Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Blogging the Bible

When user-testing the Tagged Tanakh, the Jewish Publication Society's attempt to user-navigate the Bible, my first reaction was, this is the mother of all blog -- and the logical next step in human technology. When I worked as a trend forecaster, we had a maxim that started, "If Hewlett-Packard only knew what Hewlett-Packard knows," which effectively meant that big corporations have no idea how to fathom the entirety of the knowledge that's already at their fingertips. If there was a way to do that to the Bible -- not just as a simple search engine, but as a real, organic, multi-reference work that ties together the entire body of human religious knowledge -- it could, without hyperbole, rock the socks off of academia.

The thing is, the Tagged Tanakh might do exactly that.

jps tagged tanakhImagine Facebook where all your friends are religious experts. Or, to make it a little more Stone Age, imagine that you could eavesdrop on Rashi, Radak, Onkelos, and the Gur Aryeh writing notes back and forth to each other. And that's just the barest level of the depths that the Tagged Tanakh can plumb.

JT Waldman, the Tanakh's creator, sat me down at his laptop and told me to start out easy. "Search for a word," he said. "Any word?" I asked, typing in "nose ring."

We only received one result, in Isaiah, which troubled both of us a little. "We're working on the search feature," he explained. Attempting the variation "nose-ring" with a hyphen got us what we expected -- Rebecca's gift upon meeting Isaac for the first time; the women of the Children of Israel donating their jewelry to create the Golden Calf. This didn't bother me as much as it should have. It was a minor glitch, which JT said would be fixed before the official launch; besides, Google has accustomed me to searching for variations more or less automatically, like "chazan" when your desired search doesn't turn up much for "hazzan."

But that was only the beginning. "Tag it," JT encouraged me. He showed me a few options: I could read commentary on the verses, write my own commentary, or tag the phrase -- that is, I could sort it by applying a label (such as "jewelry," "gold," or "punk-rock accouterments in the Torah") and grouped it with other similar instances in the Tanakh. I could use a tag that already existed, such as "ritual objects" (since nose-rings were thought to mark engaged women in early Sumerian societies), or make my own, like the aforementioned punk-rock tag.

I went with both. Then I went to a more frequently-visited section -- Exodus 9, one of those "Let My People Go" chapters. I clicked on the lemma view, which displayed notes and annotations by scholars, and came across a note by Elaine Adler Goodfriend (identified as a "scholar," the highest possible designation on the site). On the biblical passage "the hand of the Lord will strike your livestock," she'd written, "A letter from Ugarit refers to pestilence as the 'hand of god/s'." Not the absolute most insightful thing I've ever read, but still pretty insightful. (It led me to Googling "Ugarit," in any case.) Then I went back to the text itself, with all the phrases that had notes on them highlighted. It felt like I'd hit paydirt -- like one of those Internet mazes where you're confronted with a thousand different links, and you want to click on them all.

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Right now, most of the annotations are made by scholars. As more people log on, they're going to fill up the Bible with more and more chatter -- my beloved "punk rock accouterments" category is going to be complemented by more "OMG Ashley Tisdale Has A Nose Ring Too" labels. Which could be as destructive as it is self-serving. If everyone and their bff are commenting on Genesis 24:22, who's going to care about what Rashi has to say about it?

But, even then -- my mind leaps to debate myself -- the people writing stupid comments would have to be reading the Torah in the first place, which is no small goal. And there are enough filters in place so it's possible to only display remarks from recognized Torah scholars, or to only display remarks by people who've never read the Torah before and are recording their first interactions with it. Remarkably, the same far-right Jewish communities who'd want to shield themselves from "liberal" commentaries, such as some of JPS's books, might be the biggest potential clients for this venture. Imagine clicking that you'd only want to read Orthodox commentaries on the Bible. Or that you'd only want Reform commentaries accessible. By giving the common reader the tools to filter and censor the commentaries themselves, Waldman and his cohorts are also fundamentally giving their readership the ability to break down those very same labels.

There are "summary" tags next to each biblical book, which are somewhat helpful when dealing with Leviticus or Deuteronomy, and immensely helpful when it comes to lesser-known prophets like Mihah and Habakkuk. Strangely, the existing commentators (such as Rashi, Gur Aryeh, and those folks) aren't yet included...but a variety of multimedia content, ranging in variety from curious (wacky parsha videos) to awesome (Google Maps!), is.

"Tagging" was originally the province of graffiti artists, who scaled buildings and burrowed into train tunnels in order to paint pictures and write verses on walls. (The phenomenon of tagging one's own handle or name was a relatively recent innovation.) I used to tag in Eastern Europe with an artist friend, and our sole rule was that the only buildings we tagged were ugly Communist cubes. Although our stencils would have looked amazing on Tyn Church, or the Orloj clock, our rationale was that they were already beautiful; we didn't want to ruin it with our art, even if it might be complementary.

I don't know how useful it will be to know about what random teenagers in the future think of Bible verses, but I know that I love writing about what I think of them. And I know I'm curious to see what my friends think. And that's why I can't wait for the Tagged Tanakh to come out for real.

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