How to Intentionally Share Your Work So Others Can Adapt or Improve Upon It under Copyright

In the language of Jewish prayer, kavvanah, intention, is bound to keva, structure. Intention is personal, whilst structure is a received cultural convention, representing a common tradition. In general, all our actions are inspired by our intentions, and while some actions have unintended consequences, Judaism has a way, or halakhah for structuring them so that one’s actions increase goodness in the world and avoid harm. Ultimately, the practice of halakhah should cultivate certain qualities that in turn motivate compassionate, considerate, and creative intentions.

In Pirkei Avot, Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that the 48th quality of the 48 qualities defining excellent students is they should correctly attribute the source of their knowledge. Failing to do so threatens to “dissolve the world.” In the rabbinic understanding of cosmogony, creation itself is the product of exegesis. In Genesis Rabbah, the Creator looked into the Torah to create the world. The process of exegesis, requires attribution, and so without correct attribution by the Creator to the Torah, the product of the exegesis — the universe — dissolves. The importance of attribution doesn’t get any more tachlis (fundamental) than that.

Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi proceeds to exemplify this teaching by attributing the 48th quality to Queen Esther who in the second chapter of the Scroll of Esther, verse 21, foils the coup de tat of Bightan and Teresh — by relaying warning of the coup to King Aḥashverosh in the name of Mordeḥai. Had Mordeḥai not been correctly credited with notifying the king of the murderous plot, he would not have received his belated thanks in chapter 6, and Haman would not have endured the embarrassment that presages his downfall. A long chain of events connects the seemingly insignificant action of Queen Esther to the salvation of the Jewish people. The implicit lesson is that our everyday actions matter. The explicit message is that it behooves us to act correctly, especially in regards to attribution of credit.

In the world of academic scholarship, correct attribution is a fundamental ethic. Ignoring it would quickly tear apart the tower of intellect upon which the babel of human knowledge ascends to heaven. The need for correct attribution is of course, no less in new and creative Jewish works. Whether you’re making a translation in a source sheet for a lecture or shir, designing a Hebrew font, crafting your very own siddur, or developing software that helps others craft their own siddur, it behooves you to correctly attribute any sources included in your work or from which your work derives.

The need for correct attribution is widespread and that is one important reason why a requirement for correct attribution is now enshrined in a set of legally binding licenses which creators use to share their work in the world and over the Internet. The significance of these licenses is that by enshrining language assuring attribution, they help to promote sharing. And sharing is of fundamental importance to receiving Torah. As the Gerrer Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, teaches in his Sfas Emes in his d’var torah on Parshat Terumah:

The Midrash Tanḥuma quotes: “I have given you good lekaḥ (teaching)” (Proverbs 4:2). [Lekaḥ can also refer to something acquired by purchase.] It then offers a parable of two merchants, one who has silk and the other peppers. Once they exchange their goods, each is again deprived of that which the other has. But if there are two scholars, one who has mastered the Order of Seeds and the other who knows the Order of Festivals, once they teach each other, each has both orders.

The point is that each one of Israel has a particular portion within Torah, yet it is also Torah that joins all our souls together. That is why Torah is called “perfect, restoring the soul” (Psalms 19:8). We become one through the power of Torah; it is “an inheritance of the assembly of Yaakov” (Deuteronomy 33:4). We receive from one another the distinctive viewpoint that belongs to each of us.

This is an important lesson to learn regarding our work in teaching Torah since for some, it’s easy to forget that what they’ve received and are transmitting is a collective inheritance of the entire Jewish people. Their honor is in relaying that transmission. Torah and tefillah are in their very nature communications that are meant to be shared, with love, in the manner that other students and teachers can receive it and pass it along without any obstruction. As Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach taught in a quote remembered by Moshe Pesach Geller:

