups.

a. Changes in the basic units of meaning

Writing on the web is characterized by short texts. We are impatient and impulsive, and have a multi-tasking orientation. Long texts (such as the present essay, for example) do not have a good chance of survival. A nice illustration of this trend can be found in the built-in limits imposed by Twitter, which allows each tweet, or Twitter message, to be no longer than 140 characters. Text on the web contains a great deal of punctuation, bulleting, and numbering, which permit they key ideas to be stressed, without complexity or esthetics. The concept “text,” in its simplest sense, is too narrow to encompass the variety of modes of expression developing on the web. Text on the web includes the extensive use of visual or iconic elements, logos, abbreviations, etc. In addition to these, video has become a language of expression available to all, no longer reserved for professionals, and no different from the keyboard or the pencil.

b. The collapse of familiar structures for organizing information

According to a midrash in Avot deRabbi Natan, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi distinguished between the way in which Rabbi Tarfon organized his teachings, and the way in which Rabbi Akiva did so. Rabbi Tarfon was referred to by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi as a “heap of pebbles” or a “pile of nuts”:

Just as … when a man takes out one, all the rest topple over one another, so too with Rabbi Tarfon; when a scholar approached him and said ‘Teach me,’ he would cite the Scriptures, Mishnah, Halakhah and Aggadah, so that the scholar would leave full of blessing and satisfaction… (Avot deRabbi Natan A, 18)

Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, was referred to as an otzar balum, a packed storehouse of knowledge. He was compared to a worker going out to the field with his basket:

Finding wheat, he puts it in; finding barley, he puts it in; finding beans, he puts them in; lentils, he puts them in. When he returns home, he sorts them out—the wheat by itself, the barley by itself, the beans by themselves, the lentils by themselves. Such was the practice of Rabbi Akiva, who thus rendered the whole Torah into a combination of rings. (ibid.)

The contrast between these two descriptions may be an apposite expression of the revolution proclaimed by the new literacy: a transition from the organized, classified world of Rabbi Akiva to the rich, associative, unorganized world of Rabbi Tarfon; from a world viewed as a packed storehouse to a world seen as a heap of pebbles.

The network of coordinates through which we organize our knowledge is shrinking to the narrow aperture of the Google search; we focus in on exactly the text passage we need. We are not interested in questions such as who wrote the text, or in what context it appears; what’s written in the paragraphs that precede or follow; or the theme of the overall work of which the text passage we have found is a part. “Native” users of this approach to obtaining information also lack other dimensions of context. They do not know how to position the text on a chronological timeline, on a subject-based axis or on an axis that distinguishes between “important” texts and those of little importance. Our reading of the text is an instrumental one, aimed at reaching the essential content of the writer’s words without traversing the path that the author planned for us. When we read, we can jump to other places, or skip over paragraphs and find links to other texts; the structure of our reading is highly associative.

A common language is not created among readers through a uniform, common background, or through common knowledge, but through the viral distribution of what evolutionist Richard Dawkins has termed “memes,” a term coined in the 1970s by analogy with the biological “gene.” According to Dawkins, just as in biology the genes store within them a complete set of data that serves as the basis of our physical characteristics, so too, in culture, there are memes. Examples of memes include melodies, ideas, catchphrases, clothing fashions, and techniques used in pottery or in the construction of arches. Just as genes propagate themselves within the gene pool by transmission from one body to another, so too memes propagate themselves within the meme pool by jumping from one mind to another. Dawkins’ description was created in the context of culture in general, but is particularly apt in regard to the way information is propagated through the Internet.

c. Redefinition of the relationship between the reader and the text

The informal “contract” between reader and text is changing. In the new world, the text is found halfway between spoken language and written language. The author’s ownership of this text is insecure. The reader makes many secondary uses of the text; he quotes it without always remembering to cite the source, or requesting the author’s permission. He creates new mixes of content which constitute a new, effective genre of expression. But, primarily, he is very active: he reacts, responds, and involves other members of his community.

The fact that the texts that the reader encounters are isolated fragments requires him to create for himself a network of connections between them that gives them meaning. About 100 years ago, Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov showed how viewers would interpret the meaning of a scene, in light of the sequence of images that they viewed. In an experiment that defined what later became known as the Kuleshov effect, he showed a series of short films in which a picture of an actor, with a neutral facial expression, was followed by another photograph. Each film had a different photograph—in one it was a bowl of soup, in another a woman sprawled on a sofa, and in a third it was a picture of a child in a coffin. The viewers attributed to the actor in each of the films a different facial expression, ranging from laughter to tears, in spite of the fact that in all of them the actor’s facial expression was identical. As in the Kuleshov effect, the reader on the internet assigns meaning to the fragments that he encounters in the same way, based on the sequences that he creates. He is thus a more influential reader than his forebears, who received these fragments within fixed, predetermined contexts.

What is Good Literacy?

