Aaron Swartz


By Yonatan Gordon

I thought of using many titles for this article, but if you are reading this, you know why without the need for anything more.

This essay’s about life. Not by choice, but because there’s no other option. It’s about the persistent ambitions and the resolve that allows us to pursue our dreams. It’s about a lot of things, but I wish I didn’t have to write this at all.

There are many smart people in the world, but smarts combined with a perpetual drive is a powerful thing. It’s in this light that we would like to remember Aaron Swartz. Someone who gave his all to everything he did because he believed it would make the world better.

Our task here is not to delve into the manifestation of the dreams and ambitions, but simply to portray them without the external trappings. What does it mean to have open access to information, and how can this bring about a content revolution? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves when thinking about Aaron’s life.

I’d like to start with a story from my own life. I merited several years back to be yelled at by a PhD student of one of the most prestigious universities. He took issue with something I was promoting and wanted me ejected from the premises. That fact alone does not a story make. There is an expression “two Jews, three opinions” … debates and disagreements are many times something very praiseworthy in Jewish tradition. What surprised me most was the comment that he made to his PhD advisor. He said the teachings were simplistic. Now for an academic, this is the worst possible insult, but I never fully understand a complete answer to this comment. That was until I thought about what to write for this essay.

To approach “open information,” or better yet “open knowledge,” from a deeper stance means to take concepts beyond the sense of intellectual elitism. This gave me great comfort to think about it this way. That to be “simple” meant that students of this debated work could each approach it on their own level … or be misconstrued entirely as was done by this PhD student.


For anyone following the news about the response to Aaron’s life efforts, it’s cleared that there is a shared sentiment. It’s time. It’s time that intellectual content be widespread and accessible to everyone. Any good writer is reluctant to see his ideas enter the domain of copyrights and capitalism. As we discussed in our “Reflections on the Print vs. Digital Debate” the primary motivation of an author is that the light of their ideas be felt. While our task is not to discuss the details, what we are now proposing is that it was never the intention that ideas should be copyrighted or owned by publishers to begin with. Once an idea takes printed form, then it enters a de facto state prone to litigation. This was never the intention.


How would we translate “content revolution” according to Jewish thought? Let’s call it making a “himmel shturem” (heavenly storm).

It says that when a Jew reaches the state of בכל מאדך (with all of your “more”) it creates a heavenly storm. Now there are those who are able to give themselves to God when they say “God is one” in the Shema prayer. But it says that the main part is experienced when you arrive at the words, “with all of your more.” The way this is explained is that even if no one is threatening you, you are able to give everything you have; and divest everything else as something extraneous.

It’s not enough to be driven to a cause. Part of what makes the drive that inspired Aaron so telling is that it wasn’t about him at all. But more than just being driven to the cause, he was led by this “more” aspect to always put his fullest into everything he did. The fact that there’s such a storm now is a testament to the life he spent selflessly pursuing public betterment. This is what’s termed the difference between the plague of the Livestock Disease (דבר) and Hail (ברד). Whereas one’s possessions are something external to a person, to bring down a hail storm takes the full devotion of self; between something that affects possessions (דבר) and the storm filled content revolution we are currently experiencing (ברד).


The Chassidic take then on Aaron’s dream is that the floodgates of knowledge should fill the world; as with the well-known prophecy about the times of Moshiach, “For the world will be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the ocean bed.” Access to knowledge should be open. Thoughts and ideas should be as accessible as when they were first thought in the authors’ minds. In Chassidut it is even taught that the simple Chassid can appreciate more of a concept than the intellectual Chassid. Whereas the simple Chassid appreciates the essence of the concept, the intellectual one has varying degrees of self-pride that need to be stripped away.

I wish I had known Aaron. I think we would have had a great deal to talk about. For a while I’ve had “content activist” as one of the titles I thought would be interesting to put on my LinkedIn profile. But I didn’t really know what it meant, just sounded interesting. Thank you Aaron for showing me what these two words mean.

May we merit today to create our own himmel shturem to bring Moshiach now.

Freely adapted from the 29 Tevet 5773 weekly shiur from Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh.

Photo Credit: Mashable.com


One thought on “Aaron Swartz

  1. Pingback: Becoming a Content Activist « Community of Readers

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