Judaism Unbound Episode 98: The Future of Torah - Brett Lockspeiser


Dan and Lex are joined by Brett Lockspeiser, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer of Sefaria. In the episode, they explore the beginnings, evolution, and future of Sefaria, a digital library of Jewish texts that describes its work as "the Future of Torah."

Image Credit: The Contemporary Jewish Museum

Image Credit: The Contemporary Jewish Museum

(0:01 - 17:59): To begin the episode, Lockspeiser outlines what Sefaria is. [1] First, he discusses the range of texts that have thus far been added to the Sefaria library. Continuing, he highlights some of Sefaria's other features, including how it assists users in forging connections between related texts and visualizing those connections through images. [2] He also explains how Sefaria has evolved over time, as it relates to its mechanisms of adding translation. [3]

(18:00 - 37:07): Lockspeiser explores the origins of Sefaria. He tells the story of his own immersion in Jewish text, which helped him realize both that he deeply connected to text study and that he did not identify as an Orthodox Jew. He also examines the ways in which skills and knowledge that he and his co-founder (Joshua Foer) gained from other fields outside of organized Jewish life would prove crucial to the success of Sefaria. [4] [5] He then looks at the phenomenon of resistance to new forms of technology, which can come into play in Sefaria's work, identifying moments in history where innovations like writing or calculators have seemed threatening, but where ultimately their introduction proved to have a positive impact. [6]

(37:08 - 55:24): Lockspeiser wrestles with a question that has no easy answer -- how do we define the limits of what is, and is not, a "Jewish text?" He then discusses the traditional Jewish technology known as a "source sheet," and explains how Sefaria has empowered educators (and others) to create contemporary, digital versions of that technology in ways that are already reaching thousands of people around the world. [7] To close the episode, Lockspeiser highlights the importance of increased access to Jewish text, and he cites Sefaria's recent Hackathon event as one moment that embodies the immense potential for new forms of Jewish text study and engagement. [8]

Image Credit: Sefaria

Image Credit: Sefaria

[1]  Explore Sefaria's library and all the features mentioned in this episode by clicking here.

[2] Check out visual representations of the connections Sefaria has collected between the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and the Talmud by clicking here.

[3] Lockspeiser discusses the ways in which Sefaria has successfully partnered with existing publishers to release their work for free through their site. Read a blog post that provides a window into that process, announcing the publication of Adin Steinsaltz's Talmud translation, by clicking here.

Image Credit: TechCabal

Image Credit: TechCabal

[4] The founders of Sefaria, Lockspeiser and Joshua Foer, met through the Bronfman Youth Fellowships (now the Bronfman Fellowship). Learn more about it by visiting the Bronfman Fellowship website.

[5] Learn more about the journey Lockspeiser describes, from "naive optimism," through "informed pessimism," to (hopefully) "informed optimism," by clicking here.

[6] For more on the ways that Jews, in particular, have resisted the introduction of new technology but eventually opted to embrace change, check out Lex's ELI Talk.

[7] For one of Sefaria's most viral source sheets, see "Is One Permitted to Punch a White Supremacist in the Face?" compiled by Joshua Bolton.

[8] Dive deeper into the hackathon that Sefaria hosted by reading this Times of Israel article, entitled "With ‘cholent’ and prayers, Haredim bring tech to study of ancient texts."