I tell you something very very deep you know. Everybody says what does it mean to love? To love means it’s flowing, like a river. It’s just flowing, you know. The Maharal says something very deep. What happens if I learn and I don’t want to teach you? He says I do the most horrible thing. I take the infinite Torah and make it finite. Because it stops with me really. It flows into me and it stops. And if I keep on teaching it means it’s flowing through me. The question is what level am I on. What level am I learning. If I’m learning on the level of `it’s not Hashem’s word’, it’s just words, finite words, then they stick with me. And if I’m really learning on a Hashem level, on a Mount Sinai level, then it’s just flowing through me. Anyway. So it has to flow. A lot of people teach you Torah, they pour the water right over you and they say “you better grow”. Man, you know, just can’t grow like that. Has to be Torah Ḥessed. Has to be Torah of love. So if someone puts a little bit water over you, and you know mamash feel it you know, so then Hashem’s name becomes bigger.

Or in other words, as animator Nina Paley says, sharing is an act of love. All that Judaism asks for in return is attribution, so the chain of transmission is recorded.

Who would obstruct that kind of sharing? When a new work is created, copyright law doesn’t assume that a creative work was intended for sharing (with or without attribution). Instead, a creative work is immediately protected as private property — not only for the lifetime of the creator, but also for 70 years after their death — כֹּל זְכוּיוֺת שוֺמְרוֺת, Kol zchuyot shomrot, all rights reserved — to reproduce, distribute, and create derivative works based on it are forbidden, without the explicit written consent of the creator. As stated before here at the Open Siddur Project, this might make sense for creators of new works and music, but it hardly makes sense for cultural projects with communal objectives which rely heavily and assert their authority on the authenticity of works in the Public Domain. The teaching and practice of Judaism is one such communal project. The promise of the Open Siddur Project relies on our sharing creative works and access to the vast corpus of work that we’ve inherited from our creative ancestors. That is why we so heavily depend and advocate for the adoption of open source, free/libre, and copyleft licenses — so that creative work, protected by default under Copyright law, can nevertheless be shared by creators who give their explicit permission to others to adopt, adapt, study, and attribute their work in new works that are similarly shared and distributed.

SHARE WHAT YOU LOVE ♡ — A Decision Tree for Choosing Free-Culture Compatible Open Content Licenses for Cultural & Technological Work, v.1.0-2014-04-02 (credit: Aharon Varady, license: CC-BY-SA)To help creators of new works navigate the panoply of free/libre, open source, and copyleft licenses, I made a decision tree flowchart as an image map with clickable links to respective licenses and relevant articles. The tree was inspired by a decision tree by Terry Hancock, which accompanied his article, “Choosing and Using Free Licenses for Software, Hardware, and Aesthetic works.” Readers of this article are recommended to read Hancock’s follow-up essay, “Confusion and Complexity: High time to prune the Creative Commons licenses?

תנ״ך | A Tale of Two Codexes: The Aleppo and Leningrad Codex

Given that more than 50% of the Siddur is comprised of text from the תנ׳׳ך (TaNaKh) any project that seeks to rigorously attribute its sources depends on a critical, digital edition of the Masoretic text of the Hebrew bible. And such is the case for our Open Siddur Project. The entire history of the transmission of such a profoundly important sourcetext illustrates the degree to which we rely on each others most positive intentions to advance our love of the Torah through sharing — regardless of sect, creed, scholarly or theological inspiration. Moving ahead we are supported by each others gifts and by the preserved legacy of our cultural inheritance.

The oldest complete manuscript of the TaNaKh is the Leningrad Codex (circa 1008 CE) prepared by the school of Aharon Ben Moshe Ben Asher. The grand project of Masoretes during the first millenia was preparing the text of the TaNaKh with their received tradition (masorah) of its annunciation and vocalization. Since these important oral traditions are not transcribed within Torah scrolls, the Masoretes preserved these traditions by writing out the complete text of the TaNaKh with vowels (nikkud) and cantillation marks (trope). The Tiberian system for marking vowels in the Leningrad Codex is the same system used in Hebrew today.

