Op-ed

Why Bnei Akiva Needs Biblical Criticism

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July 31, 2014

Elie Jesner

Elie Jesner

Why Bnei Akiva Needs Biblical Criticism

Yad Achim, the movement’s anthem


Editors’ note: This essay raises some important educational questions on how the Bible should be taught, and the intersection between this ancient central text and current issues. Like all material we publish, it does not necessarily represent the opinion of all of the editors of TABS. TABS does not affiliate with any political or religious group.

Introduction: Noam Perel’s Facebook Quote

It may seem long ago, but, following the discovery of the bodies of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach on June 30th 2014, Noam Perel, secretary general of the Religious Zionist movement World Bnei Akiva, posted the following comments on his Facebook page:

An entire nation and thousands of years of history demand revenge.
The government of Israel is gathering for a revenge meeting that isn’t a grief meeting. The landlord has gone mad at the sight of his sons’ bodies. A government that turns the army of searchers to an army of avengers, an army that will not stop at 300 Philistine foreskins.
The disgrace will be paid for with the blood of the enemy, not with our tears.

Perel’s comments – which were subsequently withdrawn – are disturbing on many levels.  For me, a particularly troubling aspect of them is the possibility that this is likely not an isolated or exceptional incident, the impassioned outburst of a lone and disaffected individual. 

The more worrying alternative is that this sentiment may very much reflect or grow out of the educational background and linguistic context in which Perel functions.    Indeed, the refusal of World Bnei Akiva to dismiss him, I believe, may even reflect a tacit admission that his words reflect their mainstream thinking

I am thus left feeling that there is a need for serious reflection on the way the Bible is read, approached and used in educational contexts.  This applies to Bnei Akiva, but it also applies to other parts of Judaism.  I am especially concerned about the manner in which some members of Religious Zionism, Modern Orthodoxy and Ultra-Orthodoxy read this sacred text literally and inflexibly, and presume that this is the optimally reverential or pious approach and reflects the intention of the Bible’s A/authors.

I believe that the insights of contemporary biblical scholarship, together with philosophical and even Rabbinic thinking, support an alternative approach, and that present circumstances make it urgent to explore this approach.

My Experience of Bnei Akiva

Part of the reason for my personal distress here is that in many senses, I really did ‘grow up’ in the midst of Bnei Akiva. This was not some casual hobby on an occasional Saturday afternoon.  I attended residential national camps from the age of 10, eventually becoming a leader and educator there.   I was a leader at my local branch from age 14, and its executive director when 16. 

The movement shaped and inspired many aspects of my intellectual and emotional life, giving meaning and depth to a Jewish identity not entirely flourishing in the Glasgow of the 80s and 90s.  It channelled my positive and aspirational energies, giving them a constructive outlet in the form of political and educational projects.  It cultivated a healthy expression of emotion through different forms of music and song, unlocking passion and spirit that other aspects of my education and upbringing didn’t tap into.   

Most importantly, it gave me a strong connection to the idea of Israel, the land of Israel and the people of Israel.  Without my involvement in Bnei Akiva it seems highly unlikely that I would have come to spend three years at Yeshivat Har Etzion (Gush).  During those years, under the leadership of Rabbi Yehuda Amital and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, I was given the intellectual stimulation, emotional nurturing and religious freedom that facilitated my transition from late adolescence to young adulthood.

At 22, I led Bnei Akiva Israel tour for 16 year olds, spending a month battling with them as we traversed the fullness of the country and debated the meaning of life; I remain in warm contact with many of them.  I edited, produced and wrote for Bnei Akiva’s student journal, which further enabled and encouraged my intellectual development .   

And, perhaps most significantly, it was through Bnei Akiva that I met my wife.

People often look back on youth movement involvement quizzically, wondering why they bothered, what the fuss was about.  I do not, and I am deeply grateful for everything that it gave me. 

Stated Ideology and Implicit Ideology

This appreciation of the role Bnei Akiva has played in my life does not mean that I have never before questioned its ideological, religious or political positions, and the results of such questioning were not always comfortable or conciliatory.  In fact, at various points I have found some, if not most, aspects of the ‘stated ideology’ very difficult to accept or endorse. 

Questions about God haunted me from adolescence, and they later became questions about the Torah and its origins.  Coupled with political considerations, this made it hard to wholeheartedly endorse the Bnei  Akiva motto – chanted ceremonially at the end of meetings – of “עם ישראל בארץ ישראל על פי תורת ישראל”, ‘The Land of Israel for the people of Israel according to the Torah of Israel.’     

