Q1: What has changed?

26 Jul Q1: What has changed?

From tablet to tablet: we ask experts about convergences between Jewish Studies and digital humanities.

Question 1: How do you think the digital approach has already changed and/or will/can change the field of Jewish Studies and Jewish culture in a broad sense?


Ben Outhwaite, Head of the Genizah Research Unit in Cambridge University Library

Speaking for Genizah research and its attendant fields, the whole area has been revolutionised by the digitisation of the primary sources: this was a huge undertaking, yet has made the material available to an entirely new generation of scholars. Previously it was mostly the domain of scholars who could afford to either purchase microfilms or to travel to the various collections themselves. The next challenge is to improve the ease of finding the material (navigation in the huge image and growing data collections) and to promote the sharing of information – providing tools for linked-data cataloguing, collaborative editing of texts/catalogues etc. The availability of published scholarship in digital form has also massively affected the field. Major grant-giving bodies now require that outputs of their awards be published only in an open-access form, and this is promoting many new forms of OA publishing. The challenge will be to maintain quality across open formats (it will be harder to distinguish effectively ‘self-published’ material from material which has been subjected to some form of review).

The greater availability of data will enable new questions to be asked of it (ie like ‘big data’, we can start examining questions at a scale previously undreamed of).

We are in the early stages of the digital humanities, but as digital techniques are absorbed into (what we regard as) traditional scholarship, there will (quickly) come a time when we no longer distinguish the two types of humanities research. It is useful at this point in time to promote a greater take-up of digital techniques, hence many funders choosing to create specific awards for the digital humanities, but this will not remain their strategy for the long term. A greater emphasis on the digital can be rewarded, but ‘traditional scholarship’ should not be penalised. There is a problem at the moment with some funding, that it is seen that unless you have a clear digital output, then the funding is unlikely to be awarded: this has not always been helpful.

Michelle Chesner, Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies at Columbia University and Co-director of the Footprints project

Jewish studies is entering the realm of digital humanities very slowly and tentatively.  In my view, the most major area in which the use of the digital can significantly change the field is by promoting open access and collaboration.  Current standards for digital humanities work assume open code and open data, which is a huge shift from previous eras in which an isolated scholar held tightly to his or her sources so as to be the only expert on them. Because most humanists do not have the technical expertise to create significant digital projects, this will also force scholars to come out of the “ivory tower” to engage with developers and technologists, and will create a more egalitarian and diverse community of researchers.

Zsuzsanna Toronyi, Director of the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives

In their quoted essay, Amos and Fania Oz interpret this as an inverted Tower of Babel as in the era of the Jewish diaspora (since the fall of Judea, 587 BCE) this is the first time a significant corpus of the Jewish tradition is mutually intelligible and available from anywhere in the world. Moreover, this knowledge is no longer hidden in Jewish schools: thanks to online publication, texts are accessible from anywhere in the original language and in English translation. Therefore, contents that were only studied by religious Jewish men are now available even to groups that would have stayed away from them before.

Digitization and online publishing is very important to any group appreciating its culture. The selection of content to be digitized and the way of publishing it reveal much about the group’s identity, its political and cultural ambitions as well as its historical determinants. In the case of diaspora cultures, the digital era brought along a possibility of at least virtually connecting a community scattered around the world but cherishing the same cultural heritage.

Jonathan Brent, Executive Director of YIVO-Institute for Jewish Research

  • Digital approaches allow for asking deeper questions, based on a greater volume of evidence, such as comparisons between large numbers of books or historical documents, which can easily be searched using finely grained keyword searches.
  • Digital tools increase scholarly accountability, since it is increasingly easy for anyone to access source texts and analyze them for themselves.
  • Freely available digital resources open up new worlds to independent scholars and genealogists, who now have access to much higher quality information and often have a great deal of time to devote to the specific questions that interest them.  They could even be mobilized to help develop digital resources themselves.
  • Intertextuality is the rubric of traditional Jewish studies; digital humanities opens new possibilities for secular Jewish studies to develop analogous approaches.
  • Freely accessible online Jewish resources are democratizing the acquisition of knowledge about Jewish history and culture beyond scholars and others who have the resources to travel to brick and mortar institutions to do research or see exhibitions.


Conny Kristel, Reto Speck, Tobias Blanke and Daan de Leeuw, European Holocaust Research Infrastructure

Please note that due to our particular expertise, we have focused on “Holocaust Studies” rather than “Jewish Studies” in our answers to the questionnaire.

