Open-source Judaism and Charting the Course of the American Future, an essay for Kenissa: Community of Meaning Network

I had a short essay published online today as part of a reflection on Rabbi Sidney Schwartz‘s chapter, “The Changing Face of Jewish Identity in America,” in his book, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future (Jewish Lights 2013). In that chapter, Rabbi Sid Schwartz describes the crisis facing the American Jewish community in the 21st century and offers a number of propositions in response.

This essay was written as a pre-requisite for participating in a network of relatively recently established community focused start-ups, called Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network. Rabbi Schwartz had asked prospective participants to respond to his chapter, and in particular how our initiatives are aligned with one (or more) of the four propositions he offers to heading off the crises facing the American Jewish community, and in what ways they advance an area of Jewish life or practice outside of those propositions. My offering to the network is my experience as an Open-source/Free-culture evangelist, primarily through my maintenance and leadership for the open-source Open Siddur Project. My response summarized some of what I offered in my interview with the Atlantic magazine in 2012, as well as a number of points I made at lectures on open-source Judaism and the Open Siddur Project given at the University of Kentucky in September 2016.

One of the lasting takeaways from Rabbi Schwartz’s chapter was his observation that American Jewish identity is essentially bifurcated into one of “covenantal Jews” and “tribal Jews.” Covenantal Jews are grounded in their identity by Jewish values (e.g. commitment to social justice, humanist and humane prophetic values). Tribal Jews are grounded in the maintenance of national identity and power in the face of existential threat. In the era of Trump, I think we’ve seen many covenantal Jews rise to the challenge of framing their own response to existential concerns (the kind once ceded to tribal Jews) in places like Charlottesville. We’ve also seen fairly milquetoast responses from tribal Jews who parry with respectability politics, holding to a center in a Jewish community with divided politics and not endangering the philanthropic support of right-wing aligned donors.

One quote from Rabbi Schwartz’s chapter relevant to my work on the Open Siddur Project that I didn’t engage in my essay was the following:

It is not uncommon to find more and more Jews engaging in “do-it-yourself” Judaism because there is so much material on the web for anyone who is so inclined. Jews who once would have been satisfied with using the Maxwell House Haggadah for their Passover seder will now put together their own booklets, and it will integrate the passages of the traditional text with excerpts from Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela. Many of the young people I meet who are most serious about Judaism are intensely interested in how their heritage compares to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and other religions of the world. They explore those faiths not because they want to convert, but because they refuse to live and learn in an intellectual and cultural ghetto.

Rabbi Schwartz’s observation here doesn’t only speak to my work making the content of Jewish religious culture available for remixing, adaption, and preservation — it also puts me in mind of Nina Paley’s continuing work on her DIY and open content licensed animated film, Seder Masochism, which satyrically skewers Jewish consumer culture, among other things.

In addition to the final essay that Kenissa published, I’m sharing the draft of the essay containing the language of Rabbi Schwartz’s four propositions.

Here I am, a “covenantal Jew” in Sid Schwartz’s dialectic, born in 1974 of Generation X, and dedicated to a project I founded to help Jews craft their own Siddurim – a quintessential DIY creative project of North American Judaism. With its emphasis on a romantic craft tradition and the socialist belief that alienation is measured by one’s distance from one’s essential creative self, I understand the Open Siddur Project as a particularly Jewish expression and continuity of William Morris’s late 19th century Art & Craft Movement. Tweaking the technology and content by which intimate communication is cultivated through a personal spiritual practice should elicit honest conversation as to whether that practice is useful and how it might be improved through openly shared instructions, liturgies, etc. Because this conversation can occur on the level of the individual it can keep honest conversations that are distorted by larger communal concerns for cultural continuity. In this way, I hope at the very least, to improve the autonomy of individual Jews in shaping their own experiences within Judaism in ways that can help influence and inspire other Jews.

I’m not saying the following as an advocate for davennen or any other Jewish spiritual mode as useful or otherwise. I have this feeling that as much interest remains for Jewish liturgy as a container for Jewish and Jewish sub-group identities, Jewish spiritual practice is still not one taken seriously as one that may be efficacious in any sense beyond community cohesion. If it were serious, then it might be one in which its activities and exercises would be regularly improved as useful in the cultivation of creative and emotional intelligence, with excellent feedback mechanisms by which its participants and facilitator’s might optimize their experience. I understand my work in the Open Siddur Project as beginning the process of improvement by beginning with making the tools and content by which structured spiritual experiences are facilitated: digitally accessible, open, and free for adaptation and improvement within the aegis of copyright laws.

In what ways is my work aligned with one (or more) of Sid Schwartz’s four propositions?

The work of the Open Siddur Project is directly aligned with proposition 4, complements prop 3, and provides a new channel for the voices elicited in prop 1 and 2.

Proposition 4: In an age when we better understand the shortcomings of capitalism and the culture of consumerism, the Jewish community must offer a glimpse of kedushah, experiences that provide holiness, transcendent meaning, and a sense of purpose.

