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  • Writer's pictureSara Zober

Sefaria Will Change Everything

Landing page of Image states: "Sefaria: A Living Library of Jewish Texts" with the subtitle "Explore 3,000 years of Jewish texts in Hebrew and English Translation. Learn more."
Sefaria, an open source Jewish text website.

People love asking the question "What is the one change in the last 100 years that you believe will change Judaism the most?" Usually Jews answer with things like:

  • the establishment of the state of Israel

  • women and marginalized people gaining access to the rabbinate and other places of Jewish power

  • the Shoah and its inherited trauma

These are all great answers, but I want to offer my take. I think the #1 thing that will change the Jewish world at this point in history is a website called Sefaria. For those of you who may not be familiar with it, Sefaria's aim is to make accessible and available online as much of Jewish traditional text as possible. On Sefaria, you can search Tanakh, Talmud, Mussar, Halacha, Chassidut, and other genres of Jewish text. You can study them on your own or you can create source sheets for your classes. It's become a very useful tool for people who study Jewish text.

But what Sefaria is doing that is utterly game-changing is that it has changed the relationship between the Jew and the internet by using the internet in service of Jewish learning. It is unabashedly a 21st century Jewish response to text that has subtly changed the study skills of everyone who approaches it once they figure out what it can do. Let me give you an example.

I just did a deep-dive webinar with one of their educators, Rachel Buckman. I've been using Sefaria off and on, mostly for my own reference because their mobile app allows me to have so much of the Hebrew text at my fingertips. I love it for that but I'm not really a source-sheet rabbi (unlike my friend and colleague Rabbi Marina Yergin, who is amazingly prolific). My people love text, but tend to ignore photocopies, so I've only ever made a few.

I knew some of the revolutionary ways Sefaria was changing the way rabbis study, but had no idea how much some of their recent changes had democratized and collectivized and pluralized the ways that any Jew could study these texts. Beyond them adding so many more translations than previously hosted, here are a few of their new additions:

Notes - You can add personal notes to anything, even up to and including adding notes to a reference material!! That means that every year when you think of something new while reading Genesis 1:1, you can click and see your notes from subsequent years AND add new notes. You can even just see all of your notes grouped together (which makes writing my commentary on the Torah a much more pleasant and attainable goal).

Web Pages - You can now see every web page that references a citation on Sefaria. This is amazing, because it means that when I want to write a d'var Torah, I can click on the verse I'm studying and see how others have used it, explore related concepts, etc.

Constant Expansion - The most charming and revolutionary thing about Sefaria is their absolute inability to sit on their laurels. They are always looking for more text. They are looking for more useful features. They are soliciting more connections between texts, more source sheets, and more ways to crack open Jewish texts for everyone. They've added 20 new texts just in the last 6 months, most of which I have never heard of and wouldn't have known existed had they not pinged me to tell me about them.

I spent the entire webinar bemoaning the fact that I didn't have Sefaria in rabbinical school, and trying to figure out how to take all my copious handwritten and typed notes and transfer them into my account. But then I started to realize something even more revolutionary that was happening because of their website:

My congregants have access to all of this as well. FOR FREE.

I started to wonder: what does it look like when we crack open Jewish text for everyone? What does it look like when our bar and bat mitzvah kids can find their portion and click around other people's great source sheets and websites and read the words of our sages in their own native language? When all my vision-impaired congregants can make the font with trope markings as big as they need to follow along? What does my classroom look like when we can all double-click and get an immediate dictionary entry for a word? I mean, let's take this all the way:

What does training a rabbi/the job of the rabbi look like when Jewish text is this accessible?

Imagine what our seminaries and yeshivot could accomplish with our leaders when all these tools are already available to amcha. THAT would change the Jewish world irrevocably. My Twitter bio header is an excerpt from the glossary at the back of a kids' book, Baxter, The Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher, by Laurel Snyder. It's my favorite description of a rabbi that I've ever heard:

rabbi - learned, generous Jewish leader who devotes time to reading, thinking, teaching, and helping people (and pigs!). Rabbis often tell wonderful stories, wear hats, and have nice laugh wrinkles.

At this point in history, I fear that too few rabbinic jobs fit that description, certainly not in the progressive Jewish world. We are service leaders and admins, spending lots of time budgeting for religious schools, writing donor thank-you letters, and attending board and committee meetings. We write divrei Torah and do lifecycle events, yes, but we do far less teaching, thinking, storytelling, and learning than we (and our communities) would like us to.

It is my hope that Sefaria's goal of making Jewish text highly accessible changes our communities fundamentally into ones that are actually paradigms of lifelong learning. When our communities prioritize their own learning, they will value their rabbis being learned. Many American Jewish communities value budget and communal structure above everything else, so rabbis continue to have to focus on those things and deprioritize their own teaching and learning in favor of discussions over administration. I, for one, hope our people mount a revolution in Jewish spaces, demanding deeper and more intensive learning opportunities for everyone because they have suddenly seen what we haven't been studying together.

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