The last common denominator of Jewish society

An online project aims to root Jews worldwide in a daily endeavor – Bible study.

By ALAN ROSENBAUM
March 7, 2018 21:03
A HAREDI child reads from the Bible during a reading class at the Kehilot Ya’acov Torah School for b

A HAREDI child reads from the Bible during a reading class at the Kehilot Ya’acov Torah School for boys in Jerusalem in 2010. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)

 
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What’s the best-selling book of all time? The Bible. Which book is presented to Jewish IDF soldiers upon their taking the army oath of allegiance? The Bible. What Jewish book did David Ben-Gurion, first prime minister of Israel, value above all others, and consider to be “the most significant for humankind, as a whole”? Once again, it’s the Bible.

Yet, which subject is studied for less time than most other school subjects – just two hours per week in Israeli state high schools, and is among the students’ least favorite subjects? You guessed it – the Bible.

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How has the Bible, the core text of Judaism, known in Hebrew as Tanach, an acronym of the first Hebrew letter of each of the text’s three subdivisions – Torah (“Teaching”), Nevi’im (“Prophets”) and Ketuvim (“Writings”) – become relegated to such a minor role within the Israeli educational system, and what is being done about it? AVI WORTZMAN, an activist and former member of Knesset who also served as deputy minister of education (2013-2014), says that in Israel, the study of the Tanach was once highly regarded, not only among religious Jews, but among the secular Jewish community as well.

“Some 50 years ago, the study of Tanach in the state school system was much more established and entrenched.

There were many more hours devoted to its study – more than twice as many as there are now.”

Wortzman adds that Bible study was valued in the home as well.

“There were many homes where parents would read stories from the Bible to their children before bedtime.



Many children could recite well-known texts by heart, such as Deborah’s Song [Book of Judges, Chapter 5], Moses’s song when the Jewish people crossed the Red Sea [Exodus, Chapter 15], and the Ten Commandments [Exodus 20].” Today, according to the results of a 2013 survey, while 93% of Israelis have a copy of the Tanach in their homes, nearly one third can’t remember the last time they opened the book.

Wortzman suggests that immediately after the founding of the state there was more of a pioneering feeling and greater identification and connection with the Bible, due to the historic events that were taking place.

“Today’s generation is much more technological, much more focused on accomplishments, and today the Bible is the least-liked subject among Israeli students.”

Wortzman says that for several years he had been thinking about the idea of establishing a daily Bible study program. The breaking point occurred when he was watching an episode of Ha’ah Hagadol, the Israeli version of the popular television series Big Brother, in which contestants live together in a house isolated from the outside world. In the Israeli version of the show, contestants are permitted to bring the Tanach into the home. One of the contestants, Wortzman says, brought a Tanach into the bathroom to read.

Recalling the incident, Wortzman says, “If the debate is whether the Bible is permitted inside the bathroom, then we have gone too far. We must do something to bring the Bible back to its proper place. I said, ‘Let’s think of a way to take the Tanach and turn it into something that turns the entire Jewish people into one large community.’ The idea to create a worldwide community of daily Bible study was born.”

Wortzman worked hard to get the initiative off the ground. It became called 929: Tanakh B’yachad, and its platform is perhaps the most accessible – the Internet.

More than 600 prominent public figures from all walks of life were recruited to contribute to the website, and together with the Education Ministry and the Tel Aviv-based Center for Educational Technology, the project began to take shape under the leadership of Rabbi Benny Lau, rabbi of Jerusalem’s Ramban Synagogue, and journalist Gal Gabai. Half of the project’s budget comes from the Education Ministry and half from private donors.

The 929: Tanakh B’yachad Project was officially launched in December 2014. Every day at midnight, the daily chapter on the 929 website changes. The next chapter appears, along with information, brief explanations, video clips, pictures, and a Hebrew narration of the text. An app for mobile devices was also created, making it even easier to study the daily chapter on the go.

