In the beginning — November 2014 — Benny Lau, a Modern Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem, taught the first chapter of Genesis. More than three years and 929 chapters later, he’s starting it all again on Sunday. But this time in English as well.
“I want to give the Bible back to the people,” Lau told The Times of Israel recently. “For too long it has been held captive by the yeshivas and universities. It was lost from the rest of the nation and I want to return it to them.”
The 929 project — named for the number of chapters in the Hebrew Bible comprising the Torah, Prophets and Writings, from Genesis to the end of II Chronicles — provides a framework for anyone who wants to participate by learning one chapter of the Bible a day, five days a week.
“The first time through was a trial run,” said Lau with his trademark warm smile. “Now is when it really happens.”
Even though he calls it a trial run, the first cycle was tremendously successful. He said that over a quarter of a million people were active participants in the learning program — 75 percent of them nonreligious. He and hundreds of others give classes on each week’s chapters all around the country; there are written materials, audio and video lessons, all found on the program’s website or via its app, as well as a weekly radio show with 40,000 listeners.
Lau stressed that the best way to learn is in groups, and he urged people to register via the website to participate in weekly classes or joint study sessions.
Politicians, musicians, journalists, educators
Trying to “give the Bible back to the people” in Israel, though, can be a tricky business. Push it too hard, and it can seem like an attempt to ram religion down the throats of those who are proudly secular. Meanwhile, some ultra-Orthodox react in horror to a nontraditional approach to their holy texts.
Still, the people who contributed to 929 span the breadth of Israeli religious and secular society. In addition to educators, academics and rabbis there are politicians, including Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Education Minister Naftali Bennett who leads the Jewish Home party, and Labor leader Avi Gabbay; musicians such as Neshama Carlebach, Kobi Oz and David Peretz; journalists including Lucy Aharish, Ilana Dayan and Gideon Levy; and former army chiefs Benny Gantz and Moshe Ya’alon.
The beauty of Lau’s method of teaching, and one of the goals of the 929 learning program, is that it makes the Bible relevant to today. For him the Biblical prophets are modern-day journalists, the kings our politicians, the false prophets — fake news.
The program takes its cue from the Daf Yomi program, in which participants learn one page of Talmud every day. However, in 929, new chapters are learned only five days a week — Sunday to Thursday — and on Friday and Saturday participants have the opportunity to catch up, review or study in greater depth.
Lau gave a class to about 100 high school Bible teachers in the last week of the first 929 cycle, at an event to mark the Education Ministry launching the Center for Enriching the Humanities to be housed at the National Library in Jerusalem.
“I’m going to focus on a single verse in II Chronicles,” the very end of the Bible, he began. But what followed was a whirlwind tour of the entire Bible, taking ideas from here, personalities from there, and traits from yet another place, as the teachers joined in (and argued) — “What about Amos?” said one. “How can you say that — did you forget about Elijah?” challenged another. “I’ve been teaching that differently for years,” one teacher said, confronting Lau at the end of the session.
Building bridges with Diaspora Jewry
The overall head of the English 929 program is former UK chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who spoke of the power and beauty of the project.
“What is so beautiful about 929 is the engagement it gives people with Tanach [the Jewish Bible] through numerous commentaries by contemporary figures and scholars from a wide range of specialisms,” he said. “Following the success in Israel, I am excited to be working with the team to bring the 929 experience to the Jewish world. It is truly making the rich and inspiring world of Tanach accessible to all.”
At a time of fraught and sometimes stormy relations between Israel and Diaspora Jewry over such issues as conversion and Western Wall prayer, the organizers of 929 said one of the goals of the program is to build collaborative bridges between English-speaking Jews and Israeli Jews through an honest, thoughtful dialogue based on the shared heritage of the Bible.
Lau said the English cycle also has a separate 929 North America section because the program is “not about language but also about culture, which is something else entirely.”
The writers, the dialogues, the nuances will be tailor-made for an American audience, which Lau said is very different from an Israeli one. 929 North America is headed by Rabbi Adam Mintz, a Modern Orthodox rabbi from New York City who teaches Jewish history, law and thought in university, yeshiva and synagogue settings.
According to his website, Mintz believes that “the greatest challenge facing twenty-first century Jewry is the creation of educated Jews who understand that the key to the Jewish future is the appreciation of the Jewish past.”
“Remember this date,” said Lau. “The second of February, 2022. 2/2/22. On that day we will learn the last chapter of Chronicles and once again complete the cycle of learning the entire Bible.”
And as he completes the entire Bible, where does Lau draw his inspiration from: Which prophet speaks to him more than all the others?
One of the less well-known minor prophets — Habakkuk.
“Of all the prophets, he is one of the smallest, but there is none as powerful as Habakkuk. He lived at the same time as Jeremiah [who reproved the people for their sins and lamented the destruction of the Holy Temple], but he was prepared to stand in the breach. He was the only one who was a steadfast defender of the Jewish people,” Lau said.
Habakkuk prophesied: I will stand upon my watch, and set myself upon the tower, and will look out to see what He will speak by me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved,
“Habakkuk is a soldier standing watch to defend the Jewish people,” Lau explained.
This is Lau’s inspiration when he says he wants to return the Bible to the people and build bridges between Jews of all backgrounds and nationalities. He is a defender of the Jewish people against a reproving God.
Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.