The Internet of 2010 contained many things, and free of charge. It had the full works of Shakespeare. It had robust English translations of classical Greek philosophy. It had just about every Miley Cyrus lyric.
But when Joshua Foer, author of “Moonwalking With Einstein” and creator of the travel website Atlas Obscura, sat down one day to find a modern, complete English translation online of the Talmud, or Jewish Oral Law, he came up mostly empty, save for some pirated PDFs and a host of anti-Semitic sites.
Frustrated, he called a friend he had met a decade earlier on a trip to Israel, Brett Lockspeiser, an engineer who had worked at Google, to see what he thought about putting English translations of the Talmud and other foundational texts of Judaism in one place online that anyone could access free.
“I saw a really historic opportunity to do something huge,” Foer said in a phone interview with The Washington Post.
“[Most] American Jews are illiterate in our own texts, and I include myself. I am illiterate and I am ashamed of it, and I wanted to create this for myself and my children, a set of tools to satisfy our curiosity,” Foer said.
The Talmud is a compilation of oral law and discussions by Jewish sages over generations. For religious Jews, it forms one half of the Revelation on Sinai, along with the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh.
“In order to understand the written law (Hebrew Bible), you need the oral law (Talmud),” said Eli Levitansky, a Chabad rabbi in Santa Monica, Calif. Studying the Talmud is like “sitting in a room with the greatest minds of the Jewish people, and you’re listening to them,” he said.
Last year, after years of work and negotiations, Foer and Lockspeiser finally succeeded in their quest. Through a nonprofit they created called Sefaria, the men are bringing the Talmud online in modern English, and free of charge.
Sefaria, which is also the name of the website and app, “helps to overcome one historic problem, which was accessibility to text,” said Jonathan D. Sarna, professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University, placing this project in the wider societal trend of democratizing access to information. “For a long time, most Jews did not have access to many of Judaism’s most important legal texts. And even if you did have access, you couldn’t understand them.”
Sarna, while identifying ArtScroll and the Jewish Publication Society as being crucial to pioneering innovative, explanatory print editions, also pointed out that Sefaria takes these texts out of the purview of the more ritually observant Orthodox community and presents them outside of that traditional context.
The vast majority of Talmudic study up to this point has been conducted by Orthodox communities, whose members are also more willing to spend the thousands of dollars necessary to purchase hard copies of Jewish legal texts.
“There are no heresies on Sefaria,” he said. The more democratic nature of Sefaria allows the inclusion of viewpoints that might not make it into more religiously observant settings, he added.
This was a goal of Foer and Lockspeiser. Beyond their work to liberate seminal Jewish texts, they also sought to create an inclusive digital forum for discussion about a wide range of issues, with a Jewish textual basis.
“We wanted to create a space where that conversation continues in the digital era,” Foer said. “One thing we [Jews] can all agree is centrality of texts to our tradition. We all agree they are the backbone of the Jewish people.”
Added Lockspeiser, “The texts are this neutral meeting ground.”
Sefaria’s current manifestation of this is its source sheet feature, which allows any user on the site to compile and share a selection of relevant texts, from Sefaria or outside, surrounding a given issue or question.
“Source sheets is evolving into an amazing database of Torah in an open sense without boundaries. It’s just people expressing themselves,” said Lockspeiser, Sefaria’s chief technology officer.
While most source sheets are on the expected subjects of prayer, charity and human rights, the most viewed source sheet, according to the site, is on the question, “Is One Permitted to Punch a White Supremacist in the Face?” In the sheet, sources ranging from the Torah and Talmud to blog posts and modern rabbis speak about issues including justice, security, evil and shame.
Sefaria’s user experience and design, in which all text is fully searchable and related sections of text are interlinked, makes this modern application of Torah and ancient texts much easier. Sefaria contains about 1.7 million links, allowing for a reader to see and access references and associated commentaries instantaneously.
These features, which have never been so widely available, have lent themselves to an expectedly wide range of uses.
David Bar-Shain, 52, a pediatrician in Cleveland, found them helpful in a particularly dramatic way after the death of his father. Bar-Shain found himself wanting to study Torah, despite a prohibition by Jewish law. “I did it anyway because that’s what was in my heart,” he said.
Not having access to a full library of texts at his parents’ home, which had spotty WiFi, he went to a local Marriott after midnight and sat down outside one of the ballrooms. Using Sefaria, he was able to find comforting material, which he shared with his family. “I was grateful to have it in my moment of need,” he said.
Jessica Spencer, 23, who uses Sefaria on her phone and describes it as “kind of like Wikipedia, but for Jewish stuff,” said it made her feel “a lot more at home navigating the texts.”
