Sefaria turns a female page

Online Jewish text platform adds commentary by Nechama Leibowitz, its first woman scholar, as it expands its accessible library.

By
May 2, 2019 01:36
4 minute read.
Nechama Leibowitz

The Nechama Leibowitz page on the Sefaria website collects the scholar's teachings on Torah and Judaism. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Educators, rabbis, scholars and the intellectually curious have been turning to Sefaria, a “living library of Jewish texts online,” for years. And on Wednesday, the platform finally added its first female commentator, the renowned professor and scholar Nechama Leibowitz.

“It’s been somewhat painful for us as an organization” to not have female representation on the site, Lev Israel, the chief data officer for Sefaria, told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview. “But we really have to wrestle with copyright, and the horizon of copyright, and the horizon of women’s empowerment, are just about the same time-frame.”

Sefaria, which was fully launched in 2013, is all about accessibility. The open-source platform began as an online database for canonical Jewish texts, created by a collaboration between the author Joshua Foer and Google alum Brett Lockspeiser. The site and app began by digitizing the Bible and Talmud and enabling links between sources. Over the years, they’ve filled in the “core canon” of traditional Jewish texts, including the complete Talmud in English and most of the major Biblical and Talmudic commentators. Today, Sefaria counts more than 192 million words of text on the site, and enables users to create their own source sheets of material from across its library.




“On the original language side, we’re in pretty good shape,” said Israel. “Long ago, we’ve covered Tanach [the Bible] and Talmud and I think the major commentators on both... at this point, it’s safe to say we have 90% of drash [commentary].”

But with that complete, Sefaria hasn’t stopped looking for new material, and was thrilled to be able to include the groundbreaking work of Leibowitz. The scholar, who died in 1997, pioneered her “gilyonot,” or source sheets method of studying, in the 1940s and 1950s. Her family worked with Sefaria and allowed full access to her published works free of copyright restrictions. As of Wednesday, 1,500 of Leibowitz’s exegeses are live on the Sefaria site, and cross-linked with the appropriate verses. Of those, 60 of them have been translated into English so far. And the team at the nonprofit had to work for close to nine months to digitize her somewhat unorthodox commentary method and link them up to the relevant chapters and other citations.

“She invented the form” of source sheets, Israel said. “She’s the one who sat down and got her fingers covered with ink in the mimeograph machine, and photocopied and, cut things out, which at that point was cutting edge technology.”

ISRAEL SAID that while Sefaria is working on adding more female contributors to the site, copyright restrictions are the most pressing concern for the site that prizes itself on free, unrestricted access.

“We’re really not in the business of licensing works for short periods of time, because part of our mission is creating something that will outlive us,” he said. “We have a list of eight to 10 female authors that we’re looking into, but most of them are living and actively selling their books, so that makes for a tricky conversation.”

But Israel said that despite taking many years to include a female voice among its sources, he views the platform as one that has empowered female study of Jewish texts.

The site, he said, was originally launched as a way for Foer and Lockspeiser to see if they could bring to life a inter-connected and cross-referenced living Jewish library. 

“But pretty soon, we realized that one of the things that we were doing is giving access to people who don’t have access,” he said. “And women are among a significant portion of that population, one that’s often not comfortable enough – or [they’re] just not welcome – to walk into a Beit Midrash [study hall].”

For women, he said, there aren’t always “the opportunities to learn, and we found that we opened the gates there in a way that was initially unintentional.”

Today, Israel said the site and app have upwards of 250,000 unique visitors a month. The most popular texts, he said, are the Bible as well as Pirkei Avot. And despite achieving its original goals, Sefaria is continuing to fill it the gaps it sees and the requests it receives from users around the world. One of its current goals is to provide the liturgy of the prayer-books for several different denominations, and not just the standardized Orthodox text.

“That’s one of the places were the movements have really crafted their own works of literature in ways that are significantly different,” said Israel. “We really want to get everyone’s liturgy up – Reform, Conservative.”

And with its central texts in place, Sefaria is also turning to one of its most requested items: translations.

“In English, we have some notable gaps – we’re still looking for some translations,” Israel said. “But then in other languages, we’re just starting to venture out – including in French and Spanish, which are the two most spoken languages spoken by Jews worldwide.”


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