Why Mechon Hadar’s New Website is a Big Deal

open accessBy Aharon Varady

Founded less than a decade ago, Mechon Hadar, or Hadar for short, is the umbrella institution of the celebrated halakhic egalitarian Yeshivat Hadar. Hadar just updated its website and it’s not just another institutional facelift. After eight years of growth, Hadar has created a treasure trove of Torah resources, and now it has chosen to share them, intentionally. With very few exceptions, all of Hadar‘s resources are now shared with an Open Content license.

Open Content licenses employ the power of copyright law to ensure that a creative work remains properly attributed while abrogating the normal operation of copyright that forbid the work’s redistribution and adaptation. Open Content is an outgrowth of Open Source, a strategy by which computer programmers have long collaborated in building software by integrating each others code. Say you write a song and would like it to be carried across the world, inviting others to translate it into their own languages and context, but would like its source and origin to remain attributed to you. That’s what an Open Content license does. Recognizing that culture breathes creativity like we breathe oxygen, it’s a legal strategy for keeping cultural resources shared and vital.

Cable Green, director of Global Learning for the Creative Commons, argues that publicly funded resources should be openly licensed resources. When access to a non-perishable and unlimited resource is expanded, its value is not diminished. Rather, the value of the initial investment is sustained every time that resource is shared. In other words, public investment should be shared as a common benefit. The idea may be core to the notion of incorporating organizations in the public interest in the first place. As a publicly constituted and endowed nonprofit, Mechon Hadar should be applauded and esteemed as a model of best practice for openly licensing its resources.

This model is not new. About a decade ago, peer-reviewed scholarly journals began adopting Open Access policies that require publishers to share articles under the terms of Open Content licenses. These policies ensured that the growth of knowledge remain shared rather than stymied by for-profit electronic database companies. For knowledge to increase and improve understanding, peer-reviewed scholarly research relies upon its author’s intention to share that knowledge. So too, Torah relies upon uninterrupted channels for dissemination.

Keeping Torah open is a longstanding pursuit in Rabbinic Judaism. In one famous story in the Talmud (Yoma 35b), Hillel the Elder nearly froze to death while prevented from entering the study hall. The rule of Hillel’s grandson, the sage Gamaliel, was overthrown by colleagues who intended to improve access and participation in it. In the 16th century, the MaHaRaL of Prague explained that we make the infinite Torah *finite* when we learn but refuse to teach. Mechon Hadar has engaged on a project of enlarging its virtual yeshiva, and as a matter of course, it’s employing Open Content licenses to achieve this longstanding rabbinic Jewish ideal of making the beit midrash as open as possible.

Mechon Hadar‘s website contains a vast and growing curated database of divrei torah, translations of sourcetexts, and audio recordings of lectures and music, all available for download. This sets Mechon Hadar on par with a number of other websites of productive Yeshivot. What distinguishes Hadar from them is Hadar‘s adoption of the Attribution (CC BY) 4.0 International license, the Open Content license authored and maintained by the Creative Commons organization, that makes all of this content available for adaptive reuse

The CC BY license tells the teacher who downloads a Hadar sourcesheet that they’re welcome and encouraged to remix it into their curriculum. It lets the gabbai of an independent minyan know they can make copies of Jewish liturgy and remix it into their siddur. It lets chavruta partners around the world know they can integrate translations from sourcesheets into their own and copy audio files of Hadar shiurim and lectures onto their portable media players. It tells innovative projects like the Open Siddur Project and Sefaria to please copy and integrate Hadar‘s creative efforts into their own open source Torah Databases.

Sharing creative content under such licensing might seem like a no-brainer but it’s a big deal in the Jewish educational sphere where institutions, competing with one another for grants, are sometimes inclined to see any work produced under their roof as a proprietary asset to be made publicly available only under restrictive licensing terms and heavy handed branding. More often than not, this creative content simply never makes its way online. When brought online, creative content more than highlights an institution’s brand, it becomes a fantastic resource for creative and adaptive reuse by the public.

The continued accessibility of these resources, however, remains subject to the resources an institution budgets for its stewardship and maintenance. Jewish educators were provided a powerful reminder of the importance of such stewardship when AJWS’s on1foot.org suddenly went offline last year. When the website of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America (now T’ruah: Rabbinic Call for Human Rights) was knocked offline three years ago, its prayers were still available at the Open Siddur Project – mainly because they had the foresight to share their prayers with an Open Content license enabling open source liturgy databases to preserve their innovative content.

It is up to us to share what we mean to preserve through our use. Unseen and lacking any preservation, over time, obscurity and loss are the destiny of so many ephemeral works. If beauty is ephemeral – sheker haheyn v’hevel hayofi, as Proverbs teaches and everything is ephemeral and fleeting, haveil havalim hakol hevel, as Kohelet teaches, then what distinguishes something splendorous from something beautiful is its divinity, resplendent forever, as Isaiah 35:1-2 describes:

The wilderness and the parched land shall be glad;
and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.
It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice, even with joy and singing;
the resplendence of Lebanon shall be given unto it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they shall see the resplendence of haShem, the splendor of our G-D.

Blessings to Mechon Hadar for preserving and sharing Torah with Open Content licensing.

creative commons logoAharon Varady, M.J.Ed, is the founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He was a year-long fellow of Yeshivat Hadat in 2009-10. He is a graduate of the William Davidson School of Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was a Jim Joseph Jewish experiential education fellow (2011-2013). This article is shared with a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.