by R. Gil Student
I. Sefaria Controversy
A minor controversy brewed recently when some people noticed that Sefaria provides readers a non-Orthodox Bible translation. This offers us an opportunity to have a long overdue discussion about what Sefaria is and is not, and how to use it properly (or not at all). But first, let us briefly explain what Sefaria is. Sefaria is an online digital library of Jewish texts, aimed at making them accessible to a broad audience. The website and app design is cutting edge. Initially, the organization intended to solicit English translations from public volunteers. That did not go well and the organization instead focused on buying the rights to existing English translations. Most notably, it provides the entire Koren Steinsaltz translation of the Talmud. And all of it is free.
Students and teachers can access thousands of text and commentaries in Hebrew and, when available, English translation. Sometimes other languages are available, as well. The texts are intended to be used and copied. Sefaria has a feature that allows users to build source sheets for classes. You can keep them private or you can share your source sheets with the public. Sefaria runs essay contests and promotes scholarship among its users. The organization actively reaches out to multiple Jewish audiences from across the spectrum of affiliation and practice.
However, Sefaria is not, and has never claimed to be, Orthodox. Its founders are passionate and talented Jews who do not affiliate as Orthodox. Sefaria holds a Jewish Women Scholars’ Writing Fellowship which includes Orthodox, Open Orthodox and Conservative women, many of whom are rabbis (possibly Reform also but I am not sure). All of what preceded is a description, not a criticism. This is what Sefaria is and it has never claimed anything to the contrary.
II. Non-Orthodox Texts
Orthodox is not a halakhic term. It is an ambiguous term with different meanings. It can mean people and ideas that exist in the Orthodox Jewish community. It can also mean people and ideas that correspond to a shared group of traditional beliefs. There are people and ideas within the Orthodox community that do not fit into the shared group of traditional beliefs. In what follows, I use Orthodox to mean conforming to those beliefs.
My recollection is that Sefaria always contained non-Orthodox texts but kept them in a separate section. This allowed Orthodox users who are uncomfortable with non-Orthodox texts to easily avoid them. Over the years, this has changed and non-Orthodox texts are included in various categories. For example, under the Mishnah category, you find all the tractates plus many commentaries, including one by the Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Under the list of Talmud commentaries, you find “Rereading the Rabbis; A Woman’s Voice” listed just before “Reshimot Shiurim” of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik.
In 2022, Sefaria added the 2006 JPS “gender-sensitive” translation as its default English translation of Chumash and more recently as its Navi translation, as well. This highlighted a change. While Sefaria used to have non-Orthodox texts available to users who want to find them, it then moved those texts to be immediately at hand. Now the non-Orthodox texts are the default. Put differently, non-Orthodox texts used to have to be pulled by the users; now they are pushed to all users, unless you sign in and change your settings. Sefaria used to be like going to the library. Now it is like going to the library and being greeted at the door by a librarian handing you a non-Orthodox Bible translation.
III. Gender Sensitive Torah
This requires a few caveats. I believe the old 1962 JPS translation was Sefaria’s default for many years. That, too, was non-Orthodox but it was not dramatically different from an Orthodox translation. Even still, it was an issue that should have been noted but was overlooked. The new JPS translation is so different that it jumps out at you. On the other hand, a “gender sensitive” translation is not as radical as some might think. It does not have anything to do with the current gender confusion associated with LGBTQ issues. Rather, it is born to some degree from a feminist concern about portraying God as male and default biblical commands as applying only to males. Instead, divine descriptors are translated in a gender neutral way when possible. We can engage in an interesting discussion about whether this is theologically preferable but from a literal, textual perspective, it is very clunky and does not accurately reflect the Hebrew gender.
Additionally, many other terms are translated in a gender neutral way. This leads to incredibly awkward renditions and some really bad translations. For example, JPS 2006 begins the Sotah passage with, “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: Any party whose wife has gone astray and broken faith with him” (Num. 5:12). Note how the phrase “ish ish,” which means “any man,” is translated as “any party.” Regarding a father selling his daughter into slavery, an obviously uncomfortable passage to people today but that is a separate discussion, the JPS 2006 translates it: “When a parent sells a daughter as a slave” (Ex. 21:7). This is an inaccurate, cringe-worthy translation that should never have been published. Yet it is the default translation on Sefaria unless you log in and change your default settings. Meaning, this translation is what most users see when they use Sefaria.
In 1953, JPS began work on a new translation of the Bible and invited respected Jewish academic scholars as well as rabbis from the three major Jewish movements to join. The RCA presented before Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik the question of whether or not they should allow a representative of their organization to participate. He replied in opposition to the Orthodox joining the effort because he expected the product would be contrary to Jewish tradition (Community, Covenant and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications, pp. 110-11). Rav Soloveitchik was correct about the resulting 1962 JPS translation and even more-so about its 2006 translation.
IV. Using Non-Orthodox Texts
The question of Sefaria boils down to how comfortable you are using non-Orthodox texts. This is not a new question. Rav Moshe (Maharam) Schick (19th cen., Hungary; Responsa, Orach Chaim, no. 66) responds to a question about how Jews should treat Christian missionary Bibles. In a postscript to that responsum, he discusses Bibles with non-Orthodox commentary. Maharam Schick offers two approaches:
1) He believes that the Hebrew text is fine but the commentary should not be used.
2) He quotes Rav Chaim Halberstam (Divrei Chaim, Yoreh De’ah, no. 60) who believes you should burn the entire text.
A third approach is taken by Rav Yosef Zechariah Stern (19th cen., Lithuania). He argues that a mature scholar can read non-Orthodox texts and take the good while setting aside the religiously problematic material (Responsa Zeikher Yehosef, Yoreh De’ah, no. 173; see also Sedei Chemed, Pe’as Ha-Sadeh, vol. 1, Letter alef, no. 64). (I expand on the different views on this subject at greater length in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society.)
According to Rav Stern, a mature Orthodox scholar can use Sefaria and evaluate the non-Orthodox texts on their merit. According to Maharam Schick, you can use Sefaria but you should actively turn off the non-Orthodox texts. That is not always easy. It took me time to learn how to change the default translations. According to Rav Halberstam, you may not use Sefaria because it contains non-Orthodox texts.
It seems that those who want to use Sefaria need to determine their own comfort level. Some people come from the non-Orthodox community or are comfortable with non-Orthodox texts. Those who do not and are not need to discuss with their rabbi whether they should take the approach of Rav Stern and utilize non-Orthodox texts for their value; or the approach of Maharam Schick and disable the non-Orthodox texts where possible; or the approach of Rav Halberstam and delete the Sefaria app.
Another option, which I have chosen, is to use an alternate source of texts and translations. I often use the vast library of PDF sefarim on HebrewBooks.org. And I spend much time every day with the Mikra’os Gedolos and Talmud with commentaries available on AlHaTorah.org. Both are sites run by Orthodox Jews for Orthodox Jews. They take some time to learn but provide very powerful tools for learning Torah. AlHaTorah.org uses some texts from Sefaria (including the English Talmud) but curates a setting that is more comfortable to the Orthodox scholar. In this way, Sefaria partners with Orthodox organizations that provide users with a more comfortable experience.