THE BLOG
01/24/2013 12:52 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2013

Aaron Swartz and the Pursuit of Knowledge

The Baal Shem Tov once ascended to heaven and asked the messiah: "When will you finally come [and redeem us]?" The messiah answered: "When your wellsprings will burst forth outwards." There was no Internet in the Baal Shem Tov's days back in the 18th century, so he became a peripatetic teacher. He traveled from town to town in Ukraine, disseminating the wellsprings of Torah to hasten the redemption.

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.

Friends, colleagues, mentors -- among them scientists and scholars -- spoke last week at his funeral at the Central Avenue Synagogue of Highland Park where Aaron's father prays daily. They described the Aaron they knew as an unusually gifted individual who simply wanted to make the world a better place. They wept, apologizing again and again for failing to protect and nurture this wunderkind, who, driven by his compassion for humanity to effect change, packed incredible achievements into his 26 years.

Aaron was only 14 years old when he began working with Tim Berners-Lee, widely credited with the invention of the world wide web. Lee spoke at Aaron's funeral:

[Aaron] knew that by writing code that was one way of changing the world. You could change the world directly by giving somebody a hug. You could write a piece of code that would make life easy for a whole lot of people. You could build a website which would make it easier for people to communicate, to work together.

He read copiously, learning from research papers, scientific studies and other scholarly data that helped him in his own thirst for knowledge about everything. But his intellectual curiosity was immense and unselfish, motivated by a desire to share what he knew, to teach what he learned. On his blog, he examined a broad swath of issues, eloquently and patiently breaking down his ideas for the benefit of his readers. In one of them titled "Fix the Machine, Not the Person," he analyzed a study about problems at a GM motor plant. Drawing his own life lessons from the study, he then explained them for his readers so that they have the information that can help them grow and contribute to a kinder, better society. He ends this wonderfully illustrative blog post with a lesson he lived by:

You can't force other people to change. You can, however, change just about everything else. And usually, that's enough.

Unfortunately, Aaron's zeal to make knowledge accessible provoked the ire of those wielding power in our society. Alas, he couldn't seem to wrest himself from the nightmare of unjust prosecution that was aiming to brand him a felon with a long prison sentence.

Michla Schanowitz of North Suburban Lubavitch-Chabad knew Aaron from when he was a little boy. She remembers his bar mitzvah and reflects on the fact that it coincided with the Torah reading of Noah.

I can't help but think about how this parsha relates to Aaron's life story: The world is nearly destroyed but for the teyva -- Hebrew for "ark." Teyva in Hebrew also means "letter" -- the letters which form words that give us knowledge without which there is no life. Aaron understood this.

Like everyone else mourning his death, she is haunted by the thought that perhaps she could have done something, anything, to reach out to Aaron and give him hope. "I wish I had found a way to help him navigate this dark period of his life with faith. Maybe that would have given him strength and solace at a time when he was feeling such unbearable pressure."

Aaron's death triggered a deluge of media attention, and changes are now afoot after a public outcry challenging the systemic injustice that brought a curtain of darkness down on the "sweet, brilliant boy" in the words of Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig, "who only ever asked 'how do I make this world better.'"

Aaron died "on the first day of the 11th month -- the day Moses began to expound on the Torah," said Yosef Schanowitz, Rabbi of Central Avenue Synagogue in Highland Park, where Aaron's funeral was held.

Torah means "to teach." Aaron did not teach Torah per se, but his drive to disseminate knowledge that would help others, to fight against restrictive access to scholarly works intended to be shared, and his willingness to do this at personal risk to himself was profoundly resonant of Jewish ideals. In his burning desire to communicate, in his brilliant use of speech and language by which we humans are enabled to mirror the image of G-d, he shared his thoughts on thinking, and why thinking without communicating is unsatisfactory:

In one of his postings, "What it Means To Be An Intellectual," Aaron wrote about his drive, his

tendency to not simply accept things as they are but to want to think about them, to understand them. To not be content to simply feel sad but to ask what sadness means. To not just get a bus pass but to think about the economic reasons getting a bus pass makes sense. I call this tendency the intellectual...

Language is the medium of thought and so it's no surprise that someone who spends a lot of time thinking spends a lot of time thinking about how to communicate their thoughts as well ... What good is thinking if you can't share?

Real intellectuals ... love nothing more than explaining their ideas so that anyone who's interested can understand them ... academics are encouraged to be almost the opposite. Instead of trying to explain things simply, they're rewarded for making them seem more complicated.

Most of us may not understand a lot of the technical, creative genius behind his work. But that doesn't matter. It is enough to know that he measured progress by how well it served humanity. For now, the most important lesson of all may be the one he taught about how we go about making change happen in a world that desperately needs changing:

"It is when everyone sees it as their responsibility to help; when we each make ourselves the hero of the story ... when we don't allow ourselves to be persuaded that someone else will do it."