According to modern scholars, Aharon ben Moshe ben Asher followed the Karaite rather than the Rabbinic tradition of Judaism. This may help explain why Aharon ben Asher’s contemporary, Rav Saadia Gaon (892-942 CE) preferred the codexes of another Masoretic school — that of Ben-Naphtali. However, only the codexes of the Ben-Asher school survived, and ultimately, the codexes of the Ben-Asher school were approved by Maimonides (1135-1204 CE). In his Yad ha-Ḥazakah, Maimonides writes:

All relied on it, since it was corrected by Ben-Asher and was worked on and analyzed by him for many years, and was proofread many times in accordance with the masorah, and I based myself on this manuscript in the Sefer Torah that I wrote”.1

This approval is all the more astounding considering Maimonides outstanding objections and disputations with the Karaites of his day.

In the 1830s, Abraham ben Samuel Firkovich, a manuscript collector and ḥakham of the Crimean Karaite Jewish community, visited Constantinople, Jerusalem, and the Cairo Genizah in Egypt. During these travels he received possession of the Leningrad Codex, which was taken to Odessa in 1838 and later transferred to the Imperial Library in St. Petersburg. Used as the sourcetext for the Biblia Hebraica in 1937 and the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia in 1977, the Leningrad Codex was digitized in the 1980s as a collaborative scholarly project organized by the Presbyterian Westminster Theological Seminary‘s J. Alan Groves Center for Advanced Biblical Research.

This text began as an electronic transcription by Richard Whitaker (Princeton Seminary, New Jersey) and H. van Parunak (then at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) of the 1983 printed edition of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS). It was continued with the cooperation of Robert Kraft (University of Pennsylvania) and Emmanuel Tov (Hebrew University, Jerusalem), and completed by Prof. Alan Groves. The transcription was called the Michigan-Claremont-Westminster Electronic Hebrew Bible and was archived at the Oxford Text Archive (OTA) in 1987. It has been variously known as the “CCAT” or “eBHS” text. Since that time, the text has been modified in many hundreds of places to conform to the photo-facsimile of the Leningrad Codex, Firkovich B19A, residing at the Russian National Library, St. Petersburg; hence the change of name. The Groves Center has continued to scrutinize and correct this electronic text as a part of its continuing work of building morphology and syntax databases of the Hebrew Bible, since correct linguistic analysis requires an accurate text.2

The Groves Center decided to share the digital Westminster Leningrad Codex without restriction — a prescient and important decision made prior to the popularization of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Their altruistic decision continues to enable many innovative projects based on the text and study of the TaNaKh. The source of the Westminster Leningrad Codex that we are using for the Open Siddur Project were derived from sources shared by Christopher Kimball at The Internet Sacred Text Archive provides links to the full Westminster Leningrad Codex (with transliteration), here.

This text is derived from the Westminster Leningrad Codex (WLC) of the Westminster Hebrew Institute. Thanks to Christopher V. Kimball, who graciously made the source files for this freely available. This version is based on the October 20th, 2006 WLC release.3

The tragic story of the oldest but unfortunately incomplete Aleppo Codex (circa 10th Century CE) — the codex upon which the Leningrad Codex was first based and corrected against — provides a cautious lesson in contrast. Similar to the Leningrad Codex, the Aleppo Codex was also preserved by Karaite Jews. It was then stolen by Crusaders, ransomed, and later transferred to the Syrian Aleppo community where it was hidden for six centuries and zealously guarded. While the Leningrad Codex was copied and shared at the onset of the Age of Photography, the opportunity to copy and thereby preserve the Aleppo Codex was lost.

…the [Aleppo Jewish] community limited direct observation of the manuscript by outsiders, especially by scholars in modern times. Paul Kahle, when revising the text of the Biblia Hebraica in the 1920s, tried and failed to obtain a photographic copy. This forced him to use the Leningrad Codex instead for the third edition, which appeared in 1937.4

In the immediate aftermath of a deadly riot against Jews and Jewish property in Aleppo in December 1947, much of the five books — the Torah section of the Aleppo Codex — disappeared.