Within the new world there is no canon other than what Nicholas Carr has referred to as Google’s “popularity engine.” In the new world there is no importance to authorship; Roland Barthes’s call, in the late Sixties, for the “death of the author” is being realized before our very eyes. In the new world there is no importance to order, in the spirit of David Weinberger’s book Everything is Miscellaneous. These are not trivial changes; they are a true revolution. In order to evaluate the meaning of these changes, we need to describe, in more abstract terms, the activity of literacy and the criteria for success or failure in it, and based on this definition, identify the challenges and opportunities that the new literacy opens up for Jewish literacy.

Wittgenstein in his Brown Book describes a reading machine that scans the printed words and produces sounds—syllables and other notations that match the words that it is scanning. It is clear that this is still not a description of reading. As Marilyn Witrock showed in the 1980s, the process of reading is a process of reconstruction. The reader creates the meaning of the text anew.

Whether we are talking about a scientific text, a book of poetry or a religious work, the writer creates a kind of picture of the world that relates to a certain segment of reality. The reader builds this picture anew; it contains elements that probably correspond to the entities that the writer intended, but it also contains a broad range of new elements which are the contribution of the reader himself, anchoring the arguments within his own internal network of concepts, filling in lacunae in the text, and so on.

This activity of reconstruction also involves guidance from the community. The representatives of the community, parents and teachers, teach us the language and the “correct” ways of decoding the text. The community’s immediate agents, the teachers, stand on the shoulders of the teachers of previous generations. The community defines both the canon and the historical figures who direct our reading. For example, for hundreds of years Rashi defined (and in a certain sense still defines) the glasses through which we read the Torah.

The process of reading is, therefore, a three-way relationship between the picture of the world created by the author, the reconstruction of the meaning carried out by the reader, and the guidance provided by the community as to how to read the text.

Successful literacy preserves an appropriate balance between the three sides of this triangle. If the reader is very active in constructing the information, the process of reading is more meaningful from his point of view. If he is too active, there is the danger that the text being read will disappear; the reader will, in effect, be talking to himself. If the community is “present” in the process of reading, then this reading is well-anchored within the life of the reader’s society. If the community is overly involved in the reading, it can suppress the individual’s constructive ability, creating a reality characteristic of totalitarian regimes.

Active Literacy and Traditional Literacy

Based on the general criterion that we have formulated so far for judging whether a literacy process is good or not so good, we now have the tools to create an initial outline of some of the challenges and opportunities created by the new literacy.

In the information age, the reader is a much more active participant than in previous generations. In this sense, the new literacy is an outstanding opportunity to create a connection, identification and a sense of belonging between the reader and the texts.

In regard to the role of the community, the new literacy is detrimental to the historic role of the community, but at the same time suggests a blossoming of the presence of the contemporary community. The fact that the canon has been eroded diminishes the role of the historic community in reading. On the other hand, the role of the living community—the community of here and now, which rates, shares, comments and rewrites—is growing, and this community is present and active in reading in real time.

In terms of the concepts that make Jewish literacy unique, on the one hand there is an outstanding opportunity to provide greater impetus to the active dimension of this literacy. On the other hand, there is a real threat to the traditional canon—the shared arena within which Jewish dialogue takes place. As Moshe Halbertal has shown, the canon began to lose its power well before anyone had begun to dream of the Internet. However, the rise of the Internet culture has greatly accelerated the process, and creates a real threat to the canon as a shared platform.

We might compare the canonical text and Jewish literacy to a living organism which, in order to survive through natural selection, must change and adapt itself to changes in environmental conditions.

Throughout history, there have been a number of such changes which, ostensibly, were only technological changes but, in fact, were evolutionary survival changes that influenced not only technology but also content. The transition from an oral to a written culture, the transition from scrolls to codexes, and the transition from manuscripts to printed texts: these changes also influenced the movement of the pendulum between community reading and the reader’s active, creative role. We might indicate the Jewish expressions of 12th century France as an example of a pendulum movement with characteristics similar to those of our own generation. The fact that commentators such as Rashbam turned to a “plain” reading of the biblical text, independent of and even contrary to the traditional understanding, is an example of an intensification of the active side of Jewish literacy. The tendency of members of those generations to “intervene” in the manuscripts of their teachers, adding to or deleting from them, is a further demonstration of the shift to strengthen the community of their own day over the historical community.

The change we face is dramatic, but we should see it through the perspective of the pendulum’s movement. As long as this vantage is maintained, a healthy dialectic between tradition and new creation—between the active and the canonical sides of Jewish literacy—is also maintained. As those entrusted with transmitting the world of Jewish literacy to the next generation, we must decipher the world of the new literacy, its strengths and weaknesses, its flexibilities and inflexibilities, and learn how to bear our precious burden toward new vistas of expression.

Avi Warshavski is Director of the Humanities and Social Studies Department at the Center for Educational Technology, an NGO dedicated to the advancement of the education in Israel. He can be reached at

Avi Warshavski
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning