Helping parents, teachers, and students of many faiths pursue Biblical wisdom.


September 25, 1992
"Torah is computerized 'for the people'"
The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle
Written by Marilyn Ruby

Dr. Larry Hurwitz knew there would be interest in his Torah La-Am Library computer program when he demonstrated it at the recent national conference of the Coalition for Advancement of Jewish Education in Los Angeles. But the Milwaukee oncologist said he was "totally unprepared" for the "overwhelming response" to his self-guided Torah-study package.

Jewish educators from across the country and spectrum of Jewish observance used terms like revolutionary and amazing to describe Hurwitz's indexed, contemporized anthology of Torah thought and literature. Hurwitz said a Canadian rabbi tried to bribe him to obtain early access to the program, which won't be for sale until after a six-month test period. A day school principal cried when learning her school would not be the first test site.

David Gardner, a Beverly Hills, Calif., attorney who saw Hurwitz demonstrate the program, plans to buy it for his father's London synagogue. "This is so revolutionary it will totally change the way Torah is taught both to children and adults," he said. "The key to the program is that it's fun and very interactive, and that's how people learn. If marketed and presented properly, it will broaden the scope of Jewish education and learning."


HOW IT WORKS

Torah La-Am (Torah for the People) is a compilation of the Torah plus 10,000 pieces of midrashic wisdom, stories, quotations and rabbinic commentary from ancient to modern times, all on software for Apple Macintosh computers. For each Torah verse, Hurwitz has found at least one corresponding story, argument or great quotation. The information is cross-referenced, and users may access information in several different ways:

The main screen offers two tablets.

The left tablet lists the Five Books of Moses. Users familiar with the Torah can choose a book. A menu then appears listing the book's chapters. Choosing a chapter accesses a menu with five choices: midrash and stories, rabbinic arguments, quotations, summary of a weekly Parasha (portion), and specific chapter and verse. Choosing one of these options provides information plus questions to contemplate.

The right tablet incorporates a conceptual approach to Torah literature. Users may select from people, places, things, values and issues. An index then appears listing a wide variety of topics.

The third option on the main screen is to choose the yad (pointer) icon, which opens an index of 500 alphabetized entries of people, places and things. A "find" icon on each screen enables users to find every mention of a particular name.


NON-DENOMINATIONAL

Hurwitz said Torah La-Am differs from other computer software in its accessibility to "people who are on more than a Sunday school level, but who are not Torah scholars." The Torah La-Am program also is non-denominational. "I grind no political or religious axes," said Hurwitz, who belongs to Congregation Beth Israel. "I ask questions without providing answers."

Torah La-Am is a work of "encyclopedic proportions," Hurwitz said, which reflects a "life-long fascination with humanity's interest in God." By age 15, he said, he had read the Torah, Christian Bible, Moslem Koran, Hindu Bhagavad-Gita and Book of Confucius. He put his interest in religion aside to attend medical school and start his career. But five years into his medical practice he was feeling "burned out," and began to set aside 30 to 45 minutes daily to compose what he called "love letters to God," organized according to the weekly Torah portions.

When asked six years ago to teach Judaica at the Milwaukee Jewish Day School, Hurwitz expanded on his writings to include lesson plans and books. These writings were stored on floppy disks casually thrown in desk drawers in his basement. After Hurwitz was diagnosed a few years ago with prostate cancer at age 48, his writing began to take on its own life. Six months after his treatments ended, he said, he began "hearing voices."

"These were not hallucinations," he explained. "These voices became insistent. They woke me at night and distracted me from my practice. Their message was, 'You know who we are and you know how we'd speak in your language.'" So Hurwitz put his practice "on idle" for more than two years to work daily and many nights on his project. The voices took on personalities, becoming "as real to me as real people I talked to every day," he said. "Maimonides spoke in a very angry voice. Rashi sounded arrogant, but confessed that's a mask he wears because he's painfully shy." These rabbinic sources argue with each other in Torah La-Am.

When Hurwitz finished the last verse of the Book of Deuteronomy, he said he felt a "physical sensation of draining, of them walking out of my head. The last one quietly closed the door and I haven't written since."


SON HELPED

Hurwitz's son, Aryeh, 18, programmed the computer and entered the data, working with his father six to ten hours per day and sometimes all night for more than six months. Aryeh developed a nationwide network of computer engineers to advise him. The program is now patented and copyrighted. Aryeh is a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying computer engineering. When the program testing is complete, he will develop an interface between the Macintosh and IBM/PC.

The test site is the Milwaukee Jewish Day School. "The reaction from the students and teachers has been overwhelming," school librarian Nina Taus said. "Nothing like this has been done in the world before. This makes the Torah a very accessible learning tool."