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Thursday, April 9, 2020

A Digital Library is Changing Judaism (For the Better)

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Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz is a Contributing Writer at the Jewish Journal. She previously was the Founding Editor at GrokNation.com. She is an experienced freelance writer and consultant specializing in social media, pop culture, grief and Jewish community conversation. She is frequently sought-after as a source on social media engagement and culture, and is known as a Jewish community social influencer.

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Who is rich?
One who is happy with their lot. 

Who is wise?
One who learns from every human. 

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Care for the stranger.
Give people the benefit of the doubt. 

These and many other familiar Jewish ethical precepts live in the chapters of Pirkei Avot (literally the “Chapters of Our Fathers,” commonly translated as “Ethics of Our Fathers”). Thanks to Jewish online library Sefaria and IKAR Associate Rabbi David Kasher, Avot D’Rabbi Natan now is available as a companion to and commentary on Pirkei Avot. (To find Avot D’Rabbi Natan while perusing verses in Pirkei Avot on Sefaria, click on the “Tanaitic” section in the sidebar.) 

The Sefaria leadership expects the translation of Avot D’Rabbi Natan to be popular, as Pirkei Avot is the site’s most visited text after the five books of the Torah.

“Jewish wisdom is having a moment,” Sefaria’s Director of Education Sara Wolkenfeld told the Journal. “Something powerful about Pirkei Avot is that it has these broad sweeping statements about the human condition. It happens to be Jewish wisdom, but there is something that makes it speak to people and you don’t need a strong grounding in the textual tradition.”

Sefaria, home to a rich library of interlinked works in Hebrew, Aramaic and English, launched its beta site in 2012 and incorporated as a nonprofit in 2013. In 2018, the online virtual library had visits from more than 1 million users hailing from almost every country in the world. 

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In 2019, co-founder Brett Lockspeiser was selected to the Forward 50 list of influential American Jews and in January Sefaria was named by Ha’aretz as one of the top 10 developments of the last decade. Recent Sefaria additions include the source sheet collections of famed commentator Nechama Leibowitz — the first female commentator in the core Sefaria library — and commentaries by Rabbi Shlomo Luria and Rabbi Yitzchak Caro. Recent Daf Yomi (daily Talmud study) participants are using Sefaria’s offerings, especially the William Davidson Talmud with Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz’s complete English and modern Hebrew translations, to find their ways into the text.

The Sefaria team uncovers gaps in what is available and what is needed by talking with the content team and learners in diverse learning spaces, Wolkenfeld said. “We think a lot about how Sefaria’s technology might support, improve and transform teaching and learning. We noticed that there are a lot of great texts in our tradition that don’t exist in translation …. The texts that are missing are an opportunity.”

“[Sefaria’s] having tradition accessible and translated on the internet … [is] one of the most important things happening in Judaism today. One of the great articulations Sefaria has given us is the understanding that our tradition is hyperlinked.” — Rabbi David Kasher

“[Sefaria’s] having tradition accessible and translated on the internet … [is] one of the most important things happening in Judaism today,” Kasher said. “One of the great articulations Sefaria has given us is the understanding that our tradition is hyperlinked. The way our texts have been composed is how we now experience the internet. All of Torah is linked and Sefaria is this cool computerized way of experiencing it, and enables Avot D’Rabbi Natan to be a constant companion to Pirkei Avot itself.” 

Kasher was on sabbatical in Israel when he decided to take on the translation project for Sefaria. “Every teacher of Jewish texts in the U.S. has to be a translator because not all the texts are translated,” he said. Having never translated an entire work before, Kasher said he was “fascinated by that process,” considering it a “way to get to know a text very deeply.” It took him a year to do the translation. 

“You’re trying to be a bridge between one culture and another, one language and one time period to another,” Kasher said. “The purpose of a modern translation is to be able to speak in the language, not just the grammar but the expressions of this current moment. The goal, he said, was to create a text that people “can just read through it, [and feel like the] language is the language of your time and falls easily into your ears.” 

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Kasher called Pirkei Avot “one of the great superstars of our textual tradition. It has been studied and pored over with the same kind of devotion as the Torah itself. It’s one of the classic study pieces in all Jewish communities because it deals with the basic questions: What’s the path a person should choose? How do we live? Whether we keep Shabbat or kosher or ever go to synagogue, we are interested in the basic questions of what it means to live a good life … it’s all condensed into this concise and beautiful, but small and opaque, text,” he said. “To have this resource, this expanded discussion of Jewish ethics from the famous rabbis who brought us the Talmud, that’s a tremendous asset.” 

Asked for an example of the kinds of ethical questions tackled by Pirkei Avot and Avot D’Rabbi Natan as its commentary, Kasher points to the biblical commandment prohibiting lying, noting that it’s about giving false testimony. But, he said, Aaron was known for being one who “loves and pursues peace,” even if it meant lying to two people who were fighting by telling each that the other wanted to reconcile, using deception to create a peaceful outcome. 

“Whether or not it’s ever OK to lie gets us into more complicated ethical territory, and comes up again and again in Avot D’Rabbi Natan,” Kasher said. “What does it mean to tell the truth and are there values higher than truth? How should we or should we not manipulate language? How can we trust what people say? How precise do we have to be with our words and statements?” [These are some of] the central ethical questions in human life and in our public conversations, and that’s the kind of conversation Avot D’Rabbi Natan allows for.” 

The study of ethics is particularly relevant to this moment in history, Kasher added.

“In so many of our public spheres there’s a total disregard for or even an affront to basic ethics of social conduct. This is a time when it would be worth thinking about what it means to live well, both in the sense of good and righteous living. The resources that stream forth from our own tradition are particularly nourishing.”

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