Today, at the onset of the Digital Age, we must preserve the heritage of our culture’s creative inspiration by digitizing our collective work in open standard formats, and sharing the work so its transmission can easily be mirrored and redistributed without difficulty. The Open Siddur Project is committed to preserving the legacy of our diverse communities’ creative inspirations and calls upon all those who love the Torah and earnest spiritual practice to serve their intentions through sharing their intellectual resources.

If you represent an educational institution with copies of work in the public domain, please share digital images or digital transcriptions of this work with public domain declarations such as the Creative Commons Zero Public Domain declaration. For the preservation of our living tradition, the many surviving historic manuscripts witnessing variations of tefillot found in the Siddur, including the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, Dead Sea Scroll fragments, Jewish apocryphal and pseudepigraphal text, Cairo Genizah fragments, and the various girsot of the Talmud, need to be made available, freely for redistribution.

Openness, remixability, and free culture (Efraim Feinstein, 2010)

Russel Neiss writes “while we have had many illuminating conversations since our presentation [at the JFNA General Assembly], the questions and feedback we have received overwhelmingly surrounds the first value of “Open, Discoverable and Accessible.”” He refers to the four core principles he articulated for Jewish educational material online. That it should be:

  1. Open, Discoverable and Accessible;
  2. Remixable;
  3. Meaningful and Relevant; and
  4. Community Building.

In the secular free culture world, the language is somewhat different, and the difference in emphasis can be illuminating. There, another set of four freedoms have been defined as the bedrock of the movement. In order to be a free culture work, it must give its user:

  1. the freedom to use the work and enjoy the benefits of using it;
  2. the freedom to study the work and to apply knowledge acquired from it;
  3. the freedom to make and redistribute copies, in whole or in part, of the information or expression; and
  4. the freedom to make changes and improvements, and to distribute derivative works.

Freedoms 1 and 2 roughly correspond to Russel’s point number 1. Freedoms 3 and 4 encompass point number 2.

What is perhaps most instructive is that the values of free culture are not defined with respect to the material itself, nor to its content. They are freedoms guaranteed to the user. Material being “open, discoverable, and accessible” is a first step. Simply putting it on the Internet and being indexed by search engines will satisfy this condition.

In the bargain of openness, content creators will have to choose to give up some exclusive rights. In exchange, the work gains a life of its own in the hands of the users, the educators and the students. In my (limited) experience of conversation with content providers, this seems to be the greatest barrier toward freeing educational works that are already made available.

Perhaps remixability is a harder sell to educators and educational content providers than openness because the advantages it provides are further from the originator. Content providers may argue that providing rights to copy material for “personal” or “educational” use satisfies their duty. However, the ability to make and distribute copies solely for limited use leads to dissemination of the material. It does not result in an active culture being developed out of it. It does not result in improvements to the original, or adaptations for differing circumstances from those the original creator envisioned. Even if those adaptations are made locally, they will ultimately be undisseminated, potentially resulting in duplication of labor, or worse, their loss to future creators and users. The absence of remixing rights builds a one-way community of consumers, instead of a multidirectional cooperative community of creators.

There is also the persistent fear of “misuse” of a work. If an author gives up exclusive control over remixes, how does he/she know that the results will still be ideologically compatible with the original? This is again a trade-off necessary for ensuring that users’ creativity can be exercised. Perceived damage to a creators’ reputation from an ideologically differing work can be mitigated by requiring that a modified work bear a notice that it was modified from its original version, and that no endorsement of the modified version by the original author is implied. Further, a web link to the original version may be included as part of the attribution. All Creative Commons free culture licenses (aside from CC0) bear these requirements. Overall, the benefits to the wider culture obtained from many creative minds working on the material outweigh the threats from “misuse.” The choice is between static read-only content and dynamic conversation among the user-creator partners.

Advocacy for creative works’ freedom represents a paradigm shift in thought among content creators: In a free culture, a premium is not placed on the material as-such or even the particular rights associated with the material. Instead, it is on the users’ freedom, and it is that freedom that is the prerequisite to large-scale creative engagement with educational material.