Spencer, who lives in London, said Sefaria is part of a movement she has noticed recently, exemplified by recent programs, “to open up Talmud study to those who don’t come from observant backgrounds,” she said.
“I think it’s super great,” she said.
Danella Georgiev, 25, from Queens, is converting to Judaism and said she would be “much farther behind in the process” as well as “much more hesitant” without Sefaria.
Jeremy Borovitz, 30, co-founder of Brooklyn Beit Midrash, a pluralistic learning community, said Sefaria has broadened his group’s potential teaching base.
“We have gotten a lot of people to teach Torah for their first time in their life, people who never thought they could be qualified to be teachers of Torah in any way, and Sefaria has been an incredible resource in doing that,” Borovitz said.
But while Jews with at least some background in Jewish learning see the app as being an invaluable resource, Ira M. Sheskin, a geography professor and director of the Jewish Demography Project, cautioned that many Jews will still face barriers to entry.
“In most communities, 20 to 30 percent of adult Jews are at a synagogue service on average at least once a month or more,” he said. “But in Detroit, for example, 31 percent of Jews have never set foot in a synagogue, except for a bar mitzvah or wedding, and they aren’t going to know very many of these texts or terms [on Sefaria].”
This issue is one that Sefaria CEO Daniel Septimus hopes to address. He came to Sefaria from MyJewishLearning, a site that explains key topics related to Judaism.
Septimus mentioned that Sefaria is working on creating landing pages that will offer information about texts and serve as “on ramps” to help people equip themselves for studying those texts firsthand.
“We are only now starting the real work. Making the text available was the prerequisite for democratizing access to Jewish texts. In some sense, Torah is Jewish text plus conversation,” he said, meaning that “everybody reads a text and reads something different.”
Septimus proudly pointed to an internal survey that showed 45 percent of Sefaria users are not Orthodox and 46 percent are younger than 34.
Though the mission of making Jewish texts freely available might seem like a goal that would garner the quick support of the established Jewish community, save for book publishers and copyright holders, Sefaria did not have an easy birth.
A side project for its founders, it was turned down by numerous grantmakers and funders within the community. They cited other similar initiatives that had failed in their mission and felt it was ultimately too difficult a project, due to the lack of available translations and the sheer size of the Jewish textual library.
At risk of having their project die on the vine, Foer and Lockspeiser decided to move away from the standard nonprofit game plan and implemented a strategy prized by tech start-ups: They created a minimum viable product.
“I thought, 'You know what, let’s just build it,’ " Lockspeiser said.
Looking at public domain resources, Lockspeiser said he just starting pulling together every relevant text he legally could online.
“I would write a program to scrape and another to parse it,” he said.
After a couple years of this process, the site was ready for a soft launch, though it was still missing a crown jewel, the Talmud.
The Talmud is notoriously hard to follow, even if you understand Aramaic. For most readers, a straight translation will not be useful, as additional, contextualizing information, based on expertise with the tradition and text, is necessary to follow the arguments.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz created one of the three seminal works in this regard, but it was under copyright and being published by Koren Publishers.
After a prolonged negotiation process, and a substantial gift from the William Davidson Foundation, Sefaria was able to secure the copyright. Then, they ceded their rights and made it available free to the public, a move common to nature conservancies but vanishingly rare in the publishing world, since copyright and exclusivity are major guarantors of revenue.
“Sefaria argues that these texts are our collective heritage; therefore they should be available to everyone for free,” Sarna said.
“You have access to something that Jews, for hundreds of years did not, whether it was banned, or they didn’t understand, or they couldn’t buy books,” said Rabbi Levitansky
Lockspeiser says his team is creating new software to help apply its work to larger amounts of text and is also doing original, text-based research. It has so far found tens of thousands of what he calls “fuzzy links” between texts, where one source is slightly misquoting or referring to another source.
Though tricky to catch, many were, and are, likely known to top biblical scholars but had never been written down previously.
Reflecting on bringing the Talmud and other Jewish texts online, Foer believes he and his team have brought Jewish texts into the digital age, an advance akin to the writing down of the oral tradition after the fall of the Second Temple in A.D. 70 and the advent of the printing press.
Moreover, Foer said, he and his team have ultimately returned Jewish learning back to its roots as a “giant, unending conversation that spans millennia, continents, and is very much still going on to this day.”
The team hopes to continue to develop the community-building aspects of the site and bring in more texts to add to the 160 million words it currently hosts.
While there is some internal debate about which English translation to target next, an early favorite has emerged, with an eye toward expanding their audience and the trendy interest in Kabbalah.
“The Mishneh Torah is more important for Torah learners, but the Zohar is sexy stuff,” Lockspeiser said.
An earlier version of this story included an incorrect credit for the photograph. This version has been corrected.