People of the e-Book

Is digitizing Judaism the next great revolution in Jewish life?

Raising Torah 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Raising Torah 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
In the English-speaking world, a new trend is slowly and quietly vying for the attention of Jewish consumers. With the advent and widespread availability of electronic readers, or e-readers, such as Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iPad2 and the Barnes and Noble Nook, it was only a matter of time until Jewish e-books, in the form of fiction, non-fiction, and Judaic and biblical texts and commentaries, came onto the market. For a group known as the People of the Book, the attempt to assimilate into a digital world poses a question with countless and complicated responses: What are the legal and cultural implications of digitizing Judaism? And are Jewish e-readers such a big deal? Understanding the effects of a switch from printed to digital Judaic text requires a read on not only Jewish trends, but the overall uptick in digital consumer media.
From a purely business aspect, the Jewish e-book industry and its marketing, productivity and quality, is in itself based on overall market trends.
E-book sales have seen staggering advances in the last several years, while printed books have maintained a fairly stagnant growth. According to the Association of American Publishers, ebook profits topped out at roughly $450 million in 2010, showing a 164 percent increase over 2009 sales. By comparison, printed books gained only a few percentage points in many of the major publishing categories, such as paperback, hardcover and mass market.
This by no means signals the demise of printed text as profits hold strong at more than $10 billion a year, but the upward trend of e-reading has left some casualties along the way – The Christian Science Monitor and US News and World Report shuttered their print editions in late 2010; a steep drop in print newspaper subscriptions and as a result, advertisement sales, have driven major newspapers to bankruptcy; US book and media retailer Borders closed its doors after posting billion- dollar losses in 2010, and, on January 1, the Jewish Publication Society, the oldest publisher of English-language Jewish books, will turn over its publication reins to the University of Nebraska Press in a move deemed purely economic.
Ellen Frankel, editor emerita of the JPS, stated in an interview with The Jewish Standard that due to Internet competition and the book market, it’s likely JPS will publish fewer books even after the Nebraska buy-out. “JPS has already started an e-books program in response,” Frankel said, “and will be accelerating it in the future.”
Currently, the society offers some 80 titles as e-books, very few of which come from its highly regarded religious canon in which there exist hundreds of published works. JPS’s ‘Tagged Tanakh,” a website which allows users to comment on a digital Tanakh and hold discussions in real time, has seen very limited success.
JPS leaders are optimistic that a new project, a type of interactive “e-Tanakh,” is on track to become the next great Bible of the 21st century, providing few details about the initiative.
In light of digital market trends, sites like, and newcomer have come onto the scene. These sites market themselves as purveyors of “kosher,” Jewishonly e-books, with hundreds of titles in Jewish law, thought, history and fiction, as well as Hebrew language e-books. Available content includes hassidism, Kabbala, Torah commentaries and Haggada.
Jewish-e-books purports to be building the largest collection of digital Jewish books – an undertaking, according to CEO Rabbi Yossi Levy, propelled by demand.
“Jews worldwide are thirsty for Jewish content,” Levy says. “We’ve got customers from South America to Australia to Asia … people are looking for authentic books on Judaism, and we’ll give it to them.”
It is here that Levy hits upon the appeal of both Jewish and mainstream e-books – instant and widespread availability.
Levy and other Jewish e-book proponents see e-book as a revolutionary way to engage more readers and promote greater Jewish learning among Jews in far-flung communities or among Jews less likely to wander into a religious texts store or flip through a printed Babylonian Talmud.
But is it really as groundbreaking as some might think? From a historical and cultural perspective, the nature of reading a digital Jewish text is a loose continuation of the revolution that occurred when the Oral Torah, or Mishna, was first preserved in writing. The groundbreaking transition from oral teaching to individual text-based communities was born out of the need to preserve thousands of years of Jewish history, law and tradition as communities were scattered and isolated by the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and subsequent Diaspora.
Spearheaded by Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi, the exhaustive redacting of the Mishna was a massive and extraordinary undertaking aimed at ensuring the survival of the Jewish world at a time of existential chaos.
This marked the beginning of what is considered rabbinic Judaism – which allowed rabbis from all over the Diaspora to record their interpretations and opinions and lay the groundwork for generations of Jewish learning.
However, it was the rise of the printing press, notes Eliyahu Stern, professor of modern Jewish intellectual and cultural life at Yale University, that truly transformed modern Judaism. As religious texts became more affordable and widely available, Stern states, the yeshiva world took off in the 19th century as the epicenter of Jewish life in the Diaspora.