An interview with Aharon Varady on Open Source Judaism (Radio613, 2010)

Welcome Radio 613 listeners. It was my joy to be interviewed by co-hosts Avi & Malcah on CFRC Kingston 101.9FM last Thursday afternoon. In case you missed it, Avi just posted audio of the show to the radio613 webpage.

Go ahead and listen. I have some follow up thoughts on the interview below.

The opinions shared in the interview (and below) are my own. They should in absolutely no way be interpreted as a philosophy or ideology of the Open Siddur Project — an open source project with a diverse community of contributors inspired and motivated each in their own unique way. For those interested in our mission statement, see here.

One question I was thinking about that took me off-guard was when Avi asked me what personally motivated this project. For me, it’s so much easier to write about than to speak about it… After the interview, I couldn’t help feeling that the answer I gave was oblique. Avi asked for, and I provided a personal, if somewhat vague story expressing the following disconnect: Individual integrity felt implicit to the intimate relationship I was being asked to engage in, but that this experience felt frustrated by the mode of t’fillah (Jewish spiritual practice) I was taught. Some means to grow and maintain a very private resource for developing my own practice felt so necessary. If I built this resource for myself only, then whatever liberation I ultimately experienced would be limited.

Obviously many more people endure the same frustrations as I have… others have simply become numb to the issue or completely disenchanted. A strange group, horribly, become apologists for mediocrity and submission — arguing that the experience of alienation in t’fillah is something akin to a mortification or a right of passage to be proudly endured (perhaps once a year on Yom Kippur). And then there are those who take pride in the practice of t’fillah as the fulfillment of an obligation rather than as a useful, relevant practice, saying in earnest, there is really nothing wrong with the siddur, certainly nothing wrong that a good Jew shouldn’t find some sense of cultural belonging wrestling with. The siddur is an easy victim of the materialist aspirations of modern society, they argue. Hearing this, I can’t help but begin to feel lost myself. Is anyone taking this practice seriously enough to expect it to actually be useful? Or am I just a magical thinker?

A point Ariel Beery emphasized at the PresenTense Institute, was just how important it is to recognize and articulate your sense of dissatisfaction with the world as is — to communicate through your pitch how your project seeks to realize a better future. In this way, social innovation and entrepreneurship enters a Utopian, Futurist, and I think, moshiaḥ-oriented narrative. However subjective, the power of this personal appeal should resonate with the experience of others.

My struggle to realize this project is personal, but I never ever wanted my own dissatisfaction to overshadow what anyone else could bring to this project. We each have a unique creative light, and wow, does it ever grow bright when our light shines together. I knew this project was important because it came as an epiphany — an intersection of multiple passions each calling with their own creative, intellectual, and political genius. I just had to finally listen and take note. In the shadow of the Holocaust, a revitalized Jewish culture must be sought that does not rely entirely on ethnic nationalist movements to advance and preserve Jewish identity. Renaissance in all cultures, including Jewish culture, depends on the freedom of its participants, its cultural constituents, to be creative and expressive individuals, engaging with the meaning that culture broadcasts through its traditions.

Larger societal change begins at home, within the daled amot (four cubits) of an individual — this is a fundamental teaching mussar. Spiritual practices are misunderstood as opiates, however they might feel good. Ultimately, they are founded on an assumption that habitual practice and discipline yields self-improvement, which is ultimately beneficial to communities, societies, and the world at large. Can we engage in practices then that nourish and nurture our propensity to act compassionately and pursue social good, intentionally avoiding hateful, violent, and jealous inclinations? In my practice, I seek imitatio dei where dei is understood as an expansive, creative expression of a collective, evolving, and emergent consciousness in this reality that I am part of. There is nothing we can say about God that we are not also saying about our own creative consciousness and its limits, if only because we are limited creatures ourselves. How then am I created in the likeness of Elohim (God)? In that I too have creative desire. I look to Judaism to discipline that creativity for goodness sake, and understand halakha as a practice for walking in the ways of God — i.e., maturing and sustaining virtues of compassion, loving-kindness, and peace with knowledge, awareness, and correct action (mitzvot). Jewish spiritual practice is one expression of a religiously mandated self-improvement discipline that depends on individual expression even as it is often portrays itself in communal contexts. The degree to which these communities act well depends on how well their constituents embody virtue. But just as these virtues are embodied personally, intentional practices succeed when they are personally chosen, well understood, and creatively engaged.

