We’ve Been Here Before. At Least Twice.

Some thoughts on what the pandemic means for Jewish history.

Welcome to the Future, Third Time Around

Historians Will Mark 2020 as a Revolutionary Year for Higher Education

October 05, 2020

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Dr. Henry Abramson

Dr. Henry Abramson

Dr. Henry Abramson, historian and dean of Touro’s Lander College of Arts & Sciences, puts the transition to remote learning into historical perspective. Writing and printing caused similar upheavals in the world of education when they were first introduced.

Despite a raging pandemic, colleges and universities took advantage of mature technologies to transition online, preserving the safety of students and faculty while maintaining true to our educational goals.

Understandably, many participants in this bold enterprise lamented what was lost, even temporarily, myself included. The digital divideZoom fatigue, and the annoying experience of teaching and learning while masked were common complaints. But let there be no doubt: we are at the cusp of a bold new era in education, particularly tertiary education.

But we’ve been here before. Twice, at least.

The first time educators encountered this phenomenon was in the ancient world, when the technology of recording the spoken word became widespread. Clay tablets incised with wedge-shaped script, friable inked papyrus, and of course scrolls from animal skins preserved instruction for generations, the first global experiment in distance learning.

Socrates subjected the educational value of writing to withering criticism, saying that “writing…is very like painting. The creatures in a painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing.” Writing lacks synchronous interactivity with an instructor, and is therefore critically impoverished. That said, Socrates’ argument is undermined by the fact that we receive his words only because his student Plato (ahem) wrote them down.

And with synchronous Zoom classes, Socrates’ argument is rendered moot.

Related concerns were raised by the Sages regarding the commitment of the Oral Torah in textual form, and the Talmud was only rendered in its current form after strenuous debate.

So despite the objection of the early Greek philosophers, western civilization marched ahead with writing anyway, considering this technology an invaluable add-on to in-person instruction, not its replacement.

The next major challenge came some 2100 years later, with the advent of cheap printing technologies. Long accustomed to beautiful Arabic calligraphy, the Islamic world largely rejected the poor quality mass-produced equivalent, inadvertently missing an opportunity to participate actively in the scientific revolution that would give Christian Europe a distinct advantage entering the modern era. But not all Europeans were pleased—Hieronimus Squarciafico, himself an employee of an early Venetian print shop, panned the new technology in 1477, writing “already abundance of books makes men less studious; it destroys memory and enfeebles the mind by relieving it of too much work.” Better, argued Squarciafico, to learn more deeply with expensive handwritten texts than read lots of cheap printed books.

But the printers won that debate. Five centuries later, it is increasingly rare for instructors to assign bound physical books, let alone manuscripts on vellum or parchment. No one will doubt the diminished aesthetic value of a mass-produced book when compared to a hand-written work, painstakingly completed by a human scribe. The value of increased access, however, widely overwhelmed the sacrifice of artistic beauty of individually produced written works. And just as Socrates’ objection to writing was recorded in text, so too was Squarciafico’s lament preserved in a printed book.

And with synchronous Zoom classes, the increasing range of personal customizations—virtual backgrounds, gallery vs. speaker views, filters and so on—suggest that even the aesthetic features of remote learning may be overcome to meet individual tastes.

Historians are notoriously unreliable when speaking about the future—we tend to do our jobs best when we are looking backwards, not forwards. But that rear-view perspective suggests that if 2020 is anything like 400 BCE, or like 1500 CE, the Zoom revolution in higher education will certainly not eliminate live, in-person education: we will take these new digital tools to expand, not diminish, our pedagogic power.

AKEIDA: A Conversation on The Binding of Isaac in Jewish History and Thought

Genesis 22–the description of the patriarch Abraham’s binding of his son Isaac and the angelic intervention that followed–is a key text in the Jewish tradition, and forms part of the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah. Join philosopher Dr. Michael Chighel (Milton Friedman Egyetem, Budapest) and historian Dr. Henry Abramson (Touro College, New York) for a conversation on the way this moving Biblical passage has resonated throughout Jewish culture over the centuries. Moderated by Mr. David Kraus (Jewish Museum of Prague).

Wednesday, September 16 @ 1:00 PM EDT

Click here to RSVP

Dr. Michael Chighel (Milton Friedman Egyetem, Budapest)

Michael Chighel holds a doctorate in Philosophy and is the author of Kabale: Das Geheimnis Des Hebraischen Humanismus Im Lichte Von Heideggers Denken (Klostermann, 2020)

Dr. Henry Abramson (Touro College, New York)

Henry Abramson is currently working on a multi-volume survey of Jewish History for Koren Publishers, Jerusalem.