Although the stated ideology of Bnei Akiva was often not discussed explicitly in our weekly mifgashim (meetings), it always hovered in the background. More recently, along with other very involved graduates of the movement (including my wife), I have come to believe that there was a large gap between the ‘stated’ or ‘official’ ideology of the movement and the ‘actual’ or ‘implicit’ ideology.  It feels like the spirit which actually energised and motivated its members, which helped them individuate and become human beings, which facilitated their intellectual, emotional and ethical growth was different from the official mission statement. 

The ‘implicit ideology’ was something more ethereal, nebulous, wistful, something which couldn’t actually be properly put into words or formulations: something about the energy of youth, about togetherness, about passion, something about rebellion from parents and identification with a larger entity. 

In adulthood in particular, I was able to be at peace with that, to laugh – and cringe – with friends about some of its claims and teachings (such as a game called ‘Get Off My Land’) or the Hebrew lyrics of songs – such as Yibaneh Hamikdash – that children would sing without any level of understanding.  We also mused upon the strong commitment to aliyah which we knew would largely go unfulfilled or remain perpetually delayed. 

I could see the environment which generated those youthful experiences as safe; they were part of a make believe world, a positive greenhouse in which children could grow up and explore the world.  

And yet, looking back, there was always something nagging, an awareness of a potentially darker side, of some very real and adult dangers. 

My time in Israel was heavily affected by the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin at the hands of Yigal Amir.  Amir’s Bnei Akiva background was not the primary cause of his action, but his immersion in a particular version of Religious Zionism was certainly a factor. 

My yeshiva was a site of fierce debate and contention at that moment, with its founding head Rav Amital joining the left wing cabinet headed by Shimon Peres in an attempt to calm and defuse the situation.  Rav Yoel bin Nun, another teacher there, was accompanied by bodyguards after he threatened to reveal the identities of Religious-Zionist Rabbis who had created the inflammatory environment which seemed to legitimise the murder. 

And I then became conscious of the broader dangers of the hard-line branch of the settlement movement, which seemed to many to divide the people of Israel and obstruct its efforts towards peace.  It seemed no co-incidence that much of its membership was from the right wing of Religious Zionism, which Bnei Akiva, certainly in Israel, did little to distance itself from.

At the same time, I began to feel an affinity with the religious reservations about nationalism and land-worship expressed by Yeshayahu Leibovitz, sensing that something was getting lost in the re-physicalisation of Jewish life. 

But, as I said, I was largely happy to leave things be, to celebrate the positive without getting too bogged down in the literal surface of the movement’s teachings.

Religious Zionism Revisited

Recently though, I found myself thinking more seriously about Israel and Zionism again, and I have come to the conclusion that these matters need re-visiting.  This was in part catalysed by two very different speakers – Naftali Bennett MK and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis – speaking in my local synagogue, a ‘flagship’ of modern orthodox Anglo Jewry, and proclaiming in very literal and uncritical terms that God promised the land to Abraham, and that this guaranteed and grounded our right to the land.

Whatever their intentions, which are quite different, it had long seemed obvious to me that this kind of thinking helped bolster simple and unreflective attitudes towards the Jewish people’s relationship with the land of Israel.  This in turn affected our feelings about the other inhabitants of that land, past and present, and also had significant consequences on our attitudes towards territorial concession and settlement expansion.     I was especially bothered by the way they were using the Bible, in a simplistic fashion, such that it might support particular political perspectives. 

As disturbed as I was by their monolithic statements and interpretations, I was equally alarmed by the failure of the community to mount any objection or discord.  People seemed to accept that this was simply how things were, that the meaning of the Bible or Jewish Tradition could be so clearly stated, and that we might easily and unequivocally draw political or practical conclusions on this basis.   

In response to this, when invited to address a group of Bnei Akiva parents in a nearby London suburb, I chose to explore the possibility of a deep conflict between the values of Judaism and those of Zionism.  I discussed the possibility that Zionism was emphasising some of the militaristic tenets of Judaism, many of which were culturally specific and expressions of a culture no longer part of the modern world. In the process, this newly emergent quasi-ancient Israelite ethos was beginning to lose some of the focus on morality and universal compassion, on loss and humility, which I believe gives Judaism much of its depth.

I was particularly concerned for what this new model implied about Jewish education, about its purpose and aspiration, particularly in a Religious Zionist context.

I didn’t come up with simple answers as to the proper intersection of Zionism and Judaism.  Instead, I tried to show these parents how awareness of the issues, of the ways they touched upon the whole sweep of Jewish history and its meaning, would be helpful in enabling us to escape from repetitive and destructive patterns. 