I said it in the interview but it bears repeating, the lingering dialectic that defines religion as somehow separate from culture relies on a notion that religion is no longer creative — a mere replication of viral memes, in Dawkin’s language. We liberate religion when we return it to culture, as a creative and relevant force for helping to shape our individual and collective consciousness. Religion in this way provides exercises, practices and other social technologies to help us evolve. If its creativity isn’t maintained, its relevance is ceded to other systems to function in its place — or it is ceded to social elements and authorities who might use it to sustain self-serving agendas.

William Morris, the founder of the Arts & Crafts movement (and  modern fantasy literature, as well!) articulated this idea in the mid to late 19th century — explaining to his fellow socialists how alienation is the experience of a worker/craftsmen being mediated from one’s essential creative self. William Morris’ Arts & Crafts movement sought to liberate worker craftsmen from alienation by re-introducing bespoke master art crafted work, for example: woodwork, book binding, printing, typography, etc. Morris typified a romantic socialist who walked proudly forward by looking backward at the inherent value of art for  liberating the human worker economically, socially, and spiritually.

I think this sort of thinking is exactly what is needed for both our cultural renaissance and our individual liberation. Is the alienation of European craftsmen in the face of industrialized factory conditions really so dissimilar from the experience of alienation when individuals most private and intense experience is mediated by mass-produced prayer books? Particularly for Jews, what does our culture ask us to craft if not prayers and blessings every day, from our heart? That is our avodah sh’balev– our work of the heart! How has our tradition’s uncritical adoption of mass-produced technology for accessing t’fillah, and legal structures of copyright mediated us from our creative (divine) selves and ability to share what is most precious to us? How do structures of authority maintain this truly tragic situation? My answer to these vexing questions was to re-appropriate the technology of mass-production and spiritual mediation — liberating it for individuals to compose, remix, and share the meaning they discover in tradition and their own experience. This model is obviously open for anyone to emulate, not only other Jews. But particular for Jews, this model also open up the possibility of really reflecting the true diversity of our people right now as both individuals and communities and through history in whatever documents witness this diversity. We just need to digitize this extant work and make it accessible with standard free culture licensing.

My work with William Morris was a direct outgrowth of my urban planning masters thesis research into a socialist minded free thinker and printer named Henry Watkin, the mentor of the writer, Lafcadio Hearn. Watkin was married to a wonderful woman, Laura Fry Watkin, whose British and Swedenborgian family of master art carved wood craftsmen and women (vegetarian socialists and abolitionists the lot of them) were active in developing a women’s liberation movement in Cincinnati. I learned about Laura’s father Henry Fry and other Swedenborgians Fourier-inspired socialists. These men and women helped realise, among other wonderful social goods, the nascent urban park systems designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Not too long ago I was working at the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence and my motivation to become an urban planner eight years ago stemmed from an interest in promoting city parks, greenways, and trails. Now instead of working on the physical public commons, I’m instead focused on the creative intellectual commons. So the Open Siddur Project is an expression of my passion for 19th century utopian projects, Romanticism, invented worlds of the imagination, and maturing creative potential and compassionate virtues sustained through a disciplined spiritual practice.

Publicly funded work of Jewish non-profits should be shared with Open Content licensing (Future of Jewish Non Profit Summit, 2010)

The following is the unedited text of the speech I read at the Future of Jewish Non Profit Summit. There’s a for-fee video of the speech at  You can also listen to this audio recording.

Efraim and I have made many of these points before, so if you’re so inclined check out more of our essays here.

I’m speaking here at the Future of Jewish non profit summit about “How Jewish Nonprofits will benefit from the Free and Open Source revolution.”

