Religion, technology, good people, bad people
When I was young I thought that religion was free. I’m not sure I thought about who pays for the upkeep of religious institutions - maybe God, maybe the government? I was admittedly a little naive to say the least, but I grew up with the notion that people who wanted access to God through an established synagogue should not have to pay for that access. I still believe it.
Pay to Pray
I have traveled all over the world and visited synagogues everywhere. Sometimes on Shabbat, sometimes on holidays. Most places I have gone, I have been welcomed, even on high holy days a seat has been found for me in the back. It wasn’t until I settled in Los Angeles and attended a Conservative synagogue that I saw people actually thrown out of synagogue for not having a ticket, for not paying an entrance fee.
The sight of people being forced to sit outside of the sanctuary in the 100+ degree heat of Los Angeles during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, just because they hadn’t paid thousands of $’s to the synagogue, both disgusted me and made me resolve to provide religion for free in any way that I could.
The way that I could make a difference presented itself to me later that year.
I’ve always been able to look at a complex problem and find a simple solution to it - it’s what I do for a living. Understanding engineering business processes and translating them into modern, simple interfaces and processes. In my mind I envision the complete solution, from A-Z, it all comes together with all its technologies, all its moving parts and all its connections - presented in my mind as one neat package.
What is more complex than the Torah, its laws, its traditions and customs?
Torah and Technology
Combining technology and Torah is a passion of mine - or at least it has been for the last 8 years or so. There is so much complexity in the laws and traditions surrounding chanting Torah; which portions are read and when, which additional verses are read, which Haftarah is read and when? Then you have the various different traditions between congregations. All this creates a metaphorically very complex algorithm that must take into account all the possible combinations of different laws and traditions. Now, that is a challenge that I can get behind!
A cantor came to me in 2015 and asked if I had any ideas how to create a better solution than Google Sheets for managing Torah reading schedules for his congregants that wished to reserve a slot for a reading. I immediately had the solution in my head, yet I couldn’t imagine how complex things would get. I came up with a simple customizable schedule. Members could login and with one click reserve a reading slot, so far it was all good.
I had invented and developed what I aptly named torahreaders.net (https://torahreaders.net)
Very soon, things started to get complex when I had to support the Triennial reading system used by the Conservative movement’s synagogues as well as a weekday schedule and the regular full reading schedule used by orthodox and some conservative communities. Then there were occasions where they wanted to add in additional readings, special readings for different shabbatot and holidays. It was a never ending list of continuous enhancements. Even to this day, I find myself making functional additions to the program, fixing things here and there - it is certainly a labor of love, it is my child!
Religion for Free (or at least for cheap)
At first Torah Readers was free, but as I managed to acquire a few customers, each came with their own requirements from the program. It soon became unsustainable to keep providing a free service, so I set the price at $480/year subscription - that is what the price is today and what it always will be, no matter how much functionality is included in the program or how many customers are registered for the service.
As time progressed the program became more and more rich in functionality. Today the program is at a state that seems to meet the requirements of even the most demanding prospective customers, but it took years of continuous development to get it to this stage.
I added in a complete Tikkun Korim (self learning tool for learning to correctly read the Hebrew from the Torah scroll). I added recordings so that people who signed up for readings could also learn how to chant the readings from the same program.
I built a complete dynamic Tikkun, indexed every letter in the Torah, cross referenced every Hebrew word with vowels and without ( similar to what is shown in the Torah scroll), incorporated English Translations, implemented color coding and highlighting for easier learning. In short, in a few months I built a complete learning program with all the complexity that Judaism infuses with our traditions . I flirted with the idea of charging for the program but eventually decided that my overhead was covered by Torah Readers so I could provide it for free.
I was so proud of myself for developing such a powerful program that could serve up any requested set of verses from anywhere in the bible by dynamically piecing together letters, vowels, ta’amim (trope symbols) into complete words and sentences. Torah for free for everyone - that’s what I wanted to provide. God made the Torah available to everyone, why limit it? I drew inspiration from other sites such as Sefaria (https://www.sefaria.org) and Hebcal (https://www.hebcal.com/) who provided sources for free and survived on donations.
Some Good People
During this endeavor I’ve met with some very good people who have praised my work - even going as far as to mention it as a holy endeavor. I’ve worked with some sticklers for detail who have made my life miserable but must nonetheless be thanked for pushing these solutions forward and making them what they are today. I’ve also met with some bad people - thankfully, very few of those.
