Posted on March 20, 2012 by Daniel Weinreb
“Kids these days. They don’t learn like before. They have all the information at their fingertips. Confronted with a problem, they need only to glance over to a different page and lo and behold their questions are answered. Learning used to be a social process, with emphasis on learning from someone else, or better yet, from an expert. And not only that, if you were learning Gemara, you had first to know the Mishna by heart more or less. Now, with that new technology, the level of learning has plummeted. The easy access is fine – but their learning is confused because the technology has allowed them to jump over acquisition of information that they need to understand the material.”
Surprise! I’m not talking about online access. I’m talking about the Vilna Shas. Prior to its printing, if a talmid was lucky, he had the Rashi alongside the Gemara. He did not have two dots and a citation to indicate where the Gemara was starting a new Mishna. He did not have Tosafot on the outside margin, or the Masoret HaShas for easy cross reference. Then, in the late 19th century, the Vilna Shas appeared with all these innovations. As we know, Talmud learning continued without a disastrous plummet in quality.
In the Jewish tradition, we have seen radical shifts before. We moved from the Written to the Oral Tradition and back to a written form of the Oral Tradition (that’s confusing!), from scattered halachic decisions to the codification of the Rambam, from a Gemara that required intimate knowledge of the whole corpus to the Vilna Shas as I described it above. New online and translated resources have created new ways of understanding our tradition.
New technologies can – and often do – provide new ways of organizing information. And new organization can lead to new understanding. I think an easy connection can be made between modern Talmudic scholarships interest in comparing girsot (different editions) of the Talmud with the development of modern databases. Granted, we have historical precedence for this: Tosfot, the B”Kh (the Bayit Chadash of Joel ben Samuel Sirkis) and the GR”A but they were outstanding scholars of their time. Today, a Masters Candidate at Hebrew University can investigate the same issues as they and not be considered the greatest of their generation (although they still are impressive.) Maybe this generation’s greatest scholar will be the one who is able to represent the Talmud visually or in three dimensions, or in color. I do not know… but I’m looking forward to it.