Some disambiguation seems appropriate.

What do I mean when I say free or open source? what is this revolution, and how will I define benefit? What is a nonprofit and… who is a Jew?

Permit me to park all of those questions for the moment. I promise to come back to them before six months.
I want to come to the answers by first asking some other more meaningful questions:

Who owns the Torah? — What does it means to say that the Torah is mine but also your cultural heritage?

Also, is Judaism a non-profit, and if so, what is its mission?

Let’s take these questions seriously, even if we only have nine minutes. Because these question drive deep into who we are and what we are doing, into what is our non-profit mission and into what is our Jewish mission.

The central importance of the Torah as the common source text of the entire Jewish people, and its recent treatment as proprietary intellectual property, make it a good case study on where Jews can go wrong.

We can also learn from the good example of those who love to teach and study the Torah, how the values of reciprocity and sharing advance our most altruistic missions.

As a source text, the Torah has some things in common with source code.
Both are platforms on which whole other virtual worlds emerge and interact with our physical world.
In both syntax matters, and in both historical context is of academic interest.
The manner in which both libraries of source code are maintained and developed determines how vibrant they are and vital as a living source of creative inspiration.

When I say “free and open source” I am referring to a mode by which software is developed and maintained.

Free and open source offers a beautiful parallel to a model of Torah study and learning for the sake of learning, lishma.
(It wouldn’t hurt to mention that open source has been an excellent model for businesses.)
A culture of intellectual and creative sharing is the foundation of open source communities.

If you share your work such that others can build on it, the next time someone needs the same thing done, they don’t have to pay for it again and unnecessarily duplicate labor.
Even though copying is a fundamental right of free and open source software and content (ironically), its continued development means more time and money is spent innovating and less duplicating what others have done.
The aspect of mutual benefit works in software development and it works for content too.

When I talk about free, I don’t mean cheap. Freedom in the free and open source software movement is defined as,

(1) freedom to use it for any purpose,

(2) freedom to study how it works,

(3) freedom to modify the work, and

(4) freedom to share your modifications with others.

If you don’t guarantee these rights to anyone who receives it, it’s simply not open source.
These rights are guaranteed through free and open source licenses and were formulated by Richard Stallman, the President of the Free Software Foundation.

Now I know, most people hear licenses and think, oh no, I’m not a lawyer.
Well, I’m not either, but being savvy about copyright and free culture licensing is essential for non-profits producing or requiring content.

The most common requirement of many open source software licenses is the preservation of attribution.

This concern for correct attribution also recalls the 48th virtue of an excellent student recorded in Pirkei Avot Chapter six, number 6:

repeating a statement in the name of the one who said it. For we have learned that anyone who says a statement in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world, as the verse in the Book of Esther, chapter 2 verse 22 says, ‘And Esther said to the King in the name of Mordechai.’

Additionally, it is important to recognize how free and open source licensed sharing is akin to Maimonides fifth level of charity in which one does not know to whom one gives, but the receiver knows their benefactor.

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, in his book Sfas Emes, expounds on a midrash explaining a verse in the Book of Proverbs:

[Parshat Terumah] “I have given you good lekakh (teaching)” (Prov. 4:2). [Lekakh can also refer to something acquired by purchase.] The midrash then offers a parable of two merchants, one who has silk and the other peppers. Once they exchange their goods, each is again deprived of that which the other has. But if there are two scholars, one who has mastered the Order of Seeds and the other who knows the Order of Festivals, once they teach each other, each has acquired both orders.

This is exactly the opportunity for sharing content which Internet technologies facilitate today.
Now imagine if we shared the content of our non-profit’s holy work with the same intention as these two scholars spoken of in the Midrash Tanchuma by the Sfas Emes.

The Sfas Emes explains,

The point is that each one of Israel has a particular portion within Torah, yet it is also Torah that joins all our souls together. That is why Torah is called “perfect, restoring the soul” (Ps. 19:8). We become one through the power of Torah; it is “an inheritance of the assembly of Yaakov” (Deut. 33:4). We receive from one another the distinctive viewpoint that belongs to each of us.
Now that is a powerful statement: “We receive from one another the distinctive viewpoint that belongs to each of us.

