In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, the people who try to build a tower to reach heaven, against God’s wishes, are thwarted when God causes them to start speaking 70 different languages. Suddenly, the formerly unified workers can no longer understand one another. Frustrated by the lack of communication and the deep divisions that follow, the workers scatter to the far corners of the world, to build their own camps among people who speak like them.
In Israel, election season is also a time of deep division: politicians slinging mud and propagating rumors, publishing satirical videos, holding back-stabbing press conferences and making impossible promises to voters. Afterwards, everyone scatters into their own camps where all of them speak the same way.
But a few weeks ago, one small corner of the Internet tried to bring the various parts of the wide political spectrum together on the same page to reflect on the Tower of Babel and what it means to scatter to the extremes. It was part of 929, a new initiative created to bring daily biblical learning to the wider Israeli society.
929 doesn’t always focus on current events or politics, but the elections certainly provided a pertinent connection for the Tower of Babel story. “We are different,” Jewish Home head Naftali Bennet wrote on the site. “Disagreements, when they are done in the correct way, bring the world to a higher place.”
Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, unsurprisingly took the opposite approach on the colorful Bible website. What does the Tower of Babel teach us? he asks. “There is nothing that can stop a group of people that has a common goal… when we work together, when we and the essence of life unite around a single idea, only God can stop us.”
Rabbi Benny Lau, a modern Orthodox rabbi from Jerusalem, is one of the forces behind 929. Five years ago, a group of activists tried to brainstorm a way to unite the disparate parts of Israeli society.
‘When we’re threatened, we huddle together. That’s Israeli and Jewish society – we unite when there is danger. But we insist that we cannot build our identity on fear’
“In Israel, when we are surrounded by enemies, we begin to unite and become one nation,” Lau told The Times of Israel. “When we’re threatened, we huddle together. That’s Israeli and Jewish society – we unite when there is danger. But we insist that we cannot build our identity on fear. We have to create a shared identity and a shared destiny. We have to show we can cooperate in regular life and not just when we are threatened,” Lau said.
To find a common link, Lau, who is also part of the Israel Democracy Institute, joined Deputy Education Minister Avi Vortzman (Jewish Home), and TV journalist Gal Gabai along with a number of other educators and leaders. They reached back to the roots of Judaism and found one common thread. The Bible, they decided, is something that unites all Israelis.
Bible study in Israel has always been fraught. Secular people are suspicious that any educational biblical initiative is an ultra-Orthodox plan to get them to become religious. Ultra-Orthodox are horrified by a secular approach to their holy texts. How could it be that Lau, Vortzman, and Gabai believe that the way to unite Israeli society is through the very thing that contributes to so many divisions?
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929 is not the first educational Bible initiative aimed at both the secular and religious public in Israel. Every year on Independence Day, there is a highly regarded International Bible Quiz for students of various backgrounds.“[Former prime minister David] Ben Gurion was an atheist, he was not at all religious,” explained Lau. “But he wasn’t scared of the Bible. He knew the Bible was about history, and about ethics, and about geography, and about leadership, and it really influenced his life. It’s sad that people think that the Bible only belongs to one group of people.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son won the contest in 2010, and Netanyahu himself has traditionally held a weekly Bible study session, as does current President Reuven Rivlin. But the 929 project aims to reach a wider audience than the Bible Quiz prodigies and heads of state.
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929 is the number of chapters of the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, which consists of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. The site introduces one chapter every day from Sunday to Thursday, Israel’s workweek. Each day brings a short video summary and half a dozen contributors, who range from rabbis to singers to authors to politicians. On a recent day, Rivlin’s commentary about Hagar was nestled next to a submission by Muslim Sheikh Samir Asai of Akko. Author Etgar Keret contributes, as does Conservative female Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum. Unlike other religious sites which often refrain from showing women, 929 has many female contributors and photos of them.
It will take about three and a half years to finish the entire Tanach according to the one-chapter-per-weekday cycle. The end of the cycle is timed to coincide with Israel’s 70th independence day in 2018.
The cyclical nature of a section every day is modeled on the Daf Yomi, the page-a-day seven-year cycle of the Talmud studied by Jews around the world, which deals with more intricate aspects of Judaism.
The website, designed by the Center for Educational Technology, is colorful and clean, with an interface that reflects Pinterest rather than the ancient Talmud books. The aim is to make a mobile-friendly website that people will be encouraged to squeeze into their daily schedules, on the bus or while checking Facebook before bed.
There are snazzy videos, cartoons, illustrations, short articles, and, with each chapter, a well-produced two-minute YouTube summation featuring Lau and TV journalist Liat Regev.
The Education Ministry sponsored 50% of the project with a 5-year, NIS 25 million grant. 929 must secure matching grants from private sources, giving it a total budget of NIS 50 million ($12.5 million). The Avi Chai Foundation, the Jewish Agency, the Maimonides Foundation, and Heichal Eliyahu have contributed to the matching grants, though 929 is still trying to secure more funds.
Lau said more than half a million people in Israel have visited the site, which launched during Chanukah on December 21, 2014. Around 150,000 people read the daily chapter.
The site also encourages in-person learning groups. Currently there are about 100 groups with 20 people each, though Lau expects that number to increase to 1,000 groups by the end of 2015.
Currently the site is only in Hebrew, which was a conscious decision because the site is aimed at Israelis, not the Diaspora. Lau pointed out that the videos and illustrations are useful for those who struggle to read Hebrew.
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The project has attracted criticism as well. Some rabbis decried the site because it “degenerates the characters of the Bible and its stories in a provocative and offensive way,” Maariv reported. In response, an independent organization set up a “kosher” version of 929, which includes only commentary and artwork deemed acceptable by a coalition of rabbis from more observant streams of the national religious community.
Censure also came from the opposite end of the spectrum, from the secular crowd. A Haaretz editorial blasted the initiative as a government-sponsored brainwashing attempt to “reinforce Jewish identity.” 929 is the latest Education Ministry project which is trying to strengthen the Jewish aspect of the state at the expense of the democratic aspect, they wrote.
Lau said the 929 initiative does not seek to change anyone’s identity or religious observance.
“This is not to get people to be more religious,” he said. “It’s to go back to the revolution that [Hebrew language revitalizer Eliezer] Ben Yehuda started, to show that we have deeper roots.”
A month after the project started, it has 15,000 Facebook followers, while others interact with the site on Twitter and the website itself. Lau said he is excited about the response over the first few weeks, though there is still work to be done to get the website into the wider consciousness of Israeli society.
“Our work to create this movement is to get Jews to read the Bible because it’s their history. It’s not just for religious community and rabbis,” he said. “The whole point is that the Bible goes back to everyone’s hands.”