For 5,000 years, the old ways sufficed; but now computers have come to Judaism.
Time was that the way to learn the lore and legend of Jewish cooking was to watch a grandmotherly type make a pile of flour on the counter, hollow out the middle, throw in eggs, yeast and sugar, all the while hollering, "Don't ask me measurements, I do everything to taste." Now you can order "How to Bake Challah," Apple or Atari Version, $14.95. Instead of taking bar mitzvah lessons from a stern bearded man who knocked you on the head when you made a mistake, now you can study from "Bar/Bat Mitzvah Training," $150, with a computer singing the melody and a bouncing ball indicating the Hebrew words.
The programs, part of a series on Jewish life that includes "How to Conduct a Seder," "Torah and Haftorah Blessings" and games such as "Jewish I.Q. Baseball," are being offered by a Chicago-based firm called The Davka Corp. People are buying them.
"The concept of a personal computer sounded strange to most people at first--especially theologians, who tend to be more suspicious of technology, but now people have come around," says Davka's creator, Rabbi Irving Rosenbaum. "We're now in close to 200 schools."
He's a Reform rabbi?
"Orthodox," he says.
Davka, a Hebrew word meaning "exactly so," is the marketing end of a nonprofit organization called The Institute for Computers in Jewish Life, and has "the world's largest Judea data base in the world," according to Rosenbaum. In cooperation with Bar Ilan University in Israel, the institute collects and compiles Jewish history. Davka itself, however, is up-to-the-minute. Its spring 1983 catalogue includes more than three dozen computer games and programs, not a few of which are reminiscent of their cousins over at the video parlors. "Crumb Eater" ($25), based on the practice of removing even the smallest particle of bread from the house before Passover, is similar to Pac-Man. "Purimaze," "a tricky and mysterious maze and a special version of Hang Haman," sounds, sight unseen, a tad similar to Donkey Kong.
The difference, Rosenbaum says, is in the learning aspect of the games.
"If you want more time in 'Crumb Eater,' you press the 'escape' key," Rosenbaum says enthusiastically. "You're given a series of questions about Passover and if you answer correctly, you get five extra seconds. It's a motivational situation . . . if he has a few seconds left in the game, almost against his will, he learns . . ."
But doesn't Rosenbaum think something will be missing?
"I'm not saying the computer is a substitute for a teacher," he says. "Whether learning history or learning your bar mitzvah you need a teacher to inspire you, guide you, teach you. I'm saying the computer is a good supplement for the teacher."
But the whole idea of learning bar mitzvah with a singing computer? Doesn't this, say, have a disconcerting effect on the rabbi's own memories of his teachers?
"I have no particular memories of my bar mitzvah teachers," he says, in a tone suggesting that for him, the age of computers came too late.
Scrolling right along then, one last question. Here in the catalogue is a program called "Proverbs." Are there any proverbs on teaching?
Rosenbaum punches some up.
"More than the calf wants to suck, the cow wants to suckle," he says, quoting the Talmud.
And since we can safely assume there are no proverbs on computers, maybe there's an appropriate one on new developments in life.
"The new shall be sanctified," says Rosenbaum, quoting the first chief rabbi of Israel, "and the old shall become renewed."