Monday, January 9, 2012

Networking: An Ancient Jewish Practice


There is a great deal of buzz about the use of networks in moving the Jewish community forward. It tends to rely a great deal of some of the big name thinkers from the general world in areas such as networks, and some "first cousin" concepts and practices, such as Communities of Practice, Professional Learning Communities and the like.

Here's something incredibly cool: The networking that took place historically, and continues to take place around Jewish wisdom has unique characteristics:

  • The Sages of ancient (and modern) times communicated and innovated using many of the practices that are at the core of networks today.
  • Unlike today's networks, the Jewish networks that built a new Jewish life in the Talmudic Era and beyond, included communication between people who literally could never have spoken to one another: the network extended beyond distance and, incredibly, beyond time restrictions. Rabbis were "talking to" rabbis who were long deceased.
My teacher, the late Rabbi Selig Starr, of blessed memory, of the yeshiva in Skokie, IL, once took me aside. He said to me, "Samlan, you are a social being. The people will love you. But you need to socialize with Rabbi Akiva, Hillel, Shammai. When I go home and study, I have conversations with them."

It took me over 30 years to understand that what he was telling me was: The rabbis and scholars who came before us are very much a part of our network, in every sense of the word.

Here's an example of how it works, a social network representation of a page from the Babylonian Talmud. The text of Talmud Shabbat 21 a-b takes a conversation about the wicks and fuels that can be used for Shabbat lights and moves from there to a conversation about the lights used for Chanukah. 







The Talmudic text begins with Rav Huna, who is right in the middle of the graphic above. He is in the middle of the Talmudic period, and lived in Sura, Babylonia. In the text, Rav Huna, the Chachamim (rabbis who lived long before his time), Rava, Rav Hisda, Rav Zeira, Rav Matna, Rav, Rav Yirmiah, "The Rabbis", Abaye, Rabin, Rav Yochanan, Rabbah bar bar Hama all enter the conversation.

What then follows is the famous disagreement between the followers of Hillel and the followers of Shammai as to whether a pious person begins the holiday of Chanukah lighting one light and increasing to eight, or beginning with eight and decreasing to one. This leads to interaction with two later sages, Rav Yosi bar Avin and Rav Yosi ben Zevida. and to Rabbah bar bar Hama mentioning two unnamed characters, each of who backs either Hillel or Shammai. This "discussion" takes place (without benefit of phone or Internet) across great geographic distances, in Babylonia and in the land of Israel. It also occurs across several centuries.

One interesting caveat: The rationale attributed to Shammai's opinion about the Chanukah lights brings a relationship between the holidays of Sukkot and Chanukah into play. The origins of Chanukah in the holiday of Sukkot dates back to the apocryphal books of the Maccabees. While these books are not directly quoted, Shammai (and those who explain his views) clearly have an intellectual connection to those books, which I show in the graphic.

In the diagram above, the conversation continues (and it mentioned on the Talmudic page in the margins) with later codifiers of Jewish practice - Maimonides, Rabbi Jacob and the two authors of the Shulchan Aruch code of law - entering the conversation by codifying the current practice (putting them in "direct" conversation with Hillel, who lived over a millennium before).

As Jews, we are networked. It is part of our heritage. In bringing the use of networks to build and spread ideas, what we need to do is to re-educate the Jews of today to join the networked Jewish conversation that has existed since the dawn of the Jewish people. This isn't about taking a new idea and translating it to the Jewish world. It is about taking an ancient habit of mind, teaching it to this generation of Jews, and giving it new life.