Discussions surrounding the daily chapter take place on social networks, in virtual study groups, but also in the real world, with encounters and events. Among the participants are some of Israel’s leading academics, cultural icons, public figures, artists and writers.

What is the significance of the number 929? Oddly enough, the division of the Tanach into the current system of chapters – 929 in all – was created by Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury and English cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church in 1205. Langton, incidentally, was a well-known antisemite who tried to enforce a rule requiring Jews to wear identifying marks on their clothing.

SHORTLY AFTER the 929: Tanakh B’yachad began, it became ensnared in controversy. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, rabbi of the settlement of Beit El and head of the Ateret Kohanim yeshiva in Jerusalem, expressed strong opposition to the project, saying that many of the articles were disrespectful and improper. While he tempered his criticism by saying that there were also worthwhile articles on the site written by “God-fearing” individuals, he expressed doubts that the average reader would be able to distinguish between quality content and what he felt was heresy.

There was even criticism from more progressive quarters. Rabbi Amnon Bazak, a well-known lecturer at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut and Bible teacher at Herzog College and Migdal Oz, also expressed disapproval about some of the material on the site. Today, Bazak feels that his criticisms did make an impact and he agrees that the project has made a valuable contribution to the dissemination of Bible study.

The 929: Tanakh B’yachad project has grown and matured since its introduction just over three years ago, and has continued to attract a wide group of users, both secular and religious. The Center for Educational Technology, which produces the content, is constantly measuring and monitoring the site’s usage.

According to the center, 135,000 people participate in the daily or weekly study, either on the website or with the app. Of that number, 75% define themselves as “non-observant.” The average user spends more than five minutes on the site and reads four pages per entry, which is far above the norm for Web usage.

Lau, who heads the project, explains that years ago, the leading figures of modern Zionism were Tanach enthusiasts – prime minister Ben-Gurion, military hero Moshe Dayan and biblical archeologist Yigael Yadin all “lived the Bible.” Theirs was a uniquely Israeli version, he says, that focused on geography, history and politics, without a sole focus on religion.

“The thought that the Tanach is not a popular book for the young Israeli is an incredible thought... I don’t want to sound overly dramatic,” Lau says, “but if we don’t fix this break, we will be in great danger.”

The key to repairing this break, he says, is that religious people must not feel that the Bible belongs exclusively to them, any more than it belongs to the less observant.

“There are many mistakes that we, the religious, have made in this area, such as the feeling that we have ownership of the spiritual ‘properties’ of the Jewish people. The idea that the Bible belongs to the entire Jewish people, says Lau, is the critical point of 929: Tanakh B’yachad.

“We don’t have ownership; we are partners,” he says.

While Lau concedes that there can be friction between different elements, when it comes to Bible study, he says that each side – both traditional and less observant – must give up a little.

“Someone who is not ready to live together with his neighbor shouldn’t speak about living together. The condition for living together rests on the idea that each side must be a little ‘less’ and make room for the other.”

While Lau says that each side must learn to live with each other, he does not permit any posts or articles on 929: Tanakh B’yachad that disparage the Torah, the Sages or God. The purpose of 929: Tanakh B’yachad, he says, was to create a common language, similar to that of the daily Daf Yomi Talmud study program, but for the entire population, not only for the religious sector.

A QUICK glance at the site on an average day shows a wide variety of content designed to appeal to different elements of the Israeli population. For example, on Sunday, December 31, 2017, 929: Tanakh B’yachad began the study of the Song of Songs. The site shows the full Hebrew text of the chapter, which can be listened to aloud by tapping on a button. Another tap reveals a commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz explaining the text in modern Hebrew.

