The Potential and Promise of Open-Source Judaism

By Alan Jacobs

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


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?

Cultures breathe creativity like we breathe oxygen, and for any culture to be alive, it's participants need to be empowered to be creative, not as solitary artists, but as engaged thinkers making meaning with the creative works they've inherited and which are being shared with them.

Are the open-source models you are developing especially important for the practice of Judaism? Does a religion like Judaism that's so deeply connected to its own textual history benefit in distinctive ways from the resources you are developing?**

Varady: We're not developing any new models. Rather, we're employing the existing legal strategies for sharing creative work under copyright law pioneered by the free-culture and open source movement. Jewish law has been struggling with intellectual property issues for as long as technologies of textual reproduction have helped to commodify what was once an oral tradition that relied on attribution and communal support for elite scholars and scholar-poets. I think our project promotes a model for collaboration in the digital age when the cost of reproduction can be reduced to nothing, and the distribution cost is limited only by our desire and intention to share.

Every project -- whether a small non-profit or a 3500-year-old civilization -- will benefit from digitization of their archives. This archive is vast and much of it is in the public domain, but only a fraction has been transcribed, and an even smaller fraction has had its semantic data formatted in an open standard consistent with other digital humanities projects. That is what we are working on for the literature informed and inspired by Jewish spiritual practice. This is not to diminish the importance of illustrative interpretive art, font design, and the master craft of book artistry -- I would love if our project can help rehabilitate all of this craft.

Are there other traits of Jewish faith and practice that make your projects a good fit for it?

Varady: Tefillah -- and the various forms of Jewish spiritual practice -- are a perfect fit from my point of view. For one, the practice itself sits at the intersection of received tradition, the diversity of local custom evolving through Jewish history, and the intimacy of personally held experience and meaning. It's texts and art: liturgies, commentaries, and translations are the creative content we've inherited. The regular practice of tefillah, like any other integral practice, assumes that within the structure provided, the practitioner develops a deep and enduring relationship with a part of their self that suggests more expansive awareness. Providing the practitioner with the ability to craft their own custom tools for developing this relationship, respects both the tradition they've inherited and the rigour that their own path demands. By providing the ingredients for folk to craft their own prayer book, to maintain and possibly share via an online database of prayers, I hope that they will be able to engage in their practice in a way which honestly respects the integrity of the voice deep inside them, while respecting the authenticity of the many other voices speaking to them throughout the vast history of the deeply creative culture they are immersed in. It's sometimes hard to see this dimension of history and creativity looking at a black and white page of a prayerbook. To see it, however, is liberating, and it helps to bring people to a place of understanding that I hope will better reveal the oral tradition within the writ tradition.

Do Jewish faith and practice pose particular challenges for the kind of online, collaborative tools you are developing? I am thinking about everything from technical issues -- web browsers that can't render Hebrew text properly, for instance -- to issues stemming from the characteristic ways Jewish communities form and sustain themselves.

Varady: When I first dreamed of this project in 2000, I was an open source PERL programmer in Philadelphia who wanted his own custom siddur and figured that it might be a lot easier to do this work if I found more people to collaborate with. And I found people, quickly. What we discovered was that regardless of our passion for the project there was no standard encoding yet for Hebrew vowels, cantillation, and punctuation marks. We had to wait till 2006, when the Unicode project standardized an encoding for Hebrew diacritics. Then it was a few years before a digital font was developed and shared with an open source license that supported the new Unicode encoding and which correctly positioned all of these diacritical marks (Ezra SIL SR). Then it was a few years before an offline open source text editor supported Right to Left text with correctly positioned diacritics (LibreOffice). With certain advances in web browsers it became possible to use any font in a web browser. Mozilla Firefox and Chromium (Google Chrome) were the first browsers, open source or proprietary to correctly support Hebrew fonts with correct diacritic positioning. I keep a website where we track which web browsers still manage to fail.

That's just Hebrew. Our project intends to support localization in every language Jewish liturgical and liturgy-related works have been composed. This includes other right-to-left languages like Arabic, Farsi, and Amharic. What we'd really love is an open source OCR tool that can scan and transcribe Hebrew text with diacritics with extremely high accuracy. Alternately, we'd love a tool that can apply Hebrew diacritics based on established rulesets and a glossary of exceptions.

Our challenges so far have been completely technological (k'ayn ayin hara), and to a smaller degree the typical problems faced by all open-source start-ups: attracting and cultivating a community of passionate volunteers with different skillsets and levels of expertise. I'm really excited by the support our project has garnered from the Jewish community. For certain, I'd like to see more vocal support for free-culture and open-source strategies from consultants in the world of Jewish education, as well as more demands from philanthropists that if their dollars are spent to fund a cultural or community project, that the source of that project is shared with a free-culture license. It's obvious to me, but funders don't understand yet that significant dollars are being wasted by cultural projects having to spend money on work that other funders paid for but which was never explicitly shared or broadly distributed with free-culture licenses.

Our project is perhaps the most visible advocate for free-culture and open source licensing and I'm pleased to see other Jewish educational tech projects that also understand and use open source (see the PocketTorah app, and the in-process Sefaria project). It's not a sea-change yet but it's an important start. The easiest projects to partner with are other open source projects like Hebrew Wikisource. There's no competition when we are all collaborating.

At Aharon's request, this interview is posted under a Creative Commons BY 3.0 license.

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