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Nov. 25, 2008

MSU to create digital archive of sacred Israelite texts

EAST LANSING, Mich. – From book to Web, some of the world’s rarest religious documents will soon be available to anyone, anywhere, thanks to work provided by a Michigan State University research center.


Using a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, MSU’s Writing in Digital Environments research center will digitize 20 pages from two of MSU Libraries’ three Israelite Samaritan Pentateuchs, written more than 500 years ago in Egypt and Syria.


A Pentateuch, known to Jews as the Torah or the first of three sections of the Hebrew Bible, is also known to Christians as the first five books of the Old Testament.


“Our project aims to provide an online space where two distinct groups of stakeholders in the Samaritan collection – biblical scholars and members of the Samaritan community – can both access and make use of these texts,” said William Hart-Davidson, co-director of the research center. “A digital archive has the potential to simultaneously preserve artifacts for posterity while broadening access.”


And the archive will build community, much like social networks Facebook or MySpace.


“Beyond access, the system also makes use of the latest in social networking technology,” said WIDE research assistant Jim Ridolfo, who conceived the project. “It will allow users to collaborate with one another on translation or vowelization projects, history or study of the Samaritan language.”


Hart-Davidson and Ridolfo will be joined by Michael McLeod, head software developer for WIDE. A prototype of the online archive should be completed by May. If the pilot is successful, WIDE hopes to receive additional funds to fully digitize the three Pentateuchs.


“We hope to demonstrate a new and exciting way to make rare and unique archives available to students, the public, scholars and community stakeholders,” Ridolfo said.


The Pentateuchs are part of MSU’s Chamberlain Warren Collection, which is considered the largest collection of Samaritan material in the Western Hemisphere. The collection is housed in MSU Libraries Special Collections.


Advisory Committee


Since a goal of the project is to assist the existing Samaritan community, WIDE sought the assistance of Benyamim Tsedaka, a Samaritan elder living in Holon, Israel. He is the director of the A.B. Samaritan Institute in Holon.


Tsedaka will be in Michigan through Dec. 4 to work with WIDE researchers and complete an English translation of the Samaritan Pentateuch with Sharon Dufour.


Dufour, of Brighton, Mich., is the institute’s North American representative. She sits on the advisory committee. Four other MSU individuals sit on the advisory committee: Peter Berg, head of MSU Libraries Special Collections; Cynthia Ghering, MSU archivist; Robert Anderson, professor emeritus of religious studies at MSU; and Marc Bernstein, assistant professor of Hebrew and Israeli cultural studies at MSU.


Who are the Samaritans?


Samaritans claim descent from the Northern Tribes of Israel, whose political autonomy ended with the invasion of the Assyrians in 722 B.C. By the first century B.C., the schism between the Samaritans and the Jews had become fixed and each community preserved independent scriptural and ritual traditions.


Once numbering in the tens of thousands, today only 700 Samaritans live in the West Bank and in Israel, most in Nablus and Holon.


MSU’s Sacred Samaritan Texts special report Web site provides information about the Chamberlain Warren Collection, the WIDE Center, a photo gallery, a video of the project and information about the texts and Samaritans.




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