Unorthodox Torah study

The founders of BINA, Tel Aviv’s secular yeshiva, are still waiting for the institution to be recognized by the Orthodox establishment – and funded by the state.

Bina students 370 (photo credit: adi avishai)
Bina students 370
(photo credit: adi avishai)
The lesson is about to begin and all of the students scramble to find a seat. The lecturer races into the room and without wasting a second, opens with a question on the Talmud study with a section that deals with the dilemma of how the talmudic sages distributed resources. The lesson on social justice lasts three hours, during which the students participate in deep conversations about the value of human life, as they try to understand what the commentators wrote.
This course is being taught in a yeshiva, but not one in the traditional sense.
This one is called BINA, and it is the first secular yeshiva in Israel.
There are 20 students in this class, the majority of whom are women. Most of them are in their 20s and 30s, don’t wear head coverings and dress like typical Tel Aviv residents. On the tables in front of them, notebooks and pens are strewn alongside cups of coffee, bottles of Diet Coke and packets of cigarettes.
This is an old-style class with no technological accessories or tablets. An old guitar is leaning against the wall in the corner, and a corkboard holds a calendar on which they keep track of each other’s birthdays.
Late on a Thursday afternoon, a time when most of their contemporaries are counting down the minutes until the weekend, these young students are busy learning. They listen intently to the words of their lecturer, Lior Tal, a former Meretz party member and the current director of the Mechinat BINA pre-army program. Tal challenges them to think for themselves and not to accept simplistic answers, encouraging them to dig deeper and deeper.
“Don’t tell me what the sages would have said,” Tal says to one student. “Tell me what you would have done.”
BINA was founded seven years ago, most of which has been spent in a small building near the new Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, which used to house Clalit Health Services. Today it is a “health fund for the soul,” says historian Muki Tzur, one of BINA’s founders, who lit a torch at this year’s official Independence Day ceremony.
At the entrance to the yeshiva there is a corner designated for students learning in hevrutot (studying in pairs). The term “Jewish bookshelf” takes on a different meaning here, where you will find the Zohar and the Babylonian Talmud next to Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, as well as works by philosophers Baruch Spinoza and Aristotle, the Mishna and Spirit of a Man by Asa Kasher.
Some of the students are now eating lunch at long tables. After their next lesson, the students will go home to apartments the yeshiva has rented for them in the Shapira neighborhood and in Kiryat Shalom, where they do their volunteer service.
“These students are very open,” Tal Shaked, another founder of BINA, says. “They are on an independent journey to discover themselves and their Jewish identity.”
THE IDEA to found a yeshiva that would help secular Jews connect with their Judaism arose following the 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, which threatened to divide the secular and religious communities. The founders never considered even for a moment using a neutral name, instead calling it a yeshiva.
“It was important for us to connect with the original concept that has existed throughout the ages,” Shaked says. “We didn’t want to create something new, but to continue on the very same path Jews have been following for generations and to become inspired by talmudic texts. People come here in pursuit of serious study. We have talmudic scholars here who feel at home with Jewish culture and have the tools to find their way around Jewish texts.”
“I came here to study Jewish texts and to connect with who I am in a way that suits me,” says Danya Abarbanel, a student. “I am considering studying Jewish thought at the university afterwards.”
The class schedule shows that courses in Talmud, Jewish philosophy, hassidism, introduction to Kabbala, and Zionist literature are offered. “I’m gaining exposure here to new forms of Judaism. Now I can choose what being Jewish means for me,” says student Liav Vansover.
Yuval Haklai, another student, adds, “My grandfather is a rabbi, my father is an atheist and my mother is traditional. Here at the yeshiva I can pave a path that fits me perfectly.”
The founders’ original idea was to create a yeshiva that would combine a three-year intensive Torah study track with full military service, fashioned after the Orthodox yeshiva in Ma’aleh Gilboa, but they did not succeed in getting the program off the ground.
According to the Tal Law, exempting yeshiva students from army service, and now officially expired, the defense minister can decide whether an institution can be called a yeshiva, in accordance with the Hesder Yeshiva Association – a private, national-religious, nonprofit organization. The heads of BINA laid out their vision and curriculum for the association.