Mr. David Kraus (Jewish Museum of Prague)

Plagues, Pandemics, and Preparation for the High Holidays

A brief overview of infectious disease in Jewish history from ancient times to the present COVID-19 era, and then some thoughts on how to prepare for the High Holidays based on Maimonides’ work on repentance. Join me today for a live chat and premiere of this lecture at 3PM EDT today.

Black Jews: A Conversation with Nissim Black

A conversation with Nissim Black and Henry Abramson, moderated by Mordechai Yosef ben Avraham. The panelists and moderator will explore the idea of race and color in Jewish history and culture, and discuss the African and African-American Jewish experience over the centuries and in contemporary America, Europe and Israel. Recognizing that the world is at a potential inflection point on issues of race, the participants hope to expose the audience to the broader perspective that comes from understanding the experience of Black Jews, both in their shared historical past as part of the Jewish people and in their future history as well.

Broadcast of webinar recording: Sunday, August 30, at 1pm EDT.

Contents: Introduction by Mordechai ben Avraham (8m) Historical overview by Henry Abramson (15m) Screening of Mothaland Bounce (4m) Personal Experience and Thoughts by Nissim Black (20m) Discussion and Q&A (40m)

Nissim Black has been a gangsta rapper, a gang member, and a faith seeker. But it is his current incarnation that is here to stay: an African American Hasidic Jew who brings sharp beats and hooked-filled rhymes to the masses.

Henry Abramson earned his PhD in History at the University of Toronto and held visiting and post-doctoral fellowships at Cornell, Harvard, Oxford and the Hebrew University of Toronto. The author of eight books and the Jewish History in Daf Yomi podcast on All Daf, his online lecture in Jewish History are viewed by thousands daily. He is currently working on a major multi-volume survey of Jewish History forthcoming from Koren Publishers Jerusalem.

Mordechai Yosef Ben Avraham Hazan is a Rabbinical student in Jerusalem. He grew up in Los Angeles, California, where he converted to Judaism. Before coming to Israel, Mordechai Yosef was an entertainment executive with companies such as Warner Brothers, Electus, and others. He was also was a writer for Vogue Japan, MyJewishLearning.com and most recently TheJ.Ca. Mordechai is currently co-host personality on Israel unwired hit show “Israel in black-and-white.”

Maimonides: Life, Work and the Ways of Teshuvah

New class on Maimonides’ life, work and a mini-class on his Ways of Teshuvah for the month of Elul. Enjoy in good health!

This video discusses the 8th edition of Maimonides on Teshuvah, with a commentary written during the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Black Jews: Their Place in History, A Conversation with Nissim Black

A conversation with Nissim Black and Henry Abramson, moderated by Mordechai Yosef ben Avraham. The panelists and moderator will explore the idea of race and color in Jewish history and culture, and discuss the African and African-American Jewish experience over the centuries and in contemporary America, Europe and Israel. Recognizing that the world is at a potential inflection point on issues of race, the participants hope to expose the audience to the broader perspective that comes from understanding the experience of Black Jews, both in their shared historical past as part of the Jewish people and in their future history as well. The discussion will be followed by a question and answer session.

Wednesday, August 26, at 1:00 PM EDT. To RSVP click here.

Nissim Black has been a gangsta rapper, a gang member, and a faith seeker. But it is his current incarnation that is here to stay: an African American Hasidic Jew who brings sharp beats and hooked-filled rhymes to the masses.

Mordechai Yosef Ben Avraham Hazan is a Rabbinical student in Jerusalem. He grew up in Los Angeles, California, where he converted to Judaism. Before coming to Israel, Mordechai Yosef was an entertainment executive with companies such as Warner Brothers, Electus, and others. He was also was a writer for Vogue Japan, MyJewishLearning.com and most recently TheJ.Ca. Mordechai is currently co-host personality on Israel unwired hit show “Israel in black-and-white.”

Maimonides: Wisdom for a Pandemic Season

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides, 1138-1204) was one of the towering figures of medieval Jewish thought, casting a long shadow even today. Renowned in his own day as a world-famous physician to royalty, he offered guidance both physical and spiritual in a time of pandemic. This lecture will review his life and work, including the  controversy that surrounded his writings for centuries, and reflect on his guidance for Elul, the month of preparation for the High Holidays.

Wednesday, August 19, 1PM EDT. Click here to RSVP.