To Teach a Subversive Canon in a Digital World

Avi Warshavski

Mercy and truth surround His countenance. Truth and justice and righteousness are the basis of His throne. He divides the light from the darkness. He prepared the dawn in the knowledge of His heart.

These verses are a passage from a psalm. At first glance, they would not seem out of place in the vista of the Psalms, but when we look at them again, we might feel confused. This psalm, and another six like it, were among the scrolls uncovered in 1947 at Qumran. What is troubling about these psalms is that they appear to be like any other passage in the Book of Psalms, but are not part of the traditional Biblical text that has come down to us. If someone were to insert these passages into a booklet of Psalms, we would have happily murmured the words, without sensing any difference, but while the 150 chapters included in the traditional text of the Book of Psalms are canonical hymns, known and recited by heart by worshippers throughout the world, the seven passages found at Qumran are preserved behind glass in an air-conditioned room, and are known only to a handful of researchers and aficionados.

The canonical nature of the Bible is not a quality inherent within the text. Rather, it is the outcome of a long process, in which its readers had a no less important role than its authors. But even those who are familiar with this phenomenon still find it difficult to relate to the psalms from Qumran in the same way that they relate to the psalms included in Tanakh. The canonical nature of the Biblical text and the spiritual implications of this canonicity should concern not just researchers and historians. They are a key to identifying some of the fundamental challenges of teaching Bible over the years, and particularly in the Information Age.

In what way is the teaching of Bible different from the teaching of other humanistic subjects?

At first glance, the teaching of Bible should not be different from teaching any other text-rich humanistic subject. Across this whole family of subjects, we have to deal with language gaps, with a world of content that is distant from the students’ daily lives, with a world that demands that we clarify its relevance, and so on.

Yet a second glance will show that the unique canonical nature of the Bible is a characteristic that differentiates it from other knowledge area, even from knowledge areas based on canonical texts such as the Mishnah or the Talmud. We might call the unique canonicity of the Bible “subversive canonicity.” The oxymoron in this name hints at the paradox inherent in the canonical nature of the Bible. On the one hand, the Bible is a canonical text, and as such has an important role in society as part of the textual lore—a basis for shared discourse, an important component in building identity, and part of the shared constructive narrative of the community. On the other hand, the Bible is the first and oldest text of Judaism’s canon—the first turtle on which all the other textual turtles stand, one on top of the other. Above them unfolds a tapestry of Jewish cultural and spiritual identity.

Its position at the “bottom of the pile” and the fact that this pile of canonical texts is so tall, spread across thousands of years, has created a gap between the ancient Bible and the texts that followed it. This gap has, over the centuries, been mediated by a binding or quasi-binding interpretative tradition—from Chazal through the commentators of the Middle Ages, until the most recent commentaries. However, notwithstanding the binding reading traditions, over the years the temptation has developed of listening to the primal, clear and simple voice of the Bible, the voice that is heard without rich interpretative mediation. It is no coincidence that some of the outstanding attempts in Jewish (and not just Jewish) history that attempted to undermine the traditional hegemony developed through the return to a “bare” reading of the Bible, one that was (supposedly) free of the bonds of tradition. Such was the approach of the Karaites, who sought to undermine the tradition of the Oral Law; such was the approach of figures such as Spinoza and Uriel da Costa, who reevaluated their Jewish identity in light of living as crypto-Jews; and such was the activity of significant figures in the Zionist movement, who wished to make a secular, non-Diaspora voice heard.

The Subversive Canon and the Education System

The distant, ancient text leaves room for interpretations that allow innovation, and new, different points of view, yet at the same time allows a connection and bond to the community whose authority one is trying to challenge. The ability of the Bible to function as a kind of Trojan horse within the innermost core of the canon has led to the fact that, within the haredi Ashkenazi yeshiva world, the Bible has almost no place as a field of study, so much so that the common saying, that yeshiva students only know those verses that are quoted in the Talmud, is not far from the truth.

The subversive canonicity of the Biblical text has, over the years, given rise to a number of parallel reading traditions, competing and sometimes even conflicting. From an educative point of view, this characteristic of the Bible is at one and the same time an opportunity and a challenge. An opportunity, since it is part of the Bible’s eternal youth and its ability to be constantly relevant. A challenge because education, however pluralistic it may be, still wishes to transmit certain messages and not others.

If we educate from a religious point of view, we will be less tolerant of secular readings of the Bible; if we educate from a secular starting point, we would not wish to emphasize the perspective of haredi Orthodoxy; and if the education that we are providing is a Jewish one, we would not consent to accepting Christian readings of the Bible as a fundamental aspect of imparting the text. In the Old World, educators had tools to regulate the exposure that their students had to alternative reading traditions. These traditions could come into the classroom in a measured way, in keeping with the educator’s values, or not come in at all, and await curious students between the shelves of the library.

