Old Wine, New Containers
What do Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, Artscroll, and the RCA all have in common? They figured out that outsourcing was the key to intelligibility.
Rav Isser Zalman gave a weekly shiur, for which he would intensely prepare. He was a stickler for clarity – end users of Even HaAzel are all the better for it. His touchstone of clarity was the projected shiur’s comprehensibility to someone who was not “holding” in that area of study. So each week before offering the shiur to his students, he tried it out first on his wife! At least at one point in time, Artscroll is rumored to have employed the same thinking. One of the final editors of the Gemara was – by design – a woman. She was chosen because she was bright, but had not learned in Brisk for fifteen years. The thinking was that if the commentary really succeeded, she should be able to follow the discussion.
Tradition Magazine has taken outsourcing a step further, sending decades of content to India (where else?) to parse articles for internal subject subheadings to help in the online search function.
The Torah world is continuously enriched by projects that put vast amounts of material within the grasp of every person, especially material that is not available in every beis medrash. The really sophisticated student has found some way to access the digital mega-library of Otzar HeChochmah; others do with more modest contributions. One of these is Tradition, the quarterly of the Rabbinical Council of America, whose archives are now accessible I wish I could report that access is free, but you still need to pay $2 an article unless you are a subscriber. Still, the price is a bargain relative to getting in a car and driving cross-town to borrow a back issue from a friend.
In my younger, more zealous years, I read Tradition primarily to disagree with many of the contributors. Even then, Tradition opened me up to a different world of sometimes more rigorous and systematic study of Torah history and philosophy. It was a world which in time I came to value for much enlightenment it provided, even while I rejected parts with which I never could make peace. Occasionally, I made some minor contribution to the journal myself.
Some parts stood out for their power. I became a fan of the oeuvre of Rabbi Shalom Carmy, the current Editor. I have encountered few people with his grasp of Jewish philosophy coupled with sensitivity and depth of spiritual yearning. I find myself reading and rereading his article on Amalek (Winter 2006).
Another part proved absolutely addictive. I would be surprised to find anyone on the face of the globe who knew Shut (responsa) literature as well as Rabbi J David Bleich, who has authored “Survey of Recent Halakhic Periodical Literature” column on cutting-edge issues for many years. Many of those columns ultimately morph into chapters in his ongoing, multi-volume Contemporary Halakhic Problems series. When law school students of mine ask my assistance in picking material, I assure them that a single footnote of Rabbi Bleich’s is often more than enough for a twenty page paper. Access to Tradition is worthwhile just to be able to search for material you need in researching some contemporary halachic problem for which you want lomdus, not just the bottom line. (Yes, I am biased. Rabbi Bleich is one of the people I lean on heavily for my own halachic advice.)
A number of years ago, most issues of the journal were compiled on a single inexpensive CD. Articles were scanned, not digitized; that left the search capability severely restricted. The software backbone was as elegant as an elephant waltzing. The new online version is a great improvement, although I believe that it is a non-trivial design flaw to display article titles and authors in response to a search, without displaying the volume and date of the published article.
Another journal that has distinguished itself strictly in the arena of halacha is the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society. It, too, has moved beyond the dead tree format, with the recent announcement that all back issues are available on a CD, available at a special website.
[Thanks of Dr J Werblowsky and Menachem Butler, who were the first two to locate the website for our readers.]