I read and indeed re-read Elie Jesner’s noteworthy article on Torah.com about Bible Criticism and World Bnei Akiva.
I have to be honest and say that I am neither an expert on the Bible and certainly no expert on Bible Criticism. I hope that I have room in my life for a little of both. I was troubled by the article and would hope that it not be a frame of reference for debate about religious Zionism in general and its youth movements in particular.
Elie is clearly an accomplished individual and of course is entitled to draw whatever conclusions he sees fit, but I would like to share a couple of thoughts of my own, sparked by this piece.
Elie describes two events as the backdrop for his criticism. One was the now infamous post made by the current Mazkir about Philistines the other being his own journey from a type of protected greenhouse educationally (even though he always had nagging doubts) into a more enlightened adulthood allowing him to giggle a little at the simplistic view of life he had developed or been taught as a youngster.
Interestingly Elie draws a nexus (via Yigal Amir of all people) between Israel Bnei Akiva, World Bnei Akiva, Bible Criticism (or the lack of it) and the assassination of Yitchak Rabin ז”ל. I rather think that if Elie had focused on the need within our education systems, inside Israel and within the Diaspora, to have a more nuanced, complex view of reading the Bible (which might include the methodologies included in Bible criticism) it would probably have been a worthy contribution.
Indeed a proper debate around Bible teaching at a young age and what depth can be taught would be a fine idea. It is clear to me that this is not only true for Bible and other Torah subjects, but history or physics as well. In kindergarten we are taught a certain way, and clearly it is different to high school, reflecting the more developed and curious mind of a 4 year old versus that of an 18 year old (at least in some cases!).
I would also fully empathise with the description he gives about his own journey, discovering and rediscovering areas of Torah with the benefit of maturity and learning, seeing that wisdom can be found in a myriad of sources.
But seriously, what has all this to do with the context of Rav Noam Perl’s blunder (about which I have written elsewhere). Elie suggests that the underlying, perhaps even sub-conscious reason for him staying on was that there is a tacit agreement to a completely literal reading of the Bible by World Bnei Akiva. I do not see any evidence of this and indeed whilst I did not agree with Noam staying, it was clear to me that his apology was sincere and was accepted by the majority of those involved and thus an overwhelming majority wished for him to stay. This is a point worth debating and will probably remain a debate for some time, but has nothing to do with Bible Criticism.
I would offer an additional insight in this connection: Rav Perl grew up in Israel, was educated in Israel, and apart from several summers joining Sayarim (a European WBA camp) had nothing previously to do with World Bnei Akiva. Hence assuming some nexus here does not really hold. Again, there is a wider point about the educational or ideological overlap between Israel Bnei Akiva and World Bnei Akiva, it may even be a worthy debate, but I think that even there it is clear to see that there are many differentiators between the Israeli and World versions of the youth movement (there are things in common as well, somewhat self-evidently).
Torah.com brings academic rigour to the world of Torah (I think), however there is one other glaring (or perhaps revealing) error in Elie’s case. Yigal Amir was never a member of Bnei Akiva. Indeed it is somewhat well known that if defined at all he would be more in the Haredi camp. It is true that he held extreme political positions, with a toxic cocktail of Halachic/religious mixers, but to suggest that there is a line that connects Rabin’s assassination, Bnei Akiva (Israeli or World) and Bible criticism seems like a logical long-shot at best, and an attempt to put square pegs into round holes at worst. It is surely not terribly nuanced, ironically.
Finally I want to share some of my own experiences as a boger of World Bnei Akiva. I had the privilege of being educated and lead by many madrichim, rashei machanot, mazkirim and shlichim over the years. I am still in contact with many of them and continue to draw on some as role models. When I measure Elie’s hypothesis against these people something simply does not gel.
Former shlichim of Bnei Akiva include Nechemia Rappel (currently mazkal of Kibbutz Hadati), Yehuda Gilad (ex-Meimad, Ex-MK, Rav of Lavi and Rosh Yeshiva of Ma’ale Gilboa), Ronen Neuwirth (community Rav in Ra’anana, founder and exec-director Beit Hillel), Benny Lau (probably no description needed). There are many, many others clearly representing a very wide range of religious, Bible, Halachic, social and practical views.
All of the above (and many of those not mentioned) have a nuanced view of life, trying to build complex approaches to our religious, social and in some cases national challenges and certainly could not be described as having a one dimensional view.
When I look around at the thousands of alumni who have made Aliya, from around the world, again we see the full gamut of religious and political views. There is no one size fits all. They are living the dream in every walk of professional and Jewish life. Fulfilling the core aim of Aliya has not left them with a uni-dimensional view of life, Jewish, Biblical or otherwise (that’s not to say that there aren’t some uni-dimensional people in the mix).
Whatever the pitfalls of the World Bnei Akiva educational ethos, empirically it has not stopped its followers from developing many different and nuanced approaches as they apply the principals they were taught.
Of course we have all developed our ideas and practices as we grow older and (hopefully) more mature, but this is no more unusual as learning science one way when attending 5th grade, and studying physics later in university. They look awfully different. However this doesn’t mean we should or could teach physical electronics to even the most talented junior schooler. This is part of life’s path, indeed in some ways, this is life’s path.
I would welcome an honest and open debate on the matters referred to: How can Judaism be taught in a more nuanced fashion, even at a young age? What are the substantive overlaps between Bnei Akiva in Israel and overseas, or perhaps more meaningfully how do we map the mosaic that is religious Zionism today from an intellectual, religious, political or practical standpoint?
At the same time chucking the baby out with the bath water is typically not a good approach, and, unfortunately, in spite of some interesting points made, accepting Elie’s article as the reference point for the debate creates the risk of leading us down that path.