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Making oneself into a Maqom Hefker (an ownerless place): On the Economy of Sharing Torah, Dimus Parrhesia (freely and openly)

Last year, I was interviewed by Alan Jacobs for the Atlantic Magazine on the potential and promise of an open source Judaism. There I summarized the issue at hand,

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.

This year I was privileged to write an essay for the Sova Project, a project that is considering the structures and processes of a sustainable society through the lens of biblical, prophetic, and rabbinic Jewish values and practices. In the essay I try to pose many of the same concerns from the perspective of community professionals: scholars, artists, and educators:

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?

In wrestling with these questions, I wanted to bring attention to an important orientation that guided Talmudic discourse in Torah — that of dimus parrhesia, a Greek term for a cultivated attitude towards sharing ideas, freely and openly.

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.”

You can read the whole essay here.

About Aharon N. Varady


Aharon’s Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator 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 libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words.

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