Common Ground through Uncommon Perspectives

By Lee Buckman

From the founding of modern Zionism, the national rebirth of the Jewish people was perceived and conceived of in biblical terms. For the “new Jew,” the Bible was the narrative of a nation. For some it was a religious text, but for more it was the cornerstone of Israeli culture.

Like Homer’s Greek classics “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” the Tanakh was a literary masterpiece that recounted an epic journey home. It reminded those who fought on behalf of the State of Israel that they were doing nothing less than preserving the history of the Jewish people.

The pioneers of the modern State knew the Bible’s characters, conflicts, and concerns. They heard echoes of the Tanakh in the poetry of Natan Alterman, the speeches of David Ben Gurion, and the songs of Naomi Shemer. They had a shared story and shared language.

A generation ago, the Tanakh began losing pride of place in the hearts and minds of Israelis. As one analyst wrote, the Bible had become marginalized, its magic was fading. The cause was not clear, but certainly the religious ethos in Israel that allowed only specific expressions of Judaism or certain perspectives did not endear people to our Jewish roots.

The result was not just an intellectual gap in the minds of individual Israelis but the fading of the cultural glue that bound one to another.

In December 2014, Chanukah 5775, a bold initiative was launched to unify Israelis around what was, for the first decades of the State, the common denominator of Israeli culture: the Tanakh. Two individuals crossed the religious-secular divide and joined together to inaugurate a daily reading of Tanakh nation-wide called 929 Tanakh Beyachad (“Together”). One was Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Lau (“Rav Benny,” as he is affectionately known), a modern Orthodox rabbi from Jerusalem, and the other Gal Gabbai, a secular, female journalist from Tel Aviv.

By their rare personal example, they demonstrated that the Tanakh can become common ground for the various sectors of the Israeli population. Rav Benny and Gal Gabai reinforced that fundamental belief by turning to 600 high profile thinkers – former IDF generals, famous song writers, respected judges, popular broadcasters, women and men – and inviting them to write brief essays on the 929 chapters of the Tanakh.

The writers represent both the traditional, conservative world of Jerusalem and the secular, cosmopolitan world of Tel Aviv. They include singer Kobi Oz, secular philosopher Dov Elbaum, Member of Knesset Tzipi Livni, Reform Rabbi Dalia Marks, Orthodox Rabbi Yoel bin Nun, and a host of other well-known thought leaders in Israel. They share a belief that the Hebrew Bible is not just “my personal story, but our collective story.”

Gal and Rav Benny have given voice to an array of perspectives and exposed Israelis to different ideas and interpretations around the same text. Film producers have brought to life themes of verses in the Tanakh. Radio broadcasters dedicate a weekly slot to their own reflections on the chapter of the day and daily events. Organizations have adopted and adapted the 929 reading cycle to suit their own constituents.

A chapter-a-day rhythm on social networks, radio stations, and in person has created a social community where participants feel they are part of something larger than themselves. One chapter a day. Five chapters a week. Twenty chapters a month from Genesis to Joshua to Jeremiah and Chronicles.

Now, three years later and just months away from its first “siyyum,” the completion of this incredible cultural marathon, Tanakh 929 has created a national movement that has attracted over 250,000 Israelis, 82% of whom do not define themselves as “dati” (part of the religious community). Some listen to the chapter of the day or to one of the daily ten-minute lectures; others prefer to read the chapter or any of over a dozen essays featured daily. Some, like the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, host a study group with their friends in their home.

For a growing sector of the Israeli population, the Tanakh is becoming, once again, a powerful cultural asset shared with those with whom they may have otherwise thought they had nothing in common.

“What I like about 929,” said one participant, “is that it opens one’s mind, thinking and soul to different opinions and perspectives on life.” “I’m a believing secular Israeli who keeps kosher,” said another, “and my husband is an absolute atheist. We listen and read together. Each of us feels more connected to the Tanakh because 929 has something that speaks to each of us.” “I listen to the 929 brief lessons with my husband,” said one woman, “and always have pen and paper in hand because new ideas always pop into my head that I want to remember.”

The power of 929 is its openness; no single interpretation is privileged. There are a multiplicity of meanings and applications buried in this national treasure. For those who desire, 929 links them to a buffet of traditional commentaries. At the same time, 929 exposes participants to a wide range of modern voices that view the Bible as a relevant, living commentary on the present. In so doing, Tanakh 929 is connecting Israelis to the Bible, the Land of Israel, and most importantly to each other.

To learn more, visit: www.929.org.il/.

Rabbi Lee Buckman is the former head of School at the Anne & Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto. He now lives in Jerusalem and works with Rabbi Benny Lau and Gal Gabai at Tanakh929.