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.
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, 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.”
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