By Aharon Varady
Those of us who make a living as crafters, educators, and servants of the Jewish community: how do we feel about sharing our work? I mean, really sharing? When, in working with Torah, I create a lesson plan or feel like I have some brilliant insight or analysis or make a translation, how do I give it, release it to the world at large so that my work can spread through adoption, adaptation, redistribution (and attribution)? Further, what are my anxieties and vulnerabilities in sharing my Torah? What honestly are my desires, aspirations, and needs? How, through my method of sharing, can I satisfy and reconcile these concerns?
Three years ago I gave a talk at the Future of Jewish Non-Profits Summit entitled, “Who Owns the Torah?” The presenter before me announced the then soon-to-be published new translation of the Babylonian Talmud by the great scholar, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. Every volume would be published under the familiar commercial and creative monopoly we know of as copyright, “All Rights Reserved” (כל הזכויות שמורות). This short statement indicates that Rabbi Steinsaltz restricts the natural rights of others to distribute, remix, perform, and create derivative works from his work.
On the one hand, this was completely understandable. The project of translation took years. The process of editing and publishing handsome volumes involved many hands, all of whom needed to be sustained in health and livelihood for years. Certainly, the occupation of elucidating Torah requires an economic model for sustaining its participants. On the other hand, this was perplexing. Is a commercial model which restricts the distribution of a valued cultural work to a copyright owner for their lifetime plus an additional 70 years really the right model for revitalizing an ostensibly living culture?
I’ve written before that cultures breathe creativity like we breathe oxygen. If real cultural participation is only the domain of an elite, even a meritocracy, then it is only a cultural expression of that small group of creators. If translations and other creative works are the lifeblood of culture, can we find a sustainable business model that both supports our creative scholars and artisans, as well as incentivizes as broad a swath of participants to study and create with the rich soil of creative work bequeathed to them from their ancestors?
Generally, the answer to this question rests on what we might call a public-private partnership. Both the intentions and expectations of the community and the individual creator are determinative. What shapes the intention of a creative person is not only the sova (the satisfaction) of their own needs but also their understanding of the context of their work as either a commodity or else as one element in a vast project that is essentially a collaborative, trans-continental, trans-lingual, and multi-generational one. What shapes the sova of a culture’s need to survive is the need for as broad a number of cultural participants to creatively live their culture’s memory, wisdom, and artistic genius, and through their living, naturally develop agility and mastery in the warp and weft of its complexly woven cultural discourse.
There is a guiding discursive orientation for students, teachers, and artisans engaging in Torah study. The name of this orientation in Rabbinic literature is dimus parrhesia (דִּימוּס פַּרְהֶסִיַא) – “freely and openly” in Aramaicized Greek, and as a manner of being, it is signified as synonymous with the mythic landscape of memory and imagination in which our culture as a people was itself born. In an early rabbinic work, a potent midrash on Numbers 1:1 (“HaShem spoke to Moshe in the Midbar Sinai.”) states, “Torah was given over dimus parrhesia in a makom hefker (an ownerless place). For had it been given in the Land of Israel, they would have had cause to say to the nations, “you have no share in it.” Thus was it given freely and openly, in an ownerless place. “Let all who wish to receive it, come and receive it!” (Mekhilta Shemot 19:2). Bamidbar Rabba 1:7 adds, “This teaches us that only one who can make himself into a midbar hefker (an ownerless wilderness) can acquire Wisdom and Torah.”
How this ideal manner translates to communal expectations and business models is an interesting question. Once upon a time, it was forbidden to our rabbinic leaders to receive a salary. Rather, they were supported by the community through local monopolies on the trade of wine (enforced through the halakha of Kosher wine). After the creation of the printing press, economic competition between printers led to some of the first opinions being penned that might inform our opinion on the idea of intellectual property as it relates to Torah. The question of how Torah could best be advanced through private competition has borne a wide range of responses. Now that the cost of reproduction in printing has been reduced to nearly zero with the advent of digital media and the Internet, we can revisit our priorities both as individual cultural workers, and as representatives of the vitality of our culture: in what ways are our assumptions in conflict or complementing this fundamental value of growing and sharing Torah freely and openly?
