The Potential and Promise of Open-Source Judaism

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One community's pioneering effort to make its materials of worship more widely available and remixable.

jericho_615.jpg

Map of Jericho in the Farhi Bible by Elisha ben Avraham Crescas, circa 14th century (Public Domain).

New technologies are naturally and generally controversial, but perhaps nowhere more so than in religious communities. For many religious leaders (and their followers), recent digital technologies are corrosive solvents of community life: the old ways are surely best. For others, new technologies offer opportunities to extend the reach of religious bodies, to draw more people into the fold. 

One might think that a highly traditional religion like Judaism -- whose core practices are so ancient and burnished by custom -- would be inclined to techno-suspicion. But Aharon Varady doesn't see it that way: for him, digital technologies can come to the aid of traditional practices. Varady is a man of wide-ranging gifts who, among other things, runs the Open Siddur Project. A siddur is a Jewish prayer book containing the daily prayers, and the Open Siddur Project is working to create the first comprehensive database of Jewish liturgy and liturgy-related work -- and to provide an online platform for anyone to craft their own siddur. In this way Varady hopes "to liberate the creative content of Jewish spiritual practice as a commonly held resource for adoption, adaptation, and redistribution by individuals and groups." For him, openness is key to the success of the project.  

The Open Siddur Project strikes me as a deeply thoughtful, innovative way of trying to make new technologies and modern religious life reinforce each other, instead of being inimical or at cross-purposes. So I proposed that Aharon answer a few questions about the ideas behind his work, and he readily agreed. Here's our conversation.

You describe Open Siddur as a project in "open-source religion." What do you mean by that?

Varady: A couple of years ago, after I started the Open Siddur Project, I thought I'd write a statement on my website about what I was doing. For the previous six years I had been working as an urban planner, so some statement was needed to be written for professional contexts and old friends googling what I was up to. I wanted to put my work in some wider secular context, because it was undeniably a Jewish and a religious project. At the same time it was a digital humanities project, a collaborative transcription project, a 21st century realization of ideas set down in the 19th century by William Morris, a free/libre-culture and an open source software project. And so I wrote that i was "researching open source religion in general, and in particular, how the free culture movement can aid in bridging individual creativity and meaning making with tradition and cultural relevance."

I was aware of how Douglas Rushkoff and others had been talking about open source religion and thought that was going nowhere. (There's a fine Wikipedia article which summarizes their efforts here.) I was not interested in theorizing and theologizing new religions inspired by the culture of the open source movement. Rather, I was interested in how free culture and open source licensing strategies could help improve access and participation in the creative content I inherited from my ancestors in just that age when it was all transitioning from an analog print format to a searchable digital one. To me it seemed both obvious and necessary to pursue the digitization of existing works in the public domain, and broaden the network of students, scholars, practitioners, and communities that were already adopting, adapting, and distributing their inspired creativity and scholarship -- but were only doing so in the highly restricted channel of copyrighted work.

The essential problem is how to keep a collaborative project like Judaism culturally vital, in an age when the creative work of participants in the project -- prayers, translations, commentaries, songs, etc. -- are immediately restricted from creative reuse by "All Rights Reserved" copyright. The fact is that broad creative engagement in collaborative projects isn't only limited by technological forces: these can be and have been overcome. They are limited by legal forces that assume creatives have only a proprietary interest in their work.

By using free-culture and open source licensing, everyone who wants to participate in Judaism (or any religion) as a collaborative and creatively vital culture, can do so. These special licenses employ copyright to ensure that artists, authors, translators, etc. remain attributed and their work remains shared until they enter the Public Domain. This matters because in the US and many other countries, the term of a copyright is the lifetime of the creator plus an additional 70 years. For works intended to be used by a culture, adapted to different contexts, this is too long. The result is that many ephemeral works in print or digital media are not shared, have extremely limited distribution and enter the Public Domain in complete obscurity, unknown and forgotten.

Are there contrasting forms of, as it were, proprietary religion, like proprietary code?

Varady: I think so, but to my mind the question of whether a religion thinks of its intellectual and creative content as proprietary really makes me wonder whether it is a religion at all or rather some sort of corporate cult. If you really believed you had enlightened wisdom and a practice for pursuing it, wouldn't you seek the broadest possible means for sharing this knowledge and thereby change the world? I'm sure there are groups whose business model involves adherents submitting to a kind of pay-for-play initiation into their knowledge base which they are forbidden to disclose, or to do anything with creatively that can then be redistributed or otherwise shared.

The problem to my mind is that, under copyright law, this is the situation that all people participating in collaborative projects find themselves. They create a work and by default it isn't available to anyone else for creative reuse. So what was once collaboration really becomes an expensive activity of research and negotiation. Unless we have a particularly enlightened teacher, we're probably not taught how to use copyright to best share our ideas. In so many ways we're taught that our creative ideas are commodities and this is corrosive to collaborative projects and their cultures. I can see this attitude even within the publishing houses of established heterodoxies. Where I might expect an eagerness to provide channels for the public to adopt, adapt, remix, and redistribute their ideas, they see themselves as responsible stewards of their intellectual property. Are religious communities synonymous with a passive marketplace of consumers whose experience of religion is divorced and alienated from their essential creative spirit, or are they creatively engaged participants in a visionary movement? It really comes down to how one sees religion itself: is it a collaborative project or is it some sort of passive observed performance art?

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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