Israelis from across the Political and Religious Spectrum Join a National Conversation about the Tanakh, on the Website 929

January 9, 2015

Source: Tablet


Launched over Hanukkah, 929 is a $12 million Israeli initiative to turn the Tanakh into a national conversation. Drawing its name from the 929 chapters of the Hebrew Bible, the project aims to get hundreds of thousands of Israelis from all walks of life to complete the corpus over three-and-a-half years by covering five chapters a week. The hub of the enterprise is its state-of-the-art website, where readers can find commentary from a wide array of contributors, from celebrated secular authors like Etgar Keret and A.B. Yehoshua, to spiritual leaders like ultra-Orthodox former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and progressive trailblazer Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum.


In addition, the site features explanatory videos and cultural artifacts—from comics to music clips—related to the weekly chapters and a detailed timeline allowing participants to track their progress; it can even read the Bible aloud to the visually impaired or those on the go. Finally, every piece of content is designed for easy sharing on a variety of social networks. (After a little over two weeks in operation, 929 has over 13,000 Facebook followers.)


Israel already has a national Bible-learning initiative of sorts—the annual International Bible Contest, or Chidon ha-Tanakh, which quizzes youngsters on Torah trivia on live television every Independence Day. But while that event caters to an elite group of exceptional students, 929 is targeted at the Israeli mainstream. By bringing together secular and religious Jews around the same text, the hope is to foster a positive sense of Jewish unity and spark a national dialogue.


929 is the brainchild of Rabbi Benny Lau, a South Jerusalem Orthodox synagogue rabbi who directs the Human Rights and Judaism in Action project at the Israel Democracy Institute, and Israel’s Deputy Education Minister Avi Vortzman. Together, they helped raise the funds needed to bankroll the initiative—split approximately 50/50 between the government and outside sources—and assembled the eight-person team of editors, web designers, and graphic artists who made it a reality. Lau himself met personally with over 300 Israeli journalists, actors, scholars, politicians, and artists about the project and brought many of them on board as contributors. Though 929 has a substantial budget, a large number of them nonetheless volunteered their time.


Finally, after years of preparation, the project launched over Hanukkah with a ceremony at the residence of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin that was attended by rabbis, politicians, artists, and academics. Billboards publicizing the project were placed across the country, and study groups were organized at local Jewish centers, schools, and even army bases. Today, 929 counts over 100 such groups. The organizers hope to reach 1,000 by summer.


Of course, given that the Bible is the most contested book in human history, it should come as no surprise that within a week of its debut, 929 became embroiled in multiple controversies. On the Israeli religious right, some commentators immediately seized upon what they considered heretical or disrespectful content on the site. Given the project’s heterodox literary staff and target audience, the inclusion of less-traditionalist approaches to the Bible was a feature of the initiative, not a bug, but for some it made participation problematic. “Project 929: Dream or Nightmare?” that “visiting the website of 929 is forbidden by the Torah.” In response, Vortzman, the deputy education minister, announced that a third party would be setting up a “kosher” version of 929 for those who did not want to be exposed to the questionable content.

Read more at Tablet

Updated: Jan. 15, 2015