“We showed them that we meet the strict hesder yeshiva criteria requirements,” says BINA executive director Eran Baruch. “But the letter they sent to then-defense minister Ehud Barak said that our yeshiva does not operate according to the spirit of Judaism. Do you understand? It’s not that we don’t have enough students or too few hours, but that according to the organization, we are not religious enough.
“According to Orthodox Judaism, not everyone is allowed to study or teach Torah. [TV talk-show host] Dov Elboim, who teaches at our yeshiva, might be a talmudic scholar, but he’s not an ordained rabbi. And the fact that girls learn here is inconsistent with Orthodox practice. Our impetus for founding the yeshiva came from the idea that Judaism shouldn’t be available only to religious people, and that secular Jews should also be allowed to partake in Jewish study.”
Baruch tells us how the establishment has refused to accept them. “We wrote to the education minister, who is responsible for allocations to yeshivot, and to the most senior figures in the Education and Defense ministries. But they didn’t lift a finger to help us, since the Orthodox leadership has such a strong hold on government policy. The Orthodox establishment has complete control over institutional religion and is not willing to let any other group threaten them.”
“It’s ridiculous that they’re letting the cat watch over the cream,” Shaked says.
“If they add another yeshiva to their budget, the amount each yeshiva receives is reduced. And why is the defense minister required to follow rulings made by a private organization? That’s a complete distortion of the Tal Law.
“But the biggest distortion is that the Orthodox establishment has complete control over Jewish studies in Israel.”
JUST AS the religious community has had a difficult time coming to terms with the secular yeshiva, it has also taken a long time for the secular community to understand what BINA is all about. “The hardest part was recruiting students for the first year. The word ‘yeshiva’ made people nervous, since they assumed that it was an organization that tried to persuade people to become religious,” Shaked says.
The first year, 40 students enrolled in BINA. “They were kids who had a sparkle in their eye and were highly motivated to initiate social change,” Shaked says. But it was difficult, since most secular Jews also think about Judaism from an Orthodox point of view. “Most secular Israelis follow traditional Orthodox custom for weddings and funerals. So it is weird and out of place for a secular Jew to study Torah,” adds Shaked.
BINA has been operating for seven years now, and the number of students learning there has grown fivefold – a new branch even opened up in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem neighborhood.
In the end, it was not recognized by the Hesder Yeshiva Association; instead, the secular yeshiva offers a pre-military track program (mechina). Another program offers a post-military track, which includes two days a week of intensive Torah study, with the rest of the time dedicated to volunteering and participating in educational activities. There is an IDF Nahal group here, as well as a group of Jewish students from overseas.
BINA offers some programs in English.
Recently, a program called Amir was developed in cooperation with Golani commander Col. Ofek Buchris. The program was designed to create a group of soldiers that would set a moral example for their brigade.
“I’m not sure if Rabbi Haim Druckman, who was the force behind the creation of hesder yeshivot, ever dreamed that 40 percent of IDF commanders would belong to Orthodox Judaism, but it is true,” Shaked says. “I believe that we are creating a new phenomenon here: secular military leaders who are connected to Jewish tradition.”
All of this incredible activity needs to be funded. Currently, most of BINA’s budget is financed by private contributions from the Posen Foundation, the New Israel Fund, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Agency, as well as by other private donors in Israel and overseas. Students also contribute by paying subsidized tuition. The Tel Aviv Municipality has provided the building, as well as a reduction in property taxes.
BINA has big plans for the future, such as moving to a larger building and creating additional tracks. But for now, it is waiting to see what changes the new government will carry out.
“We don’t know what actions the new Education Minister Rabbi Shai Piron will initiate. Also, the Tal Law is in a precarious situation and we need to wait and see what happens with it,” Baruch says. “We have an opportunity here to correct the historic injustice done to us.”
“Our students learn, work and volunteer.
Their only sin is that they are doing all of these things instead of just learning Torah,” Shaked says.
“The country generously allocates hundreds of millions of shekels to yeshivot, but doesn’t give our secular yeshiva even one agora.
“When the Education Ministry funds Torah study in Bnei Brak, it is saying that Judaism is for haredim only.
“I want the Education Ministry to say that young Jews who are learning Torah, while also contributing to the community, are also part of Judaism.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.