Q4: Are we different?

31 Jul Q4: Are we different?

From tablet to tablet – we ask experts about convergences between Jewish Studies and digital humanities. First we asked What has changed? Thursday’s question was What’s not working and how can we fix it? We closed the week by asking What is working and why?


Question 4: Should the methods and practices in digital humanities projects related to Jewish sources and topics differ from other projects? Which aspects of Jewish Studies, if any, lend themselves particularly well to digital approaches, whether in terms of subject matter or sources?


Lev Israel and Russel Neiss (Sefaria)

The main differentiator for JDH as opposed to more general digital humanities is language. There is a great depth of tooling for natural language processing of English and other broadly spoken languages. Although the Hebrew Bible has been very well analysed, general tooling for even modern Hebrew is rather poor by comparison to more common languages, and Rabbinic Hebrew, Aramaic dialects, Yiddish, Ladino, etc. are barely covered at all.

Aside from these language specific issues, we believe that collaborating with broader digital humanities projects (particularly those building open source tools and resources) and adapting their methods, tools and approaches rather than completely retooling our own might be the best approach in the short-term.

Digital approaches in Jewish Studies are best suited for the core texts – both classical and modern – and all of the reference works that accompany them – dictionaries, concordances, layers of morphological analysis, compendiums, topical categorizations, etc.

So much of Jewish Studies moves around a shared set of interconnected texts, each referring back and responding to the original canonical text–the Bible–as well as to each other. The Jewish people have been stretching the boundaries of the printed page for hundreds of years – printing interwoven commentaries and forests of inter-references. Digital media both provides a more expansive home to that network of information and offers opportunities for further development and expansion.

It’s long been clear that digital technology is useful for increasing access and availability.  What is becoming more clear is that it provides entirely new ways of encountering the sources – in visualizing larger patterns, in discovering intertextuality, in both broad and highly refined search, in comparing versions, in algorithmic analysis, and in new modes of publishing which are just now being developed.


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

Jewish sources and topics deserve their own specialized digital methods and practices, but the principles underlying digital humanities, I would argue, are not different in kind and should not be viewed differently.  Jewish Studies as a multivalent, multi-lingual polyglot, with its mixture of religious, secular, hybrid, interdisciplinary subjects, approaches and formats, each of which has its own specific needs.  From a religious point of view, for example, questions have been raised about the on-line presentation of sacred texts due to the risk of “shemot” – i.e,.that physical print-outs of digital sacred texts will be treated with disrespect and otherwise desecrated.   Insofar as general agreement can be reached about the purpose of digital humanities – to play with data in open and unfettered ways – I see nothing specific to academic Jewish studies that would violate that basic tenet.

At the most basic level, I understand “digital approaches”to mean providing access to physical materials by transforming them into digital formats, e.g., as searchable metadata and encoded displays of primary sources. At a more advanced level, I understand digital approaches to refer to the integrated search and discovery of relationships among physically dispersed and otherwise unlinked resources.  Digital approaches as digital humanities (DH), I understand to mean what we can DO with data that has been produced.  To be clear: DH as I understand it as “what we can do with data” is not limited to specific applications like text-mining but to an unlimited potential number of ways in which to recycle and play with data. These three aspects reflect not only stages in the evolution of digital Jewish Studies, but also three critical, inter-related functions that need to be supported.

The sheer geographical expanse and temporal distance covered by Jewish Studies, encompassingnearly the entire globe and over 2,500 years of existence, with extant sources and histories widely distributed in institutional, communal, and private hands, form what I call a “diaspora of documents” which are particularly well-suited for digital approaches.  Each source has a potentially infinite number of ways in which it may be related to other sources.  The interrelated nature of these sources and the histories they document are characteristic features basic to the field of Jewish Studies.


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

They should differ in focusing more than others on digitizing our history because 1) Jewish studies, with its geographical and historical spread, especially benefits from the ability to seamlessly search diverse groups of materials created in different times and places, 2) there are still those that deny the veracity of Jewish history and their claims can better be refuted with wider access to real historical documentation.

Large amounts of original documentation of Jewish history was inaccessible for decades. The opening up of Soviet and Soviet client state archives in the 1990s made this information available for the first time. A key priority should be the digitization of these materials to ensure that they remain accessible no matter what the future might bring to that part of the world.

As for the aspects of Jewish Studies lending themselves particularly well to digital approaches:

Historical studies, due to the new availability of digitized materials that were once difficult if not impossible to access.

