Sefaria releases new ‘Democracy’ project

The Mishnah meets the American Revolution?

Sefaria, a non-profit that provides public domain access to Jewish texts and commentary, has developed a prototype of its highly praised model to bring its technology to other bodies of work — starting with the U.S. Constitution.

In addition to providing primary source material, Sefaria, founded in 2013 by Google developer Brett Lockspeiser and author Joshua Foer, maintains a user-friendly interface and software to highlight interlinking references and citations throughout Jewish scripture.

“I think we were really inspired by the shape of Torah itself. The Torah tradition has this texture and shape that the printed ‘Vilna Shas,’ the printed Talmud, really has this visual sense of,” Lockspeiser, who serves as the organization’s chief technology officer, explained to Jewish Insider.

“All along, we’ve had in the back of our heads that the software that we’re building isn’t necessarily specifically about Jewish content,” he continued. “It’s something that applies to any body of text where you have lots of voices kind of in communication and dialogue with one another.”

Sefaria, working with a grant from the Lippman Kanfer Foundation, developed a prototype of its model with texts related to the birth of American democracy. The group chose the United States Constitution as an example, partly for its robust links to other noted texts but also because the Constitution and related texts already existed in the public domain. Lockspeiser emphasized this was only an initial example, mentioning the works of Shakespeare, Greek and Roman literature, medical texts, and texts of other religions as potential future projects.

Just as with its original platform, the goal of Sefaria will remain the same: to promote learning by providing free access to primary and secondary sources. Lockspeiser said he and others on the team have already spoken to experts about the unlimited future potential.

Tamara Mann Tweel, a professor in Columbia University’s American Studies Program, spoke glowingly of Sefaria’s new direction.

“The project will benefit teachers and students across the country by allowing them to access their rich democratic inheritance and converse with the great political and literary minds who have helped build that inheritance,” Tweel told JI. ”Sefaria took the infrastructure built for our Jewish textual tradition and gave it to our democratic one.”

Currently, the prototype website — which also lists works including the Declaration of Independence, Madison’s notes from the Federal Convention, the Magna Carta and important Supreme Court decisions — appears bare-bones, especially in comparison to the complexity of its mother site.

Still, the possibilities for future development are immediately apparent. While Lockspeiser admits there remain “a million steps,” before the site is ready for mass use, the Google alum is enthusiastic about the progress.

“I think we’re being really successful right now at the initial demo moment,” he said. “You look at it and you’re just like, ‘This is interesting. This is cool. There’s something here.’ And that’s the seed of a project being successful.”

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