When building the Tikkun, I was looking for someone to record their voice - which meant chanting the complete Torah, every Haftarah and every holiday reading - a really difficult task! One of the people I came across while browsing Youtube had a complete set of recordings and a really beautiful voice. We started chatting about using the recordings for the Tikkun, he was very excited about this project and loved what had been developed so far. We agreed on a possible price and timeline for completing the recordings. All was going great until I mentioned that I need to support Triennial readings for Conservative Jews. At this point he told me that as an orthodox Jew, he didn’t want his voice listened to by non-orthodox people. I countered that his videos were all over Youtube where non-Jews, reform Jews, conservative Jews and orthodox Jews could all watch and listen. He felt that since Youtube was owned by non-Jewish people, this was acceptable - probably based upon a Talmud discussion that I have no idea about. However, he continued, my site was owned and run by Jews, so it would not be right to have non-orthodox people listening to his voice.
I doubled down on the argument that we are all Jews just trying to do mitzvot and make this world a better place. “I’ll have to ask my Rabbi”, he replied. A month or two later, when I had already moved on to other solutions, he came back and said that he can’t bear to think that reform or conservative Jews would listen to his voice chanting the holy Torah.
As I said, I met with some very good people, people who helped me without asking anything in return, people who appreciated what I was doing and pushed it forward, people who contributed their voice, their expertise and their wise counsel. However, there was also evil and selfishness to an extreme.
Evil comes knocking
Whenever you develop something, maybe whenever you create something unique and amazing - be it new or renewed, there is always going to be someone waiting in the wings, some with malice in their hearts, someone with jealousy in their hearts, someone who doesn’t want you to succeed for their own selfish reasons. There is always a person who is motivated by greed, who will pounce on your creation in order to claim it as theirs, in order to cause you harm. It was no difference with Torah Readers, no difference with my Tikkun - both the fruit of my imagination, both my creations and the result of a lot of my hard work, the hard work of very good people, of family members. In this case, a “holy man”, an “upstanding pillar” in the community and a cantor did his utmost to discredit me and take ownership of my work.
Maybe I’m still naive but I’m not doing this for the money, I’m not trying to make a living out of this enterprise - profit is not my objective. I enjoy the amazement at creating something that didn’t exist before, how wonderful it feels to solve a complex problem, the joy at seeing people use your creation and enjoy using it. There is no better feeling than this. My feeling, in developing these applications is that I’m just doing a Mitzvah, I’m enabling people to read Torah, to become intimate with the words of the Torah.
When evil comes knocking - and it invariably does - my feeling is that, in this specific instance, they are in fact attacking God - or at least someone who is doing God’s work. Yes, I defend myself, I don’t sit back and wait for malice to destroy my creations, but overall I feel sorry and upset for such people who invariably show their true colors.
A True work of Passion
I love what I do - it’s my hobby that I’m addicted to, just like some people are addicted to skiing, others to football, for me it’s developing applications that embed technology and religion - not as a contradiction but rather as a compliment to each other. This is my passion.
Evil shut down my Tikkun as it was, but today it is resurrected as iTorah.life I gave the database and code away - I put it in the public domain and invited anyone who wants to use it - some did much to my delight. Parts of its code are incorporated into Torah Readers providing many people with a rich resource to help them learn their Torah reading. Just the fact that people use my creations is enough for me.
1. haftarah, haphtara, (Hebrew: הפטרה) "parting," "taking leave", (plural form: haftarot or haftoros) is a series of selections from the books of Nevi'im ("Prophets") of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) that is publicly read in synagogue as part of Jewish religious practice.
2. Many congregations pattern their weekly Torah reading cycle after a system similar to the one used in ancient Israel during the rabbinic period. In this system, the traditional parashiot are each divided into three shorter segments, and the whole Torah is completed once every three years. The system has both advantages and disadvantages, but its ability to shorten the length of Torah reading without sacrificing the complete reading of the Torah on a regular basis has made it the choice of some synagogues in the Conservative Movement.
3. A tikkun kor'im or tiqqun qor'im (readers' tikkun) is a study guide used when preparing to chant [lein] the Torah reading from the Torah in a synagogue. Each tikkun contains two renditions of the masoretic text in Hebrew.