The Yeshiva world has a unique repertoire of tradition, drama, controversy, and lore that it has collected over the last approximately century and a half of its contemporary existence. One tidbit that comes up in yeshiva addresses the use of a genre of Jewish books that becomes more common with advances in computers and digital graphics software. Rabbis and Torah scholars are now collaborating with illustrators and artists to produce picture books by the dozen. These books beautifully illustrate everything from complex family trees to different types of rivers and waterfalls – all relevant in some way to Talmudic, Halachic, or Biblical topics. From a Jewish perspective, it is so inspiring to see these beautiful works of creativity, expertise, and innovation that make the Torah feel relevant and fresh. Their ability to simplify and clarify complexity makes them invaluable for understanding Jewish texts and Torah concepts. Nevertheless, this type of book has not escaped criticism. There is a school of thought that looks askance at these books which are meant to aid understanding. According to this way of thinking, the books serve as a crutch that eliminates the need for the student to try and visualize situations and scenarios with their own mental ability. Another claim against these books is that since earlier generations never used these books, they somehow taint the authenticity of Torah study. On the other hand, common sense dictates that one should use whatever tools one has at his or her disposal to understand, internalize, and apply new knowledge. In addition, there are – at the very least – two pieces of evidence that seriously challenge these attitudes.
Rashi (1040 – 1105), the Bible and Talmud commentator par-excellence, sets a precedent in his Talmud commentary that is relevant to this issue. By way of context, one macro-theme of his writings is the extreme discipline that he displays by subtly but constantly minimizing and conserving the verbosity of his comments and explanations. In short, he was a man of few words and an incredibly terse writer. Nevertheless, Rashi has many techniques that he is willing to expend precious words or space on in order to elucidate the text. He explains difficult phrases, translates words into the vernacular of the time, and anticipates questions that might bother the student. Oftentimes, however, he decided that even these features were not enough and more would be necessary to get his message across. For this reason, his commentary is replete with diagrams – which are, when compared to our computer-generated, three-dimensional, 256 color-palette illustrations, admittedly but understandably limited. Rashi counts as at least one significant historical authority figure that has already decided this question: whenever diagrams are necessary or perhaps even merely helpful for understanding, they should be used.
An even higher authority lends further and stronger support for Rashi’s approach to diagrams. In Parashat Shemini, the Torah lists many non-kosher animals by name along with the rules that dictate which animals are in fact kosher. Moshe did not have to use his own mental powers to ascertain which animal was Kosher and which was not. The Torah says: “Speak to the children of Israel and tell them: These are the animals that you can eat” (Vayikra, 11:2). The Talmud explains that the phrase “these are the animals” alludes to an additional context of the Almighty’s verbal lesson about the laws of Kashrut that left no need for guess-work. It states that He actually picked up each and every species of animal, presented it to Moshe, and said: “You can eat this one,” or “You cannot eat this one” (Chulin 42a; similar explanations appear in Midrashim regarding other events in the Torah as well). Although it is obvious that no person or book can give a visual demonstration or power-point presentation as real and vivid as the Almighty Himself, there is obviously no better teacher after which to model our own educational philosophy.
There are, in this writer’s opinion, some legitimate concerns regarding learning from illustrations. One is that textual material, particularly Talmudic and Biblical, lends itself to multiple valid interpretations. A single illustration cannot generally effectively adopt and portray more than one version of a concept. If a serious student is exposed to an illustration of the material before he has reached his own conception of it, he may adopt the illustration’s interpretation as axiomatic and unnecessarily preclude himself from developing others. A similar potential issue is that no illustration can be perfect and may introduce errors or inaccuracies in the picture that will be unnecessarily imprinted on the student’s mind. Based on the precedents and factors mentioned above, however, the benefits to be gained by utilizing illustrations as tools in our studying, learning, and teaching may well make it worth taking the potential risks.