The Subversive Canon in the Information Age

In the Information Age, all of this changes. In order to understand the magnitude of the change, we need to abandon the erroneous metaphor of the Internet as an enormous library. A library is a passive space, while information in the present age does not wait quietly on the shelf. It is in the air, and it assaults us from all sides—on the first results page in Google, on our Facebook page, and on the telephones that we use. In such a world, exposure to readings other than those that we teach is a given. A search for information on a Bible topic will elicit—on one page—a Chabad text, an academic paper, a Christian reading, a Zionist exposition and an amateur post. A student growing up in such a world doesn’t have the sensitivity to identify the various ideologies and professional paradigms. Although he will probably not convert to Christianity as a result of reading a Christian interpretation, nor join Chabad as a result of exposure to a Chabad weekly newsletter, he will internalize certain messages, insights and perspectives, not all of which will be appropriate in the eyes of his educators.

How do we cope with this challenge? It is apparently necessary to create tools and methodologies for mapping and understanding the dynamics of the online world of knowledge, tools that will assist in putting the content we encounter into its proper context. This mapping may be divided into three relevant “Biblical” mapping strategies.

A Return to the Text

One of the more fascinating elements of the Jewish-Christian encounters of the Middle Ages is the growth of interest in peshat, the plain meaning of the text, both among Jewish commentators such as Rashbam, Rabbi Yosef Kara, and Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor, and among Christian commentators such as Nicholas of Lyra and the exegetical circle of the St. Victor Abbey.

In our days, too, when we are exposed to a range of interpretations, some having an activist or missionary slant, it is very important to discern the difference between the text as such and interpretative-ideological perspectives. The text as such, of course, is not always unambiguous, but the aiming at a minimalistic reading that relies on the fewest underlying assumptions, and a distinction between the first level, that of the plain meaning, and the subsequent levels of interpretation and homiletics, helps us to develop a critical sense and identify agendas that are not part of the original source.

Education to identify the plain meaning takes place, of course, primarily in the classroom, but it can be aided by the way in which we operate in the digital world. For example, we make a graphical, hierarchical distinction between the Biblical text and the commentary—this distinction is familiar to us from the classical Mikra’ot Gedolot editions of the Bible, but it also lives on in the Internet, where we encounter it in the way in which the Biblical text is displayed on the Mikranet ( and Psookim ( websites. On Mikranet, the text of the Bible is displayed as a separate category in the Collection of Sacred Literature, with the secondary literature in a category of its own in the various information collections. In Psookim, the biblical text is placed in the center of the screen, while the accompanying commentary and interpretative content surround it as a kind of satellite collection.

Another way of bolstering the text in and of itself is to focus on the non-semantic aspects of the Biblical text—the tone of the text, and the typographical representation of the text. There are many educational advantages in developing such a sensitivity, but one of its byproducts is to emphasize the Bible text as a separate entity from other texts. This—shows an animated film clip focusing on the text and the music of the verses in Parashat Noah that deal with the spilling of blood.

Educating Toward Context

Part of the student’s difficulty in coping with content on the web lies in its lack of context. Much of the content that we encounter comes to us detached from its original context—in a Google search or in a posting on some social network, without the textual continuum within which it appeared previously, and without a sufficiently transparent indication as to the original author, his expertise, the time when the text was composed, and so on. This lack of context is a significant characteristic of texts on the web, which can be compensated for by artificial means.

The Internet offers powerful tools that can create context. Thus, for example, this—to a CET website shows Biblical information layers imposed on Google Earth. Display of the information on a three-dimensional platform provides the context that is hard to imagine in the pre-virtual world. Another example of creating context is the use of dynamic timelines. The issue of dating in the field of Bible is a complex one, subject to debate, but nonetheless there is great educational value in generating a general delineation of the chronological context of events. At this—from the Mikranet site, you can see a timeline that organizes information items in the field of Bible along an axis which allows users to move from one event to the next.

Interpretive Activism

Just as it is impossible to learn to swim by correspondence, or experience falling in love by watching movies, so too it is impossible to be fully at home with digital content without being an active partner in the mechanisms that create content in this world. Students’ participation as active creators of interpretation, through the use of tools such as blogs, YouTube, and wiki-based tools, will make clear to them, better than any learned lecture, the way in which this dynamic operates, the tone at which one should consume information on the web, and the range of professional levels that we are likely to encounter on the web.

This activity also has value for the student’s involvement and identification with the content. At this—for example, you can view dozens of film clips created by students that deal with expressions used in the Bible.

Beyond these strategies, and other similar ones, we need to understand and decode this new reality in which the varieties of information are out there, floating in the air, and are no longer subject to being filtered by educators. We need to internalize how the covert, subversive side of the Bible text becomes visible, accessible and part of the overall picture. This is a challenge, with all that it implies, both positive and negative.&daims;

Avi Warshavski is the 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

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HaYidion Teaching Tanakh Summer 2012
Teaching Tanakh
Summer 2012