Building bridges

For the last few years, a quarter of a million Israelis have been studying a chapter of the Bible a day, for five days a week. Known simply as “929” (after the number of chapters in the Hebrew Bible), via a website and an app, the program offers various commentaries, thoughts for the day, the printed Biblical text with an option for reading and listening, and even iconic Israeli songs associated with the daily chapter. Secular and religious people study on their own or with friends and family, on a bus, in a cafe, at work or at home. 75 percent of the participants are nonreligious. Together they join educators, academics, rabbis, journalists and even Knesset members in their pursuit to understand the Bible.

The study of the weekly Torah portion is a tradition stemming back to the days of Ezra the Scribe. Learning the Torah, the Pentateuch, is integral in Israeli culture, irregardless of whether one is religious of not. The portions are known not by chapter and verse, but by name. On the other hand, although included in the educational curriculums, studying the Prophets and the Writings has declined in popularity in Israel over the years probably due to the fact that the ways of the ancient Israelites whose lives revolved around the Temple, is estranged from the concerns of Israelis today. Coupled with a difficult and unfamiliar Hebrew and also the impact of the age of technology and information, persuading a modern society to revert to all of the Good Book, is not as easy as appealing as learning the likes of computer science. 

Into this cultural environment Rabbi Beni Lau stepped in to build bridges. He was convinced that whether Israelis like it or not, the Jewish people are “People of the Book.” With Gal Gabbai he began the 929 revolutionary project. The first cycle was completed in April 2018, coinciding with Israel’s 70th Independence Day. The present one is due to end in February 2022.

Rabbi Beni Lau, is the son of the late Naftali Lau-Lavi, an Israeli journalist, author, and Israeli consul in New York. Beni’s uncle Yisrael famously became the Chief Rabbi of Israel. Rabbi Beni’s father and uncle, were the only two in their family to survive the Shoah. 

Born and educated in Tel Aviv, on completing high school Rabbi Lau enlisted into the Golani Brigade. After his army service he obtained a degree in history and went on to do a doctorate, his thesis of which dealt with the methodology of Jewish Law as pertaining to Israel’s Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. 

Not one to like spare time on his hands, he also became the rabbi of Kibbutz Sa’ad near the Gaza border and later worked with Jewish youth in London for a couple of years. Among his other marked achievements, Lau set up a religious seminary for women. Today he is the rabbi of the Ramban synagogue in Jerusalem, as well as an author and lecturer. He is in much demand on Israeli TV to offer commentary on political and religious affairs. 

In a society that is always opinionated, Rabbi Lau uses every platform he can to build bridges. He is aware of the sensitivities of many proudly secular Israelis who do not take kindly to Bible-bashing, and also cognizant of the sensitivities of some of the ultra-Orthodox who have objected to his nontraditional approach to the holy text. 

Due to the overwhelming popularity of the 929 program, the second cycle was launched also in English, headed up by former UK chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The Bible, Lau says, is the bridge builder between the Diaspora Jewry and Israel, which has often had heated spats about politics, conversions and rights of prayer at the Western Wall. 

As Jewish people learn the Bible together, bridges are being built, the success of which is reverberating around Israel and the Jewish world.