I had planned to further develop this essay, but recent events have persuaded me to share it on my blog, under the title, “Exploring the Jewish Psyche – The Educational Challenge of Zionism.

Current Events and the Need for Caution

Following this, when the bodies of Naftali, Eyal and Gilad were discovered, I could see their tragic death turning to rage, and wrote a piece trying to urge caution and balance, hoping to avoid a return to the destructive rigidity of absolutist thinking.

I took these themes into my teaching that week, and as I taught Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, which reflects many positions of critical biblical scholarship of the twentieth century, I felt compelled to emphasise his statement that, with regard to the core Biblical Narrative:

The bringing-in of the patriarchs served yet another purpose. They had lived in Canaan, and their memory was linked with particular localities in that country. It is possible that they were themselves originally Canaanite heroes or local divinities, and were then seized on by the immigrant Israelites for their prehistory. By appealing to the patriarchs they were, as it were, asserting their indigenous character and defending themselves from the odium attaching to an alien conqueror.

It was a clever twist to declare that the god Yahweh was only giving them back what their forefathers had once possessed (Standard Edition of Freud’s Complete Works, Vol. XXIII p. 46).

Now, suggesting that the Biblical authors manufactured the idea of God promising Abraham the land as a later justification for its invasion or conquest is clearly not the traditional Orthodox line.  And yet this seemed like an important and challenging counter-reading—in the Maimonidean sense (i.e. going to the opposite extreme in order to end up in the middle)—in light of the literalist, nationalist and racist rhetoric that was emerging.

A member of the class was sensitive to this, and said the following: ‘I’ve held my tongue a lot in your class, but this is really crossing the line, this is proper heresy.’ 

I responded that I didn’t really believe in heresy, but that I did believe in a humble and human attempt to approach truth, whether historical, psychological, philosophical or theological.  And that I also believed in trying to think morally, with educational and political responsibility.  

I also stated that I believe that if someone wishes to engage with notions of Divine promises of physical land then they are taking a huge risk.  They need to understand that they are opening the doors to all kinds of fundamentalist thinking that repudiate and foreclose reasoned discussion.  I believe that anyone making these arguments may be encouraging these harmful political stances even if they don’t think they are involved in political discussion or political education. 

It is a wonder of Freud’s midrash – for how else can we read Moses and Monotheism – that he so carefully elucidates how the conflict between the forces of pure, universalist, abstract truth and narrowly dogmatic nationalistic propaganda can be traced back to the earliest days of our history.  On his reading, the battle between progressive monotheism and primitive cult-religion animates and constitutes the tense and fragmented biblical text we have inherited.

Encountering Noam Perel

I got home from the class, and was mildly questioning whether I’d pushed things too far.  My doubts were dispelled and my conviction was vindicated upon opening Facebook and immediately encountering the comments of Noam Perel cited above. 

Later, I was especially struck by the following facebook conversation around my good friend Anton Goodman’s campaign for his resignation:

– They were Biblical words – easy to misinterpret.
– Are you f***ing kidding?  If the bible teaches blood and revenge then find another book.

This exchange has stuck in my mind for over four weeks now, and something about its compact concision, its vernacular expressiveness, seems to get to the core of the issue. 

If the Bible is read uncritically and we are willing to install it as a blueprint for contemporary life without coming up with some meta-narrative about exactly how we digest and process some of its more difficult  themes, then Noam Perel’s words are an – if not quite inevitable – eminently likely result. 

The Bible is the narrative of a people involved in many wars, and documents, at face value, the effort to conquer the land of Israel, to dispossess and sometimes exterminate its inhabitants, to establish kingdoms in the land, and then to continuously battle the adverse forces that challenge Israelite sovereignty.   

This story is bound up with important pieces of religious legislation, some of them revolutionary in their humanitarianism, texts of profound poetic and philosophical reflection, and of course the moral urgings and hopeful visions of the prophets.   

But, on occasion, it contains  what Freud calls ‘a coarse, narrow-minded, local God, violent and bloodthirsty’ for whom thousands of deaths are to be celebrated.  It is to one of these passages that Noam Perel alludes, and such passages must be handled with care.  (I have at points actually been moved to take my son’s Bible away from him, uncomfortable with the brutal exploits of its heroes.)  

We might thus appreciate that the point of Freud, biblical critics and, I would argue, strong currents in the post-Nationalist Midrashic tradition, is that we need to read the book carefully and discerningly. Furthermore, I believe that we need greater awareness and reflection around the  selection of passages in educational contexts, together with careful consideration as to  how we teach its morally complicated subjects.

