With his laptop resting on a table in the library of the Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, Rabbi Meir Fachler patiently answered questions from an eighth-grade Talmud teacher.
The discussion didn't pertain to disputations on halachah. Rather, they focused on just how to make the best classroom use of a computer program designed in Israel that's called "Gemara Berura." The software was created to help make the dense body of Jewish law — which consists of nearly 13,000 pages and isn't even written in Hebrew, rather mostly in Aramaic — more comprehensible to students.
Torah Academy is one of seven local schools introducing students to the program in the fall. The local roll-out for "Gemara Berura" represents a bold attempt to utilize technology to shed light on an ancient discipline.
"Talmudic thinking is a unique approach to investigating a situation to find out the truth. It's a unique thinking process," said Fachler, who was born in London, lives in Jerusalem, and is considered an authority on technology and Jewish education.
He serves as the senior consultant and director of North American operations for the "Gemara Berura" computer program and last week traveled to various schools to address last-minute concerns.
The rabbi thinks that this particular piece of technology can play a key role in unlocking the Talmud, the fifth-century compendium of Jewish oral tradition that contains a record of rabbinic arguments on everything from the laws of keeping kosher and the Sabbath to everyday concerns of marriage and commerce to more obscure questions that come across more as intellectual exercises than practical examinations.
The problem, he said, is that the structure and reasoning behind the multilayered text are really hard to learn and teach.
Rabbi Rafi Eis, director of Judaic Studies at the Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station, put it this way. "Teaching Talmud is quite challenging. It is as if you are sitting in a room where the Supreme Court justices are having their internal discussions and you are analyzing their discussions."
Try that if you've never been to law school.
Even young men and women who have been educated in Jewish day schools find Talmudic discussions complex and confusing and, despite their educational backgrounds, these students often lack the skills to continue study into adulthood, continued Fachler.
"It is no longer a secret that the results are not what the investment of time should have brought," said Fachler.
Too often, he said, students learn to memorize particular passages, but lack the tools to unpack a portion, known as a sugya, on their own.
The digital drive happens also to be the first major academic project undertaken by the Philadelphia Day School Collaborative, a consortium that includes the Abrams Hebrew Academy, Barrack Hebrew Academy, Kohelet Yeshiva High School, Perelman Jewish Day School, Politz Hebrew Academy, Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, the Politz Hebrew Day School of Cherry Hill, N.J., and the Kellman Brown Academy in Voorhees, N.J.
The collaborative is spearheaded by the Kohelet Foundation, founded by philanthropist David Magerman. Over the past three years, the foundation has given more than $15 million to local day schools.
"This is a really great opportunity to bring technology into the schools. But from the foundation's standpoint, it was also an opportunity to bring all the schools together for a common purpose," said Holly Cohen, Kohelet's director.
The idea to introduce the software to local schools sprang from a chance meeting Cohen had with Fachler at a Jewish education conference.
The multi-year price tag for the gemara project is about $150,000, according to Cohen. That's because it doesn't just entail licenses for the software — there are separate versions for students and teachers — it also requires intensive training sessions for the faculty.
Fachler led seminars for Philly-area Judaic studies teachers back in May and June. He said the event was the first time many of the educators had met. The rabbi, who was visiting schools informally last week, also plans to return at some point during the year to evaluate how teachers are using the software.
Most area day schools introduce students to the Mishnah — the second century text on which the far more expansive Babylonian Talmud is based — around fourth or fifth grade. When it comes to Talmud study itself, curricula and approaches vary widely at the different schools.
The computer program works, in part, by arranging the discourse between rabbis into organizational flow charts.
"Gemara Berura" — which covers both the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud — identifies key words to help students discern whether they are looking at a question, statement, objection or something else altogether. It also features biographical sketches for every sage mentioned in the Mishnah or Babylonian Talmud and contains a dictionary.
But no cheating's allowed: It translates the Aramaic into Hebrew, but doesn't give any English equivalent.
Fachler said the program can aid the beginner and push the advanced student to arrange his or her own flow charts and categorize the passages.
Each school will use the program a little bit differently. At Perelman Jewish Day School, where each student has a laptop, the teacher can incorporate "Gemara Berura" into every class. At Torah Academy, the students will probably all go to the computer lab about once a week. In addition, students in each school using the program will have a license to use it at home.
Until last year, students at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr did not delve into serious Talmud study until the 12th grade. But last year, in part because of demands from parents, the school introduced a Talmud study option for ninth graders. About 30 students — half the 10th-grade class — have signed up for this year, according to Rabbi Judd Kruger Levingston, who heads Judaic studies at Barrack.
Though students haven't had their say yet, a number of faculty and administrators said they think the program will make a big difference in how children learn.
The software, said Eis of Kohelet Yeshiva High School, will help students "understand the exact flow of the conversation and what it is they are arguing about."