As the snow piles up rapidly here in the Northeastern US, it’s a good day to think about a different kind of map than we discussed last week. There, we focused on maps extending across geographical spaces, such as from Jerusalem to Susa, and what students might accomplish by creating such maps, especially by layering information over time. A recent work of scholarship, Literature and Cartography: Theories, Histories and Genres, by Anders Engberg-Pedersen, explores questions that encompass any written work that tells a story in a particular location:

“How do literary space and cartographic projections compare? How have fictional texts dealt with the strategic, epistemological, and ideological functions of maps? How do words and images interact in texts and on maps? How do we mentally map the space of a novel? And might literature in a fundamental way be unmappable?”


These same questions can certainly be explored in relation to classical Jewish sources. How do biblical or talmudic stories create a sense of the spaces in which they take place? How do those verbal spaces compare to actual physical spaces, if they are known? In what ways is the literary space realistic, or intended instead to shape “strategic, epistemological, and ideological” perspectives?


Another kind of map is called an elevation, or a topographical map. Elevations portray the relative height of the features shown. The bumpy, curved lines, dots, and shading indicate gradations and contours of the land surface–for example, the shapes of hills and valleys. There are naturally many tools available online, including something called the National Map from the US Geological Survey, which includes information about water and a vast collection of historical topographical maps that can be easily pulled up and compared.


A topographical elevation seems like an interesting tool to try out on Jewish texts, which often contain many layers. Halakhic arguments, for example, are composed layer by layer, with each new psak not only building upon arguments, texts and logical premises from the centuries but often shifting the way that those texts and premises are understood and valued. The Hebrew language consists of historical layers, and works of Hebrew poetry, for example, have at times made extensive use of these different layers for purposes of meter and meaning. Students might draw an elevation of a Halakhic argument or a Hebrew poem to gain visual appreciation of what sources the argument/poem draws upon and how it does so, and to reflect upon what the map might tell us about why questions.


What tools have your students used to describe and understand the layered nature of Jewish argumentation and imagination?