  • Projects such as EHRI have successfully worked on the virtual integration and unification of physically dispersed sources. This approach can help to address one of the hallmark challenges of Holocaust research, namely the wide fragmentation of relevant source material. Such integration can either be done on the level of metadata about sources or on the level of digitised surrogates of the source material itself. It enables the study of the Holocaust from a much widened empirical basis, and can facilitate trans-national and comparative approaches to the study of the Holocaust.
  • Only relatively little work has hitherto been done in regard to the application of digital methods for the analysis and interpretation of Holocaust sources. Traditionally, Holocaust research is mainly undertaken by means of “close reading” of source material. However, as the availability of digitised sources increases, and as algorithms that allow computational analysis of such sources become increasingly refined, “distant reading” approaches which focus on the aggregation and analysis of large amounts of data will become increasingly possible. There is a need for (critical) experimentation with new tools as well as for methodological enquiries that enable us to answer questions such as: to what extent can such new methods supplement traditional modes of enquiry, and to what extent can they be used to generate new insights that would have been impossible to gain before? How can such methods be employed in a consistent, open and transparent manner that allows for the reproducibility of results? What are the requirements for documentation of such methods and tools so that they can be understood by historians rather than act as analytical black-boxes and so on?
  • Digital environments and digital forms of publication allow for a faster and wider sharing of research results. While traditional forms of publication (monographs, journal articles, etc.) tend to have a relatively slow turn-around and a limited (scholarly) audience, digital approaches to publishing in its various forms (pre-prints of scholarly work, blog posts, etc.) allow for a faster publication cycle and are promising to reach audiences beyond academia. While this is already happing, this trend is likely to continue in the near future.
  • In a similar vein, digital environments have changed the roles of, and patterns of interaction between, collection holders, (academic) researcher and the interested public in the research process. In particular, while traditionally the roles of such groups have been rather rigidly separated – data providers, researchers, research consumers – they have recently become more fluid, and growing adoption of digitally enabled approaches to research such as crowd sourcing will further accelerate this process.


Arthur Kiron, Schottenstein-Jesselson Curator of Judaica Collections at the University of Pennsylvania

Digital approaches have already changed the field of Jewish Studies and Jewish culture in a broad sense. Obvious examples are: the availability of licensed and free digital resources, such as databases, e-journals, e-books, virtual exhibitions, data sets, and annotated, critical editions of fully searchable sacred texts, accompanied by transcriptions, translationsand/or commentaries;digital preservation of audio and visual resources; the emergence of born-digital Jewish Studies resources; the creationof digital versions of Hebrew manuscripts, and printed books in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, and Judeo-Persian, to mention just a few languages. The successes evident in the cataloguing, digitization, transcription, and image searching capabilities applied to Cairo Genizah fragments is a vivid example that has changed the field of study.  The application of similar methods and practices to dispersed archival documents also shows the ways in which digital technologies can transcend ownership barriers and discover invisible relationships otherwise unrecognized due to their inaccessible conditions.  More broadly, we are witnessing the appearance of new social phenomena such as on-line guides to ritual and life-cycle observance, easy access to study aids to support cultural practices such as daf yomi (daily learning of a page of the Talmud), podcasts, and kiruv (religious outreach). Jewish education and pedagogy are being transformed by digital technologies, through innovative new interactive approaches; recent efforts to transform Jewish Studies through the creation of open, linked semantic fields of data also represent an important step forward.  At the same time, and not to be ignored, are the ways in which digital technologies are being employed invidiously for propaganda purposes and to attack Jews, Judaism, and Jewish Studies.

Lev Israel and Russel Neiss (Sefaria)

Most of the early gains can be filed under increased access and subsequently increased literacy. Previously, to study Talmud in English, one would have to buy a translated version at a steep cost, with a full set costing upwards of $2,000. Those without access – physical, financial, or otherwise – to these privileged translations were simply left out of the great Jewish conversations of the last 3,000 years. As these texts and their translations become increasingly available online, the aforementioned barriers to access are lowered, and in many cases, removed entirely. Though there are still digital resources that can only be accessed by certain people under certain conditions, the trend toward open access is clear. This access, and the secondary effects of it, will continue to open more avenues for engagement and entry into the Jewish textual tradition.

The increasingly interdisciplinary nature of the academic study of humanities has spilled over into Jewish Studies. Researchers are leveraging the availability of open, digital texts to expand scholarship. The siloed nature of Jewish Studies is a potential challenge to this but we see the barriers between disciplines falling as scholars increasingly collaborate. We are confident that this trend will continue as the availability of digital, open source Jewish texts increases—a precondition for establishing the field of Jewish Digital Humanities (JDH).

Increased accessibility to resources and these conversations beyond the walls of the academy has the power to transform Jewish learning and culture in a way not seen since the overthrow of Rabbi Gamliel outlined in Berachot 28a.

“[On that day] the doorkeeper was removed from the Beit Midrash, and permission was given to the disciples to enter… On that day many stools were added… and on that day no questions in the Beit Midrash were left unresolved.”

In other words, by increasing the accessibility of Jewish texts and by creating toolsets to help facilitate learning, we can engage more people in Jewish study and expand discourse around the tradition.

Sinai Rusinek, The Van Leer Jerusalem Insitute

First and formost, just like I believe digital approaches have, or at least should have changedand continue to change any field of the humanities, so I believe it could and should change Jewish studies: not only through the obvious advances of tools to aid scholarly endeavors, but first and foremost, by introducing openness, transparency, connectivity,challenging academic authority and exclusivity.

Digital approaches harbor, however, an especially promising revolution, in the way that methods of machine learning provide an opportunity to reexamine traditional theries regarding periodization and categorization.

We would like to know what you think.

Coming up tomorrow: Q2. What’s not working and how can we fix it?