Modern Orthodox Rabbi Chagie Rubin of the Young Israel Synagogue in New Haven, Connecticut, says the printing press created new religious questions.
“When the printing press first came out, there was a major dispute amongst the rabbis,” Rubin says. “Should we encourage this or should we stick to the old way of handwriting on scrolls? Certain rabbis were against this innovation.”
Thus it would seem the e-book revolution could never really eclipse the impact of the printing press on modern Jewish life, as it is simply the digitization of a text already printed. It may, however, mirror the same crisis facing the second century rabbis – what to do about an increasingly religiously-disengaged Diaspora population? For all the efforts of organizations like Taglit Birthright and Masa to promote a stronger Jewish identity and connection to Israel among Diaspora youth, the overall shortcoming has apparently been in promoting a stronger connection to Judaism as a religion.
According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, the last two decades have seen a 20% drop in American Jews who consider themselves religiously observant. Survey researchers attributed this trend among American Jews to, among other factors, a “disaffection from Judaism” in the United States – a country where most Jews polled placed themselves in three distinct Jewish movements – Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.
It is the difference in Jewish movements that will likely create vast schisms in the debate on, and embrace of e-books. As nearly all of the push for Judaic e-books is occurring in the Diaspora, it seems fair to assume that the discourse will center around the opinions of the three major denominations and their offshoots. While the Orthodox and Conservative movements adhere to Halacha, the largest movement in America, Reform Judaism, does not, and it is here that using e-readers in place of Judaic texts and prayer books seems most likely to occur without prolonged debate.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former president of the Union of Reform Judaism, stated in a recent interview with The Atlantic that “The key for us [on Shabbat] is abstaining from work that we do to earn a living and using the time to reflect and enjoy and sanctify, which is ultimately what the day is about. To the extent to which technology can contribute to that, then by all means make use of it.”
For Shabbat-observant Jews, however, the crux of any legal debate falls problematically in one arena: Nearly all of the halachic concerns regarding the reading of Judaic texts in e-book form stem from the e-readers that are used to read them, and the violation of Shabbat laws that using them would entail.
Since an e-reader is electronic, adjustments would have to be made to allow the device to somehow control itself, possibly on some sort of timer, to perform the functions from which Shabbat-observant Jews would abstain. Unfortunately, the dilemma of using an e-reader on Shabbat does not end with the simple programmed toggle of a button.
The concept of reading from something like a Kindle or Nook is easily lost down a rabbit hole of cultural and halachic issues relating to Shabbat. Take, for example, the act of flipping a page. In a printed book, the page is turned but the previous one still exists right behind it.
On an e-reader, flipping a page requires the previous page to disappear and a new one to materialize – in essence, one page is erased and another one is written, an act which would violate Shabbat as it would be the result of a reader pushing a button or swiping a finger on the screen.
The obvious but highly impractical solution would be to set the pages to progress on a timer like a slide-show, though this would render flipping backwards and forwards impossible.
In its cultural sense, Shabbat is considered a time by many Jews to unplug from the distractions of technology, primarily on the basis that these days computers, cell phones, and other digital devices are synonymous with work.
Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, suggests in an interview with The Atlantic that the virtual nature of using digital technology on Shabbat serves to “distract our attention from our local environment and break all boundaries of space and time,” a situation that runs counter to the very essence of the day.
The National Day of Unplugging, the brainchild of, a network of hip, media-savvy Jewish artists, has gained steam with its Sabbath Manifesto aimed at not only Jews, but anyone who could use a break from the daily grind. Principle No. 1 of the manifesto? Avoid technology. To Rubin, the possibility that authoritative rabbinic sources are likely to even consider the use of e-readers on Shabbat anytime soon is highly dubious. As an example, he notes the work of rabbis at the Tzomet Institute in Jerusalem who have handed down rulings on the use of Shabbat elevators and wheelchairs – rulings that resulted from years of intense debate and examination of extreme minutia.
“In these situations, it was for people who have difficulties, tremendous inconveniences, and this made it easier for people” to function on Shabbat, Rubin says.
In short, it’s unlikely rabbis would find e-readers as functionally important as a wheelchair or elevator.
The impact of e-books on Jewish culture and learning won’t be felt for years, though the use of this technology, as evidenced by its mainstream success, is only projected to grow. Will e-readers be a revolution in Jewish life? Maybe. As digital technology continues to evolve, so too could the embrace of it by the Jewish community. “If we look historically, Jews might have been hesitant to adapt to new innovations,” says Rubin.
“But if in the end it turns out to be effective and enhance Jewish life, it will eventually be accepted.”