Boston area eighth-graders pore over Talmud by surfing the Web

NEWTON, Mass. — Above the cacophony of the Talmud class, an occasional heated argument could be heard. Students, paired in groups of two or three, pour over texts, deciphering ancient Hebrew and Aramaic. It is a beit midrash (house of study) like any other beit midrash — little tables crowded into the buzzing classroom next to floor-to-ceiling shelves heaped with books. A teacher circulates, assisting students with decoding complex logic or locating an obscure source.

Yet it is totally revolutionary. Jeffrey Spitzer, the founder of the so-called RabLab, says the eighth-grade class at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston is the first grade-school class in the world to extend the conversation of oral Torah (Talmud) using the Internet, CD-ROM databases and sophisticated word-processing programs.

Torah-minded web surfers can log in at www.uscj.org/ ssds/boston/main.htm and learn about psychological vs. physical tzedakah, tzedakah to non-Jews and the seven mitzvot (four fringes, two tefillin and mezuzah).

On topics from abortion to patients' privacy rights, students select a primary text (from the written or oral Torah), to which they add selected commentaries, including their own. Their library includes Davka's Judaic Classics Library Deluxe, the Soncino Classics Collection, the Bar-Ilan Responsa Database, Eliezer Segal's TalmudMap and Mordechai Torczyner's WebShas, among others.

"Nowhere on the Web are selected Hebrew texts available like this," says Spitzer. Although institutions like Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel produce a virtual beit midrash, its site refers researchers to the texts, but the sources themselves are not actually online.

The challenge, then, for the eighth-graders, is "to figure out what is the salient point" and to limit their material to one or two pages, says Spitzer, a self-taught computer whiz. The kids design and build their own pages.

"Some are sophisticated. Some are very 13-year-old," Spitzer says of the content and format.

Somewhere in the middle between sophisticated and 13-year-old lies one group's loose translation of Menachoth 43b on its page on the seven mitzvot: "David was standing naked in a bath house, and he said to G-d: 'Oh my! Seven mitzvot surround me always and now I stand here naked to protect me from sin!' Suddenly, he looked down and remembered that one fateful day in his young childhood when a sharp instrument permanently marked his flesh, identifying him as part of the Jewish community. Then he sang with great exuberance."

Despite the groundbreaking nature of the daily course, the reaction of Schechter's first guinea pigs is slightly less than greatly exuberant.

"You have to be very self-motivated," says Arielle Weisman, taking a time-out from her page on physician-assisted suicide with her chevruta (study partner) Ronna Krell. "It's a lot of work. It's difficult to come here everyday." (On this day, Spitzer eases that burden with the distribution of Hershey bars.)

Even so, Weisman, like Krell and the rest of her classmates, approves of the RabLab, giving it a typically 13-year-old understated endorsement. Weisman says she likes having so many resources at hand.

Tamar Remz, who quietly confessed she'd rather be doing something else rather than studying Talmud, says just the same, "it's more alive than just studying old men from 2,000 years ago."

Classmates Ilana Webber and Ariela Housman, who spend the hourlong period plugging away on their own commentary on patient-doctor confidentiality and commitment, skipped over the "old men" in favor of Spitzer's link to an index on Jewish medical ethics Web sites. "We're not dealing with what the rabbis or what the Torah has to say about our topic," says Housman. "We're trying to [find] related sources to our topic."

By and large, the 73 eighth-graders appreciate being able to pick their own subject rather than tackling a text as a class.

"Last year we didn't have as much liberty," says Stephanie Witkin, who is working with Tzippora Rhodes on whether shame and embarrassment are worse than physical pain. "There are so much more resources and so much more we can learn from."

Spitzer, who has done doctoral work at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is hoping that Jewish educators and lay people across the world can learn from this group of Schechter Talmud scholars. "Ultimately, I want the RabLab to be a center for Torah discussion."

To further the dynamic nature of Talmud study, Spitzer plans to post a bulletin next year so that Web surfers can respond to the pages. "The main goal is to recognize that Torah she b'al Peh [oral Torah] is a conversation."

Noting that the Internet suits the interactive nature of oral Torah, he adds, "You can't just do that with print. You can do anything you want with bits."

And he's not kidding. "My goal is to have people all over the country — people who want to study Torah — log in for 15 minutes during their lunch. I want to get people out there looking at their texts."