Did Aaron Swartz’s Judaism influence his internet activism?

For millenia, religion was one of the primary ways we understood the world. And even as we attempt to create a “secular” knowledge that is free of religious presuppositions, the way religion shaped the building blocks of how we learn remains apparent. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the way that the constitution imitates the bible: both are texts that are intended to provide the foundation for societies.

So here’s a question for you: did Aaron Swartz’s Jewish background influence his notion that information should be free to all? Judaism has long focused on the preservation and dissemination of knowledge – the Misnah, for example, is a collection of teachings of Rabbis, written down so they would not be forgotten.

Baila Olidort, who wrote an article for The Huffington Post that placed Aaron Swartz alongside the great teachers of Judaism, thinks so. Here is what she wrote:

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Hasidism took his cues from the Baal Shem Tov. He understood the liberating power of Jewish knowledge, and promoted the dictum of “bursting forth” by teaching the esoteric and historically inaccessible Jewish thinking. Traditionalists, even within his own movement, were alarmed that he dared to release these long-guarded parts of Judaism.

The democratization of knowledge in fact has much earlier roots in Jewish life. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla, a first century leader, concerned that the practice of oral transmission of Torah from from master to teacher would not endure, instituted a network of schools for young children. If not for him, says the Talmud, “Torah would have been lost to Israel.”

Aaron Hillel Swartz, the “old, wise soul” whose life came to a tragic end on a recent Friday morning, intuitively valued teaching and the sharing of knowledge as a fundamental human responsibility. An Internet genius who could have been a millionaire many times over, he dedicated himself instead to enabling people at large with access to the mysterious doings in the ivory towers. The demise of this “gentle, vulnerable boy” persecuted for his passion has now captured the interest, the sympathy and the anger of millions.

I don’t know Swartz’s story well enough to make judgements about whether his Judaism influenced him specifically – and I’m not sure Olidort does either. Still, it’s probably the case that the notion of what “knowledge” was that Swartz received from his parents and from society has its basis in Jewish notions of knowledge and its preservation.

Swartz once wrote,

The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier. There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it.

Perhaps when we say that Swartz’s actions were religious, what we really mean is that his actions were oriented towards teaching – of ensuring that truth was made publicly available, not locked away behind firewalls.


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