As the founding director of the Open Siddur Project, I have worked to cultivate a community of students, scholars, artists, and educators that express dimus parrhesia through sharing their Torah, not with “All Rights Reserved” but instead with “Some Rights Reversed.” We ask participants in the project to choose between three special copyright licenses and thus make their intention to share their work (for adoption, adaptation, and redistribution) explicit. This is important because even if a work is free to download, gratis, on the Internet, it is still not free to redistribute or to adapt without the permission being made explicit. The three licenses we use which grant this permission were authored by the organization, Creative Commons, to help copyright owners share with potential, even unknown collaborators, and not have them run afoul of copyright restrictions.
Two of the copyright licenses require individuals and organizations to correctly attribute and credit the creators of the original work. The third license is a declaration by the copyright owner that they wish their work to be considered as if the term of their copyright had expired and that it was already in the Public Domain (and thus not needing any attribution).
Regardless of the license chosen, our project correctly attributes all work collaborated upon in the project according to the teaching of R’ Yehoshua ben Levi, who in Pirkei Avot 6:6 states that the 48th attribute of the excellent student is the correct attribution of what they’ve learned to who they learned it from. Failing to live up to this discipline threatens to “dissolve the world” – an implicit reference to attribute and thereby honor the Creator, artisan of our shared reality, and every emergent world that depends upon it. As done elsewhere in early rabbinic literature, R’ Yehoshua ben Levi elevates through this teaching the value and importance of the creative act in Torah interpretation as a divine act of imitatio dei (imitating the Creator), fulfilling the mitzvah of walking in the ways of the Divine, walking (literally, halakh-ing) in the ways we are creative.
I want the Open Siddur to help effect many changes in the Jewish world. As a platform for the craft, design, editing and authoring of shared creative work, the elaborate ingredients, annotation, and instruction of Jewish spiritual practice, I want it to change the way Jews think of the siddur as a tool and a technology which, when practiced as a regular discipline, might help mature one’s creative and emotional development. But I also want the project to be a model for rethinking what publishing does, and how publishing (on-demand, digital-to-print) can behave as both a dynamic and living archive of cultural creativity, and as a platform for all sort of projects: craft, educational, non-commercial, and commercial. I’d like to see the project become a platform for helping Jewish educators build relationships with revenue paying clients intent on crafting their own siddur, benscher, or whatnot. I’d like to see it help to spur the revival of Jewish book artistry from cottage printing presses.
The argument “if we give our content away, how will we be able to afford to produce new content in the future?” is largely spurious. The largest Jewish publishers might look like commercial businesses, but they actually are not. Instead of making money from selling their content, most of their revenue is solicited from large donors. This is certainly true for JPS and Artscroll, both non-profit educational organizations, but even Koren, technically a business, makes most of its revenue through sponsorships. Instead of thinking about how to save so-called traditional Jewish publishing, we need to refocus our attention on how to better empower and incentivize scholars, artisans, students, and educators to share and distribute their Torah.
While the cost of distribution may be zero, the cost of creation and curation certainly is not. Jewish institutions still need to support the creativity of their employees and Jews working independently still need to muster the support of their communities and networks to develop revenue streams to subsidize their work. We don’t need to make it any harder for each other or for the vitality of Jewish culture to manifest with abundance. The value of the commons as it is applied to land and food during the Shmita year can also be applied to the creative sharing of our copyrighted work. For works that we might not want to share immediately, how about we fix the copyright term of our own works to seven years instead of the current 70 years after our death, or even choose to erase our copyright claims every yovel or Jubilee cycle.
Where others would see competition, I see complementary goals when we share the content of Jewish creativity. If we want our work to survive it needs to be used by others, recommendable, and redistributable. There is still a place for private publishers as valued curators of content. But the time has come for us to cultivate in ourselves and our organizations an ownerless place, a creative and intellectual commons, where we can all share in our Torah freely and openly.
Founding director of the Open Siddur Project, Aharon Varady is a community planner (M.C.P.) and experiential Jewish educator (M.A.J.E.) working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of Torah study. His work and writing have been featured in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, andHaaretz, as an outspoken representative of the free-culture and open-source movement in the Jewish community.
The views expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect the views of The Sova Project or its founding partner organizations. All comments on this site are the responsibility of their writers.