Note: This article accompanies a larger story on Sefaria.
How Sefaria will affect Judaica publishers, many of whom are increasingly venturing into the digital realm, and to what extent they will cooperate with its open-source approach, remains to be seen.
Approached by The Jewish Week, the leaders of the Brooklyn-based ArtScroll, one of the largest and most financially successful Jewish publishers in the world, insisted that they welcome Sefaria and do not see it as a threat to their business.
In an e-mail interview, Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz, whose company recently began selling a digital version of its Schottenstein Talmud ($699.99 for the complete set) for use on the iPad, said they “welcome every endeavor that will increase Jewish learning and make Jewish classics available to as many people as possible.”
While free digital access “will certainly impact on the sales of reprints of existing public domain books,” they said, “there is always a market for new scholarly editions, and commentaries on existing books.”
Rabbi Barry Schwartz, director of the Jewish Publication Society, told The Jewish Week his nonprofit is “very supportive of organizations like Sefaria and others that want to bring the classic texts of Judaism to the people. That’s been our mission for 125 years.”
Best known for its English translation of the Bible — sales of the version published in 1985 continue to subsidize much of its other projects — JPS has sold licensing rights to several for-profits and nonprofits, including two software publishers and Oxford University Press.
It has, however, turned down requests from open-source projects like PocketTorah (an app for practicing the trope of Torah and Haftarah portions) and The Open Siddur Project, which make their material available for re-use under Creative Commons licensing. These projects, like Sefaria, instead use JPS’s 1917 translation, whose copyright has expired and is thus in the public domain.
“The issue really has been to recognize that this is our lifeblood,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “We wouldn’t be able to do all our wonderful projects if it weren’t for the JPS Tanakh. It still sells hundreds of thousands of copies a year in print.”
JPS, which recently entered a “publishing partnership” with University of Nebraska Press (the university press handles printing, distribution and marketing of printed books), tried to develop its own online text-study/social-networking portal, called Tagged Tanakh, where users could interact with one another and share their own commentaries. The project was put on hold because it was “overambitious” and ran into “technical difficulties,” Rabbi Schwartz said.
JPS is currently exploring something similar called e-TANAKH, which would involve partnering with the Reform or Conservative movement and would include hyperlinks to modern commentaries, such as the Conservative movement’s “Etz Hayim,” but hasn’t resolved the “business plan.”
Might the creation of Sefaria — which would make every classical Jewish text and translation available free of charge — eventually eliminate the need for Judaica publishers altogether?
Rabbi Schwartz thinks not. Instead, he thinks that greater digital access to the texts will simply increase enthusiasm and interest in Jewish learning and lead to more people who will “consider owning it in print if they can afford it.”
“People will still value old-fashioned print books,” he said. “There will be less in printed form in the future, but we have to face the future, we can’t hide from it.”