The work of the Open Siddur Project is directly aligned with proposition 4. When I founded this project, the initial negative responses I received was that for an “innovation” project, siddurim were not sexy, their liturgical content obscure and their management tedious, and that denominational interests and private publishers were fiercely protective of their proprietary intellectual properties. Nevertheless, I understood that of all the creative content in the religious Jewish world, the most dynamic variations historically and the most interesting developments currently weer in prayer literature. In my own experience, I knew that as a prescriptive practice, prayer literature often challenged me, and that any child or adult encouraged to do so – told that they were allowed to do so – would compose some new prayer, translation, commentary, or instructions for deepening their own personal practice. I want Jewish religious culture to value the wisdom, understanding, and insight of all its members and for all its members to feel inclined to build upon each others shared experience. I would expect no less from any collective endeavor.

In the context of capitalism and consumer culture, intellectual property law assumes that any creative effort is harnessed to a proprietary, not a collective, interest. The shortcoming of unmitigated copyright law is that liturgical and ritual resources become commodities to be branded and licensed under some denominational or other proprietary banner, rather than live on as Oral Torah – a contribution to a collective interest and activity. How else to explain the harsh and explicit restrictions on transgressing copyright in so many of our prayerbooks and other published sacred writings? By using Open Content licenses to mitigate the restrictions inherent in copyright law, creative Jews and scholars can preserve their attribution while making their work available in a public commons for adaptive and creative reuse and thereby grow Jewish culture.

My friend K. composed their own meditation for preparing for shabbat in a shower, in a place without a mikvah. Now K. is gender-queer and a convert to Judaism. They want to share their meditation since it might be useful to others who want to take on a purification ritual but cannot due to circumstance. Websites like Ritualwell invite K. to submit their works onto their publicly accessible website. However, without some workaround, copyright remains a stumbling block for those needing to make a copy, translation, or adapt and remix her work in new contexts. When K. shares their meditation under an Open Content license they use copyright to grant permission for the reuse of their work, so long as their original work remain attributed. This is true and real content sharing in conformance with the Jewish value of a torat ḥesed – a torah of lovingkindness that is received with the intention to share it freely in the name of the one it was received from (Cf. Sukkah 49b, Pirkei Avot 6:6).

Proposition 3: At a time when technology has made meaningful social intercourse much harder to come by, the Jewish community must offer places where people can find support in times of need, communal celebration in times of joy, and friendships to make life fulfilling.

The idea that content accessed through technology, is actually complementary to prop 3 might seem counterintuitive to some. As long as communal Judaism requires resources, technologies can be adapted to improve and democratize access. We’ve already explained how mitigating copyright through the sharing of resources with Open Content licenses makes these resources available for creative reuse, adaptation, and improvement in a way that traditional institutional libraries and websites cannot.

Proposition 1: In an age of globalization, Jewish institutions need to offer multiple avenues to explore ḥoḳhmah, the wisdom of our sacred texts put into the context of the world’s religions and in the language of contemporary culture.

Proposition 2: At a time when our political culture seems so dysfunctional and the social and environmental threats to the planet grow exponentially every year, the Jewish community needs to provide ever more ways to advance tzedek in the world.

The Open Siddur Project provides a new channel for the voices elicited in propositions 1 and 2. The scope of the project includes the full diversity of materials used in Jewish spiritual practice in every language Jews pray or have ever prayed. Prayers that give voice to individual and collective concerns cannot be politically neutral. New prayers that give voice to such concerns are usually disseminated through ephemeral media and become obscure despite their currency (unless they are curated and promoted through major publications). If that ephemeral prayer for the Earth, for biodiversity, for labor justice, etc., is hosted in one archive or one website, the future of that prayer as an accessible, copy-able work is determined by whether that site remains online, whether its author (and their estate) can be located during the century or more until their copyright expires, or whether the index to the archive is public and comprehensive.

My work’s focus on advancing an open creative culture expands upon the four propositions explicated by Schwartz in “Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future.” In a world in which community members are valued as creatives with autonomy in bridging the integrity of their experience with that of their received tradition, what is the role of both secular and religious cultural institutions in fostering and leveraging that creativity as a vital resource for other community members and communities around the world? To put the question differently, exactly when and where does authority and control need to be employed in limiting individual creative contributions to our mesorah and its respective lineages.

Beyond promoting the wisdom, understanding, and insight of community members through open forums (like Limmud) we also need to foster a culture of sharing our individual Torah – our unique and personal teachings – with an ideal of creative reuse by others in our community. By aligning our personal and institutional publishing policies with that of the Talmud’s vision of a torat ḥesed – a torah of lovingkindness – we can ensure that our works remain available for adoption, and adaptive use by others locally, regionally, and internationally. For the past several years this has been the policy adopted by the celebrated Mechon Hadar in sharing the products of their divrei torah, lectures, interviews, and panel discussions in written and recorded media. Such is the main goal of the Sefaria Project in sharing and building upon a digital library of rabbinic Jewish literature. Open-source sharing with Open Content licensing and libre Open Access sharing policies is the strategy employed outside the Jewish community among people who believe their research and creativity need to be made available to others, tachlis, especially in the scientific research community. We should appraise our own work within the Jewish world as no less significant than the sharing of scientific research, as no less important and world changing than the reception of the Torah in the open commons of the Midbar Sinai, and if we are hesitant about sharing our work, we should really ask ourselves why we are being actively creative in this field in the first place.

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, the Yiddish Forverts, 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. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

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