The Brookings Institute, in partnership with the Center for the Constitution, has just launched a new site called ConText. Its purpose? To crowd-source scholarly and popular commentary for the underappreciated notes of James Madison on the debates of the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787.The project, which aims to surround the notes themselves with columns of explanatory information, has a fascinating inspiration, explains Benjamin Wittes, Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings:
There is a model for this sort of thing, but it’s not a model from the American constitutional tradition; it’s the Talmud—the multi-volume exposition of Jewish law that developed after the Romans sacked the Temple in Jerusalem. The Talmud is a series of debates—and commentaries on those debates—on a text called the Mishnah. …On a page of Talmud, a passage of Mishnah is physically surrounded by layers of commentary text, more and more of them as the centuries wore on. So in the center of the page is a short passage, by tradition, of course, Divine, but often in practice dry as dust; yet radiating out from that passage is centuries of wisdom and thought. It is not merely a form of crowd-sourced scholarship, but it is a visual means of expressing that scholarship and crowd-sourcing that seemed to me to have broad application to the exposition of lengthy and difficult historical texts like the Notes.
The internet age has given rise to many intriguing mash-ups, but none quite like this. Indeed, it was only a few centuries ago that the Talmud was banned, censored and even burned publicly en masse and accused of denigrating gentiles, ridiculing Christianity and promoting unethical Jewish practices. The corpus is still feared in less enlightened parts of the world like Iran, where the adjective “Talmudic” is typically used to label all things sinister (e.g. “Netanyahu’s case for ongoing Talmudic death and destruction“).It is this historical and contemporary legacy which makes the fusion of the Talmud with one of the Western world’s most famous texts so remarkable. Seen in this context, the unlikely marriage of the Western canon with the Jewish canon is a promising portent not just for scholarship’s quest for understanding, but for our society’s struggle against prejudice. Via Meadia wishes it the best of luck.Somehow, though, we suspect that in the dim and dark caves where the anti-Semites live, work and tell the world that they are just a bunch of innocent anti-Zionists cruelly mislabeled by vicious and deceptive Jews, the news that US scholars are turning to the Talmud for inspiration in studying the Constitution is going to be taken for yet another sign that those insidious Jews are at it again. First it’s support for Israel, then come the Talmudic Constitution studies, and next will be compulsory phylacteries for school children and federally mandated kosher school lunches.