June 29, 2023 | 10 Tammuz, 5783
By Joshua Foer, Co-Founder of Sefaria
In 2010, as a recent college graduate learning his first tractate of the Talmud while building his first grownup sukkah (a project that ultimately led me to create a design competition called Sukkah City), I took to the internet with a query for “English Talmud.” I was shocked when Google returned some pirated PDFs and an antisemitic website as the top results. It seemed unfathomable that I couldn’t find a single reputable online source for studying the foundational text of rabbinic Judaism.
I reached out to my friend Brett Lockspeiser, a product manager at Google, and together we saw an opportunity to help bring the People of the Book into the Digital Age. At the time, “Sefaria” was just a misspelled word. Today, it is the largest Torah learning platform in the world, serving almost 700,000 learners each month, from newcomers to rabbis, men and women, from all around the world. Our 350-million-word interconnected library provides translations of ancient and modern works in over a dozen languages at the click of a button. All of our texts are available for free, and our open data can be downloaded and reused by anyone interested in building Torah projects of their own. To date, thanks to our legions of generous users and a cohort of Jewish philanthropic foundations, we’ve invested around $30 million to make this dream a reality, and today we are able to employ more than 30 dedicated full-time professionals to maintain, build, and innovate the platform.
Last month, Sefaria added a new translation to our ever-growing library, something that happens with a fair amount of regularity and usually with little fanfare. This time, however, it provoked controversy and rebuke from some fellow Jews.
The new translation of the books of Prophets, released by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) — whose books have been essential to many Jewish American communities since 1888 — takes into consideration that Hebrew is a gendered language (e.g. “banim/בנים” implies “sons” in some contexts, but “children” in others) and also refers to God simply as God, without the use of gendered pronouns. It is one of several English translations on Sefaria that users can choose between to make the text more accessible.
Considering how fraught the national conversation around gender and pronouns is at the moment, it’s not especially surprising that some were quick to accuse Sefaria of having a political agenda. There were even calls to boycott Sefaria because of the addition of this work to the library. A more measured response noted that, for some users, the mere presence of “non-Orthodox” translations and commentaries in the Sefaria library might be considered broadly problematic.
As Sefaria's co-founder, I don't take this criticism lightly. Sefaria aims to be a Torah library for the entire Jewish people, and here, very starkly, we seem to be encountering a fundamental tension inherent in that vision: When it comes to contemporary Torah and translations, there isn’t universal agreement about what books belong on the shelf. To put it another way, the Jewish people, in their magnificent diversity, don’t even agree about who they’re allowed to disagree with. Of course, the breadth of the Jewish library’s shelves has always been a matter of contention. Ever since at least the banning of Rambam by the French rabbis of the 13th century, one Jew’s accessible commentary has been another Jew’s heresy.
Sefaria approaches this challenge with humility. We aim only to make books available and accessible and to let our users choose what to pull off the virtual shelf. To date, Sefaria has digitized a good chunk of the classical Jewish library, including Tanakh and commentaries, Talmud and commentaries, Midrash, Halakha, Chasidut, Kabbalah, and more. We have worked hand in hand with publishers from across the religious and academic spectrum — including Koren, de Gruyter, and Metsudah — paying millions of dollars to make their existing translations available freely online.
It is important to us not only that the library remain free and accessible to all but also that the data itself be open-access so that it can power other projects. For example, until we spent a year of work turning a print edition of the Shulhan Arukh and all of its commentaries into machine-readable data, this foundational legal text of the Jewish people was not available in digital format online. The important and tedious work of properly digitizing texts in the public domain is something that only needs to be done once, for all time. And because of Sefaria’s open-access policy, the texts we’ve digitized (or purchased rights to) can be used in other places and are already being utilized on a variety of other websites and apps, including Chabad.org, AlHaTorah, and the OU's AllDaf.
As a library for the entire Jewish people, we take an expansive approach both to our collection and to whom we aim to serve. All Jews — from the most progressive to the most traditional — should be able to experience our library in a way that meets their needs. We are now exploring new features to make it easier for users to customize their library experience on Sefaria.org and more easily select the default translations they are presented with.
Sefaria’s Source Sheets, which allow users to mix and match texts easily and print or share them digitally, has become something of a cultural phenomenon. Nearly half a million have been created by Sefaria’s community of users. With all this activity happening around the edges of Sefaria’s library, we’ve realized that certain changes are needed to protect the library user’s experience and maximize our ability to innovate. That’s why, in the strategic plan we completed last year, we decided that we will separate out our user-created content from the core library experience. We very much want to give contemporary teachers the tools they need to create and share Torah resources, and we believe we will be able to do this even better if we think beyond Sefaria.org. We expect to begin rolling out these changes in stages, beginning with a beta version of a Google Doc plugin that Sefaria will launch this summer.
In the decade since Sefaria’s founding, we’ve built a world-class digital library accessed by millions of people worldwide. We remain committed to helping bring the People of the Book into the Digital Age and to making Torah more accessible to more people than ever before. We remain equally committed to making Sefaria a home for learning for as broad a swath of the Jewish community as possible.
In addition to Sefaria, Joshua Foer is the co-founder of several other Jewish enterprises, including Sukkah City, Leviathan Productions, and Lehrhaus, a new tavern and house of learning in Somerville, MA. He is also the co-founder and chairman of Atlas Obscura, and author of the international bestseller Moonwalking with Einstein, which has been published in 37 languages.