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.

4 responses

  1. Beautiful, Arnie, and so true. It's an interesting spin on the Parker Palmer's charge to build a "subject-centered classroom." Palmer argues that in order for a topic to be fully engaged and understood by learners, it literally needs to be part of the discussion – pushed and prodded and examined and challenged. I like that this takes that one step further. Not only is the subject the subject, but those who originally laid it out and the connections between them are, too. We're all part of the ongoing narrative, linked in this network. I love the phrase "ancient habit of mind." Gorgeous.


  2. A better magazine theme will make the blog looks nicer:)


    1. Well, yes,but what counts as sgilenemy traditional Jewish teachings ? How would you know one when you see one without already deciding in advance, in which case, when you come across it, knowing it in advance, you haven’t learned anything. That is something of an overstatement, because one can have a Jewish teaching in mind and still learn something more about it. But then, the same question arises philosophically: when you learn the more how do you know that it is Jewish, without already knowing it in advance, and so forth.The question is how open we want to be. I more or less trust Jewish tradition. It seems to me that we need openness, boldness, courage, and faith that our faith will not carry us away beyond whatever land God is showing us. without that faith, the rabbis would’ve stuck by the literal Bible; Maimonides would never have written his philosophy; our various mystical sects would have gotten nowhere; and none of the modern movements would exist.


  3. Always good to promote camp. Let me add aohtner thought: Grandparents should think seriously about giving their grandkids a summer at camp gift for Chanukah. We have been doing that for years for our grandkids. We always give them a certificate entitling them to register for camp at a sessio of their own choosing. We did this for years for Jeremy (Swig.Newman), are still doing it for Adam who in 2011 will be a CIT (Newman) and have been doing it for Sarah and leah (Gindling Hilltop) since they were old enough to go to camp. It’s a bit expensive to send three or four kids to camp but worth every penny. It’s the best give we could give and that they could receive. It would be nice if the URJ camps developed Gift Certificates for grandparents to give. I have suggested it but received no response.


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