The Mountain and The Ocean:
Navigating Digital Torah
By Sara Wolkenfeld
With Shavuot just behind us, the quintessential encounter with Torah may appear in our mind’s eye as a set of tablets, finite and concrete, presented from the top of a mountain. Engaging with Torah, however, is perhaps more often and more accurately described as the feeling of swimming in a vast ocean of sacred words.
The challenge we are left with in the wake of the holiday is to relate to the story of Shavuot not as a single occurrence, but as the beginning of a process of study and discovery that will last throughout the year. Through generations of transmission and interpretation, the corpus of Torah has expanded exponentially. The ocean grows. In the digital age, the sea of Torah is both more massive and more present than ever before. Articles, texts, data and information surround us every time we open a browser window. It can be difficult to navigate oceans of information without being inundated. Learning, within this metaphor of the sea of Torah, can seem like drowning.
As Sefaria’s Chief Learning Officer, I am often told that the amount of information on the website is daunting or even dangerous. This feedback does not break down along denominational lines; I have heard this fear from liberal supplementary school teachers, Orthodox rabbis, and secular Jewish teenagers alike. People are drawn to the vision of a boundless sea of Torah, open to all who wish to dip a toe in its waters, but they are afraid of treading in the waters of our tradition. I know this feeling myself. One source leads to another and then to another. I find something unintended, undecipherable, or contradictory to my worldview. I should just close my browser window, but I don’t. I am caught in an undertow of sorts; a feeling that I might be drawn in past my comfort level and might not easily emerge.
In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, digital access to Torah is more crucial than ever before. Sefaria’s traffic has risen approximately 30% since March, and April marked an all-time high in the number of unique users on the site. With most of our institutions shut to in-person participation and our guides to religious life never closer than six feet away, people are reaching across the internet to read the weekly Torah portion, study for bnai mitzvah, attend online supplementary and day schools, and above all, to seek comfort and inspiration in the Jewish library.
The would-be learners I introduce to the site express anxiety and trepidation over the sheer scope of Sefaria’s library, but the hope of finding sources that will ease the passage of this frightening time now more often overshadows the fear. The unknown is scary for all of us, and there is so much we do not not know right now, but Jewish texts hold the promise of something we can learn and absorb. Slowly, of necessity, we are learning to swim in the waters of Torah.
The process that began on Mount Sinai is ongoing. A famous midrashic tradition notes that we are never truly done receiving the Torah. Every day, the words of Torah should seem new to us in some way. The flip side of the fear that comes when we confront something new and unfamiliar is the potential for a sense of relief and triumph when we emerge renewed and reenergized by the process. I hope that even the most seasoned Torah learner will feel the thrill of uncovering something new and unknown on Sefaria. Torah truly is a vast sea, and core to Sefaria’s vision for our project is to allow for the creation of new works of Torah. The conversation is ever expanding, and we will never master all of it. To accept Torah in its fullness is to accept that we will always be a little bit adrift. The key to surfing digital Torah is to channel some of the fear into excitement.
“All rivers run to the sea, and the sea is never full.” The midrash explains the metaphor contained in this verse in Ecclesiastes. Water is wisdom, and the sea in which it is contained is the human heart. Our hearts have an endless capacity to take in more knowledge, without ever overflowing. We can swim in the sea of Torah without drowning because the waters of Torah buoy us. At this time when so much is new and unfamiliar and the learning curves are steep, I invite you into Sefaria’s limitless waters of Torah.
Sara Wolkenfeld is Chief Learning Officer, Sefaria.