The Tagged Tanakh

When user-testing the Tagged Tanakh, the Jewish Publication Society’s attempt to user-navigate the Bible, my first reaction was, this is the mother of all blogs — and the logical next step in human technology. When I worked as a trend forecaster, we had a maxim that started, “If Hewlett-Packard only knew what Hewlett-Packard knows,” which effectively meant that big corporations have no idea how to fathom the entirety of the knowledge that’s already at their fingertips. If there was a way to do that to the Bible — not just as a simple search engine, but as a real, organic, multi-reference work that ties together the entire body of human religious knowledge — it could, without hyperbole, rock the socks off of academia.

The thing is, the Tagged Tanakh might do exactly that.

jps tagged tanakhImagine Facebook where all your friends are religious experts. Or, to make it a little more Stone Age, imagine that you could eavesdrop on Rashi, Radak, Onkelos, and the Gur Aryeh writing notes back and forth to each other. And that’s just the barest level of the depths that the Tagged Tanakh can plumb.

JT Waldman, the Tanakh’s creative director, sat me down at his laptop and told me to start out easy. “Search for a word,” he said. “Any word?” I asked, typing in “nose ring.”

We only received one result, in Isaiah, which troubled both of us a little. “We’re working on the search feature,” he explained. Attempting the variation “nose-ring” with a hyphen got us what we expected — Rebecca’s gift upon meeting Isaac for the first time; the women of the Children of Israel donating their jewelry to create the Golden Calf. This didn’t bother me as much as it should have. It was a minor glitch, which JT said would be fixed before the official launch; besides, Google has accustomed me to searching for variations more or less automatically, like “chazan” when your desired search doesn’t turn up much for “hazzan.”

But that was only the beginning. “Tag it,” JT encouraged me. He showed me a few options: I could read commentary on the verses, write my own commentary, or tag the phrase — that is, I could sort it by applying a label (such as “jewelry,” “gold,” or “punk-rock accouterments in the Torah”) and grouped it with other similar instances in the Tanakh. I could use a tag that already existed, such as “ritual objects” (since nose-rings were thought to mark engaged women in early Sumerian societies), or make my own, like the aforementioned punk-rock tag.

Posted on July 29, 2009

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