Digital Archive Takes Talmudic Approach to America’s Founding Texts


Could democracy take a page from the Talmud? The creators of Sefaria think so.

Since 2012 the website has offered free access to classic Jewish texts and linked commentary, establishing itself as an invaluable resource for millions of teachers, students and scholars.

Now it’s applying the same approach to foundational texts of American democracy. It launched the project, fittingly, on July 4 with a small library of texts including the U.S. Constitution, the Federalist Papers and a selection of presidential addresses — all connected by hyperlinks to other texts and with the ability to read them side by side. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, for example, includes links to related content in case law, presidential addresses and state constitutions.

Sefaria is hoping to replicate what is now a protoype to other bodies of knowledge beyond the Jewish canon.

Brett Lockspeiser, Sefaria’s chief technology officer and a co-founder, said, “The real magic of Sefaria — and this is the real magic of the Torah tradition, it’s not something we invented — is in the interconnections. Just putting texts on websites is not particularly novel and not particularly interesting in itself. It gets exciting when you click on a line of text and then a sidebar opens and you get this whole array of voices that are talking to that point and you open things up side by side.”

The approach, Lockspeiser said is a lot about “the tension that happens between multiple voices. That’s a principle of the democratic process, of democratic society, is wanting to be able to respect different voices playing a role. The text can serve as a model of what we want our society to look like.”