An online library that is a teacher’s dream

The Posen Digital Library is a free database containing Jewish material from the first Israelites to the 21st century


It is eight years since the appearance of the first volume of one of the boldest Jewish publishing ventures of our time: the Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization.

Its instigator, the philanthropist Felix Posen, was the leading advocate in the UK of “secular-humanistic Judaism”, which he saw as an alternative to religious belief. But if in that respect he was a radical, Mr Posen, who moved back to the States last year after many years in London and is now in his 90s, was a traditionalist in another. Whatever type of Jewish worldview you espoused, he believed it should be based on knowledge.

And so he launched an “anthology of everything that’s been created”, representing Jewish writing and cultural creativity across 3,000 years, from earliest antiquity to the 21st century — a “global compendium” as its first editor-in-chief called it. The first published volume of the 10-part set was chronologically the last, a massive 1,140 pages covering 1973 to 2005.

The monumental enterprise ws due to be completed in 2015. But then all went quiet. Seven years passed before the next three volumes saw the light last year and a fifth has just come out: Volume One, Ancient Israel, from its Beginnings through 332 BCE, edited by Jeffrey H Tigay and Adele Berlin. At 500 pages, you could hardly call it slim, but it is half the size of Volume Ten.

As you might expect, it consists predominantly of extracts from Tanach —“Israel’s greatest and most distinctive cultural achievement”, the editors say — translated into English They are arranged according to genre — such as poetry, law, blessings and curses — rather than in the traditional rabbinic order. It is the book of our origins but it is more than a collection of biblical highlights.

There is extra-biblical material such as a letter from a harvest worker in the seventh century BCE referring to Shabbat or the sayings of Ahiqar the scribe, a counsellor to the Kings of Assyria who the apocryphal book of Tobit considered an Israelite. Almost a hundred sumptuously illustrated pages of artifacts unearthed by archaeology provide an insight into everyday life as well as artistic production in the ancient Near East.

The editors take it as read that the Torah was a composite work compiled over time. They observe that the Bible itself was an anthology, a selection of material that underwent revision and was not canonised until rabbinic times (apocryphal books were excluded, while the Torah and other biblical books refer to other, now lost books).

When the Posen Library is complete, it will stretch to close to a million words, a contemporary model for defining a “national culture”.

One of the library’s most important contributions, says Professor Deborah Dash Moore, co-editor of Volume Ten, who took over as editor-in-chief of the project five years ago, is to suggest a “far more inclusive” idea of Judaism, a return to a more expansive sense of Jewish self-understanding. “It wasn’t just a matter of faith, it was a whole way of life that involves all matters of culture and civilisation… from the food you eat to the books you read your children.”

She expects the library now to be finished by 2024. “When you are looking at these multi-volume projects, they do take a long time, often longer than anticipated.” Its team of scholars has almost doubled to 200. It has entailed “an enormous translation project”, converting material into English from at least a couple of dozen languages: nearly a third of the entries are fresh translation.

Given the gap since the first volume, she acknowleges that “one needs to encourage people to make it a priority. And that didn’t happen for a couple of years.” As editor-in-chief, she had to get people “excited again”.

At £150 a volume, the full set may be beyond many pockets. But all the material will be free on the companion website. Already, the selections from the five published volumes, amounting to over 3,000 entries, are available on the Posen Digital Library.

She encourages visitors to “poke around” the digital database. “If you type in ‘Passover’, you’ll get the earliest articulations from Tanach. But you’ll also get this story about Passover in the Union Army in 1862 about the celebration there, you’ll also get a letter [from the fifth century BCE]written to a garrison in Elephantine [an island off Egypt] about how to observe Passover back in ancient times.”

And so you can get a glimpse into how Pesach was commemorated by Jews over time.

The digital library should prove a handy resource for university lecturers, high school teachers and adult educators looking to construct courses on Jewish studies and transmit the knowledge of previous generations afresh.

“We are at a point in time where young people don’t know the 20th century at all — it is a closed book to them. World War Two could be 500 years ago as far as my students are concerned.” And for the majority of Jewish students in the USA, she believes biblical knowledge does not extend much beyond Genesis and Exodus.

“We all agree that we need to put more guidance. We are planning a revamp of the website for a year from now,” she says. “There is a recognition that the more stuff you have on it, the more you need to help people to make their way around it and also to give some sense of what they can find there.”

Professor Dash Moore and David G.Roskies, co-editor of Volume Nine of the Posen Library, will be speaking on ‘Bridge Builders Who Unified a Fragmented Jewish World, 1939-2005:Thinkers, Writers, Artists’ for the New London Synagogue, May 5 at 7pm. The Posen Digital Library is accessible at

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