The idea that something should be either believed or endorsed simply because it appears in the Bible encapsulates everything that is wrong with a certain type of religion.  Many of us have criticised Richard Dawkins and his associates for their deliberate efforts to mock and ridicule the narratives of the Bible, insisting that they are not to be taken literally and need to be contextualized.

Yet, when faced with prominent members of our community actually enacting these literalist readings, or when writing educational syllabi for our schools and youth movements, are we being sufficiently careful to ensure that biblical citations are handled with appropriate care and interpreted with conscious and judicious caution?   

If religion is about our development as ethical and spiritual beings, then it is incumbent upon us – and in accordance with the tradition, as we will see  – to mine the Bible for teachings and meaning in accordance with these goals. 

The Midrashic Revolution

Rabbinic Midrash initiates a subtle game that both pledges a certain allegiance to the biblical text and yet in places radically subverts its original meaning.  A good and pertinent example relates to the story of the revelation at Mount Sinai.  In Exodus 19 and 20 it is a thunderous, terrifying and life threatening encounter with God’s singular voice or presence appearing to annihilate the people.  In Shemot Rabba (5:9) and Shir HaShirim Rabba (5:16) the voice is no longer overpowering and singular, but it is heard differently by every individual, and God is suddenly very aware of the potentially destructive power of his communications.   

Revelation is thus transformed from a fearsome encounter with an alien force into a more humane and measured encounter with a loving aspect of the Divine, one much more attuned to and aligned with our earthly experience and nature.  There is a deliberate attempt to render the text more human, to validate what every individual makes of his or her experience.  This should be read as a warning against singular and literal appropriations of the Bible:  if God Himself had to revise and recondition his presentation of the materials, surely it is incumbent upon us as readers and educators, and especially as leaders and politicians, to do the same. 

The Rabbis are warning that the word of God can be deadly, that it must be handled with the utmost care and responsibility.  They did not appear to adopt the second option espoused in the Facebook conversation – ‘find another book’ – but in many ways that’s exactly what they did: they re-appropriated and re-constituted the Bible through their own readings in the Mishna, Talmud and midrashim, keeping the words of the text, but turning it into a different book. Midrash then emerges as the earliest form of biblical criticism.

The First Rashi and Conquest Anxiety

A further and important example centres upon the famous first Rashi on the Torah.  It is usually read as supporting the idea of a Promised Land, but I believe that there is a different dimension to it, an aspect which betrays an anxiety about the Bible’s culture of conquest.  (In fact, it was likely written during the First Crusade, and reflects the interests and anxieties of that period, which cannot be automatically retrojected into our times.)  As part of the midrashic teaching Rav Yitzchak says:

The nations of the world may say to Israel: “You are robbers, because you have seized by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan”(based on Tanchuma, Bereishit 11; see also Yalkut Shimoni, Bo, 187).

To even give voice to such a sentiment, which echoes Freud’s notion of ‘the odium attaching to an alien conqueror’, is a radical step for the Rabbis, and can be seen as distancing them from the remorseless military ethic of Joshua.  There is, at the very least, a revelation of some discomfort about it, some expression of a phenomenon I would call ‘conquest anxiety’. 

An exciting project awaits here, which would trace all such instances of this anxiety, taking into account not just the Rabbinic Tradition but even some of its appearances in the Bible itself.     

Some Clarifications of My Views

I am not for one moment suggesting that Jews have no right to be in the land of Israel, and to have a State there, but I am suggesting that that right should not be articulated in terms of ancient Divine promises, which preclude reason-based revision and stoke up Messianic passions.  More sober historical and political considerations can be adduced to make such a case.  (Ari Shavit’s recent book My Promised Land might be read as a balanced example of this kind of approach.)

I am certainly not suggesting that we abandon the Bible altogether, but I do recommend that it be handled with the utmost care.  We must not foster a culture wherein any of its darker aspects are treated as the unassailable will and word of God, wherein the excesses of its language spill over into poisonous political discourses.  As I noted above, such an attitude flies in the face of how the rabbis reinterpreted the Bible. 

We must appreciate the Bible and respect it as a building block of our culture, a foundational part of our heritage, without discarding our capacity for critical reading or thought.  

Nor am I claiming that the Bible is not a set of ‘Divine documents’, but I am stating that our understanding of a ‘Divine document’ needs to be thought about extremely carefully, to be handled with the utmost philosophical and theological sophistication.  (Tamar Ross’ recent essay for TABS is an excellent example of this imperative.)