Literary studies, due to new techniques such as ability to do keyword searches of texts.

Bibliographic studies, due to increasing ability to trace the provenance of texts.

Analysis of cross-genre movements such as modernism, due to the ability to simultaneously access literary texts, historical texts, photographs, music, and art, and see connections among them.

Analysis of international movements due to new abilities to see and compare literary or social trends developing simultaneously in different lands.

Translations of remote texts can particularly benefit from online presentation, since unfamiliar concepts can be linked to in the text itself, allowing anyone to easily learn more about formerly obscure or confusing aspects of the text.

Investigation of current phenomena’s roots in the past can benefit greatly from the ability to present side by side comparisons of photographs, music, works of art, or evidence of social trends from different moments in time.


Sinai Rusinek, The Van Leer Jerusalem Insitute

DH is encompassing many previous ‘turns’ (as far back as the linguistic turn, but cultural, networked, spatial), which weren’t necessarily fully entrenched throughout Jewish Studies, due to conservatism and possibly academic structures. In a way, DH can also help pushing the field to where it should have already been before. This does not mean that one should not be wary also of replicating conservatism in DH projects

There is a lag in the acceptance of digital approaches which needs to be covered (e.g. in digital editing with XML-tei, text analysis and network analysis). Once this is mended, one could even perceive of Jewish Studies leading advances in some DH directions. Indeed, I think that Jewish studies should strive to become leaders – by exploring annotation platforms, text re-use tools and networked texts – in the study of intertextuality and textual tradition.

Three main features of Jewish Studies – and in fact, of their object, the Jewish world and culture – lend themselves particularly well to digital approaches. The first of those features is mobility, which invites the engagement of spatial humanities. An interesting example in this domain is the project “Footprints: Jewish Books Through Time and Place”. Related to mobility is connectivity and communication, which characterized diasporic Judaism. This feature invites social network analysis such as we see in “Republic of letters’’ projects. Unfortunately to this day, as far as I am aware, no digital project is dedicated to Jewish circles of correspondence.

A specific case of connectivity is the relations between texts which embody the Jewish tradition, and leads me to the third feature, that of intertextuality, which is the subject matter of digital text reuse studies and tools. As an example I would name here Sefaria’s “Link-explorer” as a visualization tool, a recently published article on “Identification of Parallel Passages Across a Large Hebrew/Aramaic Corpus” and the text reuse detection  tool recently launched by Dicta.


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

I do not believe that methods and practices in digital humanities projects related to Jewish sources and topics need to differ from other projects.  I believe that Jewish Studies still has a ways to go in digital humanities, and could learn a tremendous amount from DH experts outside of the field of Jewish Studies, especially international projects. The Around DH in 80 Days project highlighted many different kinds of projects from around the world, and would be a great place to start learning about the myriad projects that exist today.

Regarding the aspects of Jewish Studies lending themselves particularly well to digital approaches, I would mention textual search and analyses – The ability to easily search Jewish texts in projects such as the Bar IlanResponsa project and Sefaria.org has made the major Jewish texts easily accessible that it had never been before.  A similar project for Hebrew literature is the Ben Yehuda Project .

Manuscript/Primary Source study –Digitization provides access to materials otherwise inaccessible to users around the world, both scholarly and lay.  One of the unique aspects of Jewish Studies sources is their diasporic nature – primary sources for the study of Jewish history have been scattered around the world with their owners and caretakers.  The digital environment is the perfect place to bring these materials together, as showcased in The Friedberg Genizah Project, which brings together nearly all known collections of Geniza materials into a single site.


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

I do not see that there are particular sensitivies around projects in Jewish sources as regards the digital. Israeli institutions have been leaders in aspects of the digital approach to Jewish texts, for instance (though there is much work to be done to improve them!), and tools like Maagarim or the Responsa Project are invaluable and used across all segments of Jewish study (as far as I know).

Aspects that lend themselves particularly well: digitisation of source materials (including manuscripts, printed texts, images, sound recordings), complex digital editions including critical/diplomatic editions of Jewish texts, linked-data cataloguing (making full use of data available/produced in different institutions), mapping (Jewish communities of the diaspora, distribution of texts/rites/languages/etc), exploration of social political contexts through analysis of social and popular media.

We would like to know what you think.

Coming up tomorrow: Q5. Where are we headed?