Forward Thinking

Hillel the Hacktivist

By Daniel Sieradski

In an effort to drive home the point that everyone, regardless of their economic standing, is required to study Torah, the Talmud cites a story of Rabbi Hillel the Elder.

daniel sieradski
Aaron Swartz

Every day, Hillel worked and earned about half a dinar. He spent half of that to feed and clothe his family, and the other half on his yeshiva tuition. One day, after addressing his family’s needs, Hillel hadn’t enough money left to cover his tuition, and so he was barred entrance from the yeshiva. Rather than heading home dejected, Hillel climbed up to the yeshiva’s roof and pressed his ear to the skylight to hear the rabbis teaching below. Rapt in words of Torah, he failed to notice as it began to snow, and was soon covered from head to toe. The next morning, the rabbis noticed it was darker than normal in the beit midrash, and upon inspection saw a body slumped over their skylight. They raced up to the roof and there discovered Hillel buried beneath the snow. The rabbis dug him free, carried him downstairs, bathed and clothed him, and set him before a fire to thaw.

Then they charged him with multiple counts of felony infringement carrying a maximum sentence of 50 years imprisonment and up to $4 million in fines.

Actually, the last part didn’t happen to Hillel. Rather, his primitive act of copyright circumvention is lauded by the Talmud as exemplary of the spirit with which one should commit one’s self to the pursuit of knowledge.

But it did happen to Aaron Swartz, the 26 year-old hacktivist who took his own life last week after hearing that his latest plea bargain offer had been rejected by the U.S. attorneys prosecuting his case. Swartz’s supposed crime was legally downloading thousands of academic articles from the online database JStor with the intent to illegally share them on the Internet for free.

Swartz grew up in an Orthodox home in Highland Park, Ill., outside Chicago. And though he became an avowed atheist as a teenager, ultimately rejecting religion, his life’s work was nonetheless infused with deeply engrained Jewish values of inquisitivness, scholarship, iconoclasm and a passion for social justice.

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