Locally fueled Sefaria project has radical ambitions for traditional Jewish texts

It took 400 years to compile the Talmud. But it might take a mere 400 weeks to put the entire Jewish canon online.

This is the dream of Sefaria, a new digital platform for traditional Jewish texts that recently received a $250,000 grant from the San Francisco–based Jim Joseph Foundation.

Founded by San Francisco resident Brett Lockspeiser, a former Google project manager, and journalist-author Joshua Foer, Sefaria.org is quickly making original and translated texts from the core of the Jewish religious tradition both free and easy to use.

Sefaria.org on an iPad

“The history of our relationship to text over thousands of years is intimately tied up with the technology that carried those texts,” Foer said recently at a San Francisco café brimming with laptops.

He was in the area for a launch party for Sefaria, held at Congregation Emek Beracha in Palo Alto on June 11.

“We once had an oral tradition, which became a written tradition, and this transformation fundamentally shaped the Jewish experience,” Foer continued. “Sefaria is so exciting because we are clearly at another major transitional moment, this time between print and digital, which will fundamentally shape how we experience our texts in the future.”

Sefaria is a free, open-source, Web-based tool that allows visitors to do three main things.

The first is to read, copy, edit, share and print from original and translated texts from the inner circle of the canon, including the Bible and Talmud. Power users of this function include Jewish educators, who can easily curate “source sheets” for teaching with a fraction of previous efforts.

The second function is the ability to add one’s voice to the translations, in essence crowdsourcing a task that has already drawn more than 700 translators from around the world. Like Wikipedia, where the public can write and edit content, Sefaria’s translation approach balances individual agency with some general guidelines, and a reliance on the “hive-mind” to easily identify and fix mistakes.

The third — still in progress — is to engage in conversations about these texts, using social media and other, still uncreated digital opportunities.

The name Sefaria is a play on the Hebrew word for library and evokes the Safari Web browser. In that spirit, it is designed both as a digital collection of texts and as a public access point.

Lockspeiser, who helped develop the Google news archive, compares Sefaria to the Unix operating system, an open-source program that powers the Internet. This approach “allows anybody to build on top of it,” he said, reducing confusion and redundancy.

Sefaria’s creators acknowledge that the project may appear radical.

From left, Sefaria’s executive director Daniel Septimus and co-founders Brett Lockspeiser and Joshua Foer

“In one way it’s a ‘hack,’ ” explained Lockspeiser, using the word in its newer context of quickly building and tweaking something without worrying too much about inevitable failures.

Sefaria’s leadership team has gotten some advice from “The Lean Startup” author Eric Ries, who encourages putting emerging products onto the market and trusting early adopters to help shape it.

For Sefaria, this approach has already created some immediate, and unexpected, dividends. For instance, the opportunity for educators to create and share mini-curricula in the form of source sheets — essentially an afterthought — has led to more than 700 topics available to the public, with 800 more housed on Sefaria for private classes. Lockspeiser calls this array of teaching resources “the largest digital collection in the world.”

So far, educators love what they see.

Oakland resident Sarah Lefton, who founded and runs the G-dcast online learning platform, said that tasks that might have taken weeks can now be done almost instantaneously.

“Three years ago, an intern went through every parashah [Torah portion] and created a Hebrew and English source sheet where the languages line up nicely,” she explained. “It took her weeks and it was very painful dealing with word processors and how poorly they handle Hebrew. Now you can do this with Sefaria with your eyes shut.”

Rabbi David Kasher, director of education for the Berkeley-based adult education network Kevah, also pointed to the ease and speed with which he can “find, mix and match” texts to use in teaching.

Although Kasher believes books still will have a prominent place in the Jewish future, especially on Shabbat when electronics are excluded from observant homes, “I look forward to a time when students can come to the classes that I teach with their iPads, and click into the source sheet instead of my having to print them out for everyone. It will be easier and more environmentally friendly.”

There are still many questions to be answered. For instance, what constitutes “the canon” of Jewish texts, and who gets to decide? Will collective translation of these books, including the obscure, multilingual word play in many talmudic texts, be sufficient to meet the standards of teachers, rabbis and scholars? And what will the buy-in be from the ultra-Orthodox community, which is still deeply ambivalent about the Internet as a whole?

Daniel Septimus, Sefaria’s executive director, is both practical and philosophical about these kinds of concerns.

“We are in this for the long haul,” he said, noting that the criteria to include texts will evolve over time. “We want to create something that will be relevant in 200 years. Ultimately we want to create a platform that can handle whatever [Jewish life] needs to happen next.”

At the same time, on a day-to-day level, “We need to be demand-driven. We will track the usage on our site, see what people are looking for, and make it possible for people to see what they want, or filter out what they don’t feel comfortable with.”

Foer argues that Sefaria, for all its digital whiz-bang, is “deeply traditional.”

“The Jewish canon is actually not a collection of books on the shelf, but a giant conversation, commenting and interpreting and reinterpreting,” he said. “It’s even possible that the printed book is not the right modality for that giant conversation. With Sefaria, we have a chance to turn that great Jewish conversation back to its original modality, to show that the Talmud might be the original social media.”

Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.