Can we truly embrace this?
It is the most beautiful expression of pluralism I have ever read, and I want to challenge everyone here to embody it in their work by sharing their work in a way which invites participation and engagement without restriction.

I invite you to think of the Torah as a free and open platform rather than a closed one, and to see your work similarly.
The takeaway I have for you today is to adopt an open source strategy for your non-profit work in the manner that Maimonides, Hillel the Elder, or the Sfas Emes would.
Express faith in your organizational mission by opening up the development of that which you are innovating to the broader community, maintain a low bar for entry and to cultivate a market for wide adoption, and eschew closed source development and proprietary licensing.
When your actions are guided by your business model rather than your mission statement, it’s time to revisit your mission statement and rethink your business model.

Let me share just one cautious lesson from YIVO’s history of Jewish printing. In 1515, Daniel Bomberg, a Christian printer, moved from Antwerp to Venice and hired Jewish scholars to work in his press. Bomberg was the first to publish the Mikraot Gedolot, a Chumash surrounded by Rashi and several other rabbinic commentaries. Bomberg also printed the first complete edition of the Babylonian Talmud, setting pagination and layout style which became the accepted standard to this day. The Venice Jewish community sent a set of this Talmud as a gift to Henry VIII of England. This set can still be seen in the British Library. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the volumes of the Talmud purchased by Jewish scholars. Bomberg’s printing press became so successful that it attracted competition and emulation from other Jewish printers. The rivalry that resulted escalated into denunciations, and these in turn led the Roman Catholic Curia to issue a decree in 1554 ordering the burning of the Talmud and all other Hebrew books.

Fast forward five hundred years and open a siddur, chumash, tanakh, or ther sefer containing work written hundreds of years before copyright law was established, and you’ll find the words, Kol Zchuyot Shomrot, all rights reserved. Whose rights are being preserved by this?

This phenomena isn’t limited to the printed press. Endowed non-proft educational institutions are selling very expensive CD-ROMS containing works published many hundreds or even thousands of years ago. There’s nothing wrong with selling this work commercially, after all it is available from the Public Domain without restriction. What is onerous is that these non-profits are making an end-run around the Public Domain, by restricing their materials use with an end user license agreement. Until recently, a popular Jewish non-profit was touting how the accessibility of its “open source” database while restricting the use of the materials in the database with a similar end user license agreement.

This has to stop. We need to understand that the Torah is all of ours, that is a foundation of our culture’s creative and intellectual commons. We need to understand the term free and open source as a mode of sharing preserving attribution and unrestricted freedom of access through licensing.

If we really believe in a vision of a Jewish future where Jewish culture is alive, breathing creativity like oxygen, we have to at least respect our the freedom of our source texts.

Ironically, we wouldn’t even have a free digital sourcetext of the TaNaKh were it not for te work of the J Alan Groves Center for Advanced Biblical Studies at the Westminster Theological Seminary. This Christian Seminary, an endowed educational non-profit had the foresight to promote innovation in Biblical studies by making the most complete Masoretic text available over the Internet for free without restriction. It can be downloaded today from The work of this seminary digitizing our Masoretic text offers an example in stark contrast to that of the Bar-Ilan Responsa Project which has been digitizing contnet in a closed source database and making the text available for a hefty sum with a restrictive end user license agreement attached.

It should be no surprise then how many innovative Biblical research projects use the Westminster Leningrad Codex as the basis of their work. The digitized codex serves also serves as the most substantial source text in the first Jewish free and open source digital humanities project, the Open Siddur Project – a project I founded in early 2009.

If this presentation interested you in learning more about open source strategies for non-profits please be in touch. For those of you simply looking to save money by adopting open source software rather than paying hefty licensing feees to closed source technologists, I recommend visiting — the Non Profit Open Source Initiative.