There is a potpourri of interesting articles on a wide selection of related subjects, such as how the Song of Songs entered the biblical canon, David Ben-Gurion’s thoughts about the Song of Songs, an article by noted Bible scholar and lecturer Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun on the geography of the area described in the book, an audio clip of the late Ofra Haza singing a song whose words are taken from the text, and a commentary by Michael Handelsaltz, a former Haaretz theater critic, about the origins of the phrases “Song of Songs” and “Book of Books.” In addition to the app and website, 929: Tanakh B’Yachad has its own YouTube channel, which broadcasts clever explanatory videos about the Bible.

A recent 929: Tanakh B’yachad study evening on the Song of Songs at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem attempted to demonstrate the place of the Tanach as a common denominator in Israeli society, as a book for all sectors. The evening featured remarks by Lau and others, as well as a musical performance by singer Erez Lev- Ari. Pointedly, the evening was dedicated to the memory of the late Yossi Sarid, a Knesset member from 1974 to 2006 who also served as environmental protection and education minister. Sarid, despite being an avowed secularist, read, valued and treasured the Tanach.

Zvika “Biko” Arran, CEO of 929: Tanakh B’yachad, likens those who participate in the 929: Tanakh B’yachad project to those who hike Shvil Yisrael, the Israel National Trail, which runs the length of Israel between its southern and northern borders.

“For me, Shvil Yisrael is the benchmark. Even if you do just a part of it, you feel connected.” The number of people who complete the entire trail is relatively small, but there are many people who are interested in completing it, or adding it to their wish list, or completing a small amount, and may eventually finish the entire trail. So too, he hopes, studying the Tanach (via this highly accessible medium) will spawn similar desires.

ARI FERZIGER, a lawyer who works at a large aerospace firm, was attracted to the 929: Tanakh B’yachad program when it began. Ferziger, a graduate of Yeshiva University, says, “I told people, that instead of sitting around and having coffee with everyone, I’m going to take my cup of coffee and I’m going to sit down at a table in the conference room next door to take part in this new initiative – 929: Tanakh B’yachad, studying a chapter each day. If anyone else wants to join me, that’s what I’m going to be doing every day from 1:30 p.m. until 1:40 p.m.”

His daily study sessions attracted between 10 and 12 people, mostly secular Israeli lawyers.

“What was wildly disparate was the range of knowledge about the Bible, and Jewish education more broadly.

There were people who benefited from intense years of full-time yeshiva study and there were people without any knowledge at all, but they were thoughtful people who were highly motivated,” he says.

“It was interesting to see how people brought their backgrounds to the table. For one person – no matter what – it would be a question of whether God exists or not. There was always someone for whom things gravitated around feminist issues, no matter the topic. Another person, who held a senior post in the army, was into maps, military strategies and generals.”

The fact that so much of the population has little or no awareness of Tanach, threatens to create divisions within Israeli society, Ferziger explains. Yet, their joint Bible study raised issues that inspired dialogue, and that dialogue was a positive thing. Studying the Bible together, says Ferziger, “helped people to understand each other better.”

Says Arran, “The real goal of 929: Tanakh B’yachad is having a common denominator. I think the Tanach is the last common denominator of Jewish society in Israel.

It’s not Jerusalem, it’s not the IDF, it’s not the Holocaust, it’s not the State of Israel. The Tanach is a tool that gives Israeli society a positive, constructive common ground.”

Paraphrasing Rabbi Lau, he adds that people in Israel generally feel united only in situations when they feel threatened. The joint study of the Tanach, he adds, gives everyone an opportunity to come together from a positive point of view, with everyone being on the same page, and in the same chapter.

This summer, 929: Tanakh B’yachad will complete its first cycle of the entire Tanach, and will begin the next cycle immediately. This next cycle will contain more English text, as the project attempts to broaden its appeal to Jews living outside of Israel and others with less-than-fluent Hebrew skills.

“This project belongs to the entire Jewish people; it is not restricted for those Jews who are living in Israel.

In the end, every Jew in the world has to feel a part of this. The Jewish people without the Bible is not the Jewish people,” says Wortzman.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you come from. It is the heart of every Jew.”

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