The work of the Open Siddur Project is directly aligned with proposition 4. When I founded this project, the initial negative responses I received was that for an “innovation” project, siddurim were not sexy, their liturgical content obscure, their management tedious and that denominational interests and private publishers were fiercely protective of their proprietary intellectual properties. Nevertheless, I understood that of all the creative content in the religious Jewish world, the most dynamic variations historically and the most interesting developments currently were in prayer literature. In my own experience, I knew that as a prescriptive practice, prayer literature often challenged me and that any child or adult encouraged to do so – told that they were allowed to do so – would compose some new prayer, translation, commentary, or instructions for deepening their own personal practice. I want Jewish religious culture to value the wisdom, understanding, and insight of all its members and for all its members to feel inclined to build upon each other’s shared experience. I would expect no less from any collective endeavor.
In the context of capitalism and consumer culture, intellectual property law assumes that any creative effort is harnessed to a proprietary, not a collective, interest. The shortcoming of unmitigated copyright law is that liturgical and ritual resources become commodities to be branded and licensed under some denominational or other proprietary banner, rather than live on as Oral Torah – a contribution to a collective interest and activity. How else to explain the harsh and explicit restrictions on transgressing copyright in so many of our prayerbooks and other published sacred writings? By using Open Content licenses to mitigate the restrictions inherent in copyright law, creative Jews and scholars can preserve their attribution while making their work available in the public commons for adaptive and creative re-use. This is how we grow Jewish culture.
My friend K. composed their own meditation for preparing for shabbat in a shower, in a place without a mikvah. Now K. is gender-queer and a convert to Judaism. They want to share their meditation since it might be useful to others who want to take on a purification ritual but cannot, due to circumstance. Websites like Ritualwell invite K. to submit their works onto their publicly accessible website. However, without some workaround, copyright remains a stumbling block for those needing to make a copy, translation, or adapt and remix her work in new contexts. When K. shares their meditation under an Open Content license, they use copyright to grant permission for the reuse of their work, so long as their original work remains attributed. This is true and real content sharing in conformance with the Jewish value of a torat ḥesed – a Torah of lovingkindness that is received with the intention to share it freely in the name of the one it was received from (Cf. Sukkah 49b, Pirkei Avot 6:6).
The Open Siddur Project provides a new channel for the voices elicited in propositions 1 and 2. The scope of the project includes the full diversity of materials used in Jewish spiritual practice in every language Jews pray or have ever prayed. Prayers that give voice to individual and collective concerns cannot be politically neutral. New prayers that give voice to such concerns are usually disseminated through ephemeral media and become obscure despite their currency (unless they are curated and promoted through major publications). If that ephemeral prayer for the Earth, for biodiversity, for labor justice, etc., is hosted in one archive or one website, the future of that prayer as an accessible, copy-able work is determined by whether that site remains online, whether its author (and their estate) can be located during the century, or more, until their copyright expires.
My work’s focus on advancing an open creative culture expands upon the four propositions explicated by Schwarz in Jewish Megatrends. In a world in which community members are valued as creatives with autonomy in bridging the integrity of their experience with that of their received tradition, what is the role of both secular and religious cultural institutions in fostering and leveraging that creativity as a vital resource for other community members and communities around the world? To put the question differently, exactly when and where does authority and control need to be employed in limiting individual creative contributions to our mesorah (tradition) and its respective lineages.
Beyond promoting the wisdom, understanding, and insight of community members through open forums (like Limmud) we also need to foster a culture of sharing our individual Torah – our unique and personal teachings – with an ideal of creative re-use by others in our community. By aligning our personal and institutional publishing policies with that of the Talmud’s vision of a torat ḥesed – a Torah of lovingkindness – we can ensure that our works remain available for adoption, and adaptive use by others locally, regionally, and internationally. For the past several years this has been the policy adopted by the celebrated Mechon Hadar in sharing the products of their divrei torah, lectures, interviews, and panel discussions in written and recorded media. Such is the main goal of the Sefaria Project in sharing and building upon a digital library of rabbinic Jewish literature.
Open-source sharing with Open Content licensing and libre Open Access sharing policies is the strategy employed outside the Jewish community among people who believe their research and creativity need to be made available to others, especially in the scientific research community. We should appraise our own work within the Jewish world as no less significant than the sharing of scientific research, as no less important and world changing than the reception of the Torah in the open commons of the wilderness of Sinai. If we are hesitant about sharing our work, we should really ask ourselves why we are being actively creative in this field in the first place.
Aharon Varady, M.A.J.Ed., is a curriculum consultant, editor, and publisher of Jewish liturgy and educational materials. A former community planner, in 2009 he founded the Open Siddur Project for sharing prayers and prayerbooks whose contents can be adapted and redistributed under Open Content licensing.