Radical Reinterpretation

If this caution needs further support, if we really need convincing that we want to differentiate ourselves from the intellectual fundamentalism of Islamic Jihad, Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, I would cite the Maimonidean tradition of radical re-interpretation.  This is in part based on the Rabbinic teaching that ‘The Torah speaks in the language of man’ (דברה תורה בלשון בני אדם).  It spoke to the people and situations of its time, and cannot be grafted uncritically from that atmosphere into an entirely different time and political reality.   If Maimonides could have lived without believing that God created the world (Guide 2:25) then we can – and perhaps must – live without the firm idea that God promised the land to Abraham or his offspring. 

What Can We Do?

I am not suggesting that Bnei Akiva and other educational establishments begin their educational work by teaching 8 year olds the documentary hypothesis.  But I am encouraging the management and leadership of the organisation to familiarise themselves with the wide variety of critical ways of thinking about the Bible, so that these are borne in mind when preaching to impressionable and politically agitated listeners.  And if this means engaging with ways of thinking that they have heretofore deemed religiously unacceptable, then I am happy to have challenged such a perception.

It is simply not good enough – it is in fact an intellectual embarrassment – that ancient texts which were almost certainly composed with a variety of then-contemporary agendas are being re-hashed uncritically in today’s situation.

As our religion tells us in numerous places, and particularly in Psalm 145, God is not close to all who call upon him, but only to those who call upon him in truth.  God without truth is a contradiction in terms, and the idea that we enhance or sanctify God by sacrificing truth is a dangerous and irresponsible doctrine.   

Orthodoxy – read with consciousness of its Greek etymology and origins – means “true” or “correct teaching.”  It does not mean traditional, accepted or narrow-minded teaching, a fact which often gets lost in contemporary controversies.   The use of the term certainly predates the founding of the Orthodox movement of Judaism several centuries ago.

I am not altogether excluding the possibility of Religious Zionism. It is legitimate to be strongly  attached to the Jewish Religion and feel strongly about certain forms of Zionism, even to feel that Judaism will flourish best, as a creative, intellectual and moral culture, when it is embraced by a larger body than an isolated diaspora community, when it thrives within a confident, unthreatened, sovereign nation.   

What I am concerned about is certain attitudes subscribed to by many members of Religious Zionism, and especially by some adherents of Religious Nationalist Zionism, which are coloured by a toxic form of religious absolutism and certainty. These errant ideas often erupt into Messianic fervour, a force which may have had merits during dark episodes of exilic despair, but which becomes potent and dangerous, blinding and de-sensitizing when coupled with power and political impatience.  As Gershom Scholem presciently warned in 1959:

Whether or not Jewish history will be able to endure this entry into the concrete realm without perishing in the crisis of the Messianic claim which has been virtually conjured up – that is the question which out of his great and dangerous past the Jew of this age poses to his present and to his future. (The Messianic Idea in Judaism p.36)

A Hopeful Conclusion

Bnei Akiva is clearly not unique in the Religious Zionist community in reading the stories of the Patriarchs, Moses, Joshua and David uncritically.  Many in that movement have been seduced by the echoes of biblical history in recent history, and have thus fallen under the destabilising and explosive illusion that God’s plan for history is finally being fulfilled. 

But it is a movement that I care dearly about, that my family continue to be involved in, and that I feel a sense of responsibility towards.  And it is because of this that I hope it can take heed of this message, that it can distance itself from vengeful simplifications and instead emphasise Rabbi Akiva’s teaching that ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself is a fundamental principle of the Torah’. 

In using biblical verses to encourage its youth, it should chose more carefully, perhaps focussing on the hopeful vision of Isaiah (2:4):

They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they continue to train for war.

It is a confusing and perplexing time to be involved in religion, and the challenges facing educators have never been greater. But I believe that virtually all forms of knowledge can be harnessed in the service of individual spiritual growth and in the development of a profound and sophisticated understanding of traditional Judaism.  We have nothing to fear from the findings of history, psychology or philosophy, and we can have faith that they might teach and enrich us a great deal. 

May we have the merit to synthesise and integrate these currents into our understanding and teaching of Torah, thereby, for the sake of Divine Truthfulness (Isaiah 42:21), rendering the Torah enlarged, enhanced and majestic in its glory.

Elie Jesner is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice in London, and an educator at a variety of Jewish communal institutions. He holds M.A.s in Philosophy from Cambridge University and the University of Warwick. Elie blogs at thinkingdafyomi.com and the Times of Israel.

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