Torah on Two Feet


By Luther Jett

On a warm spring night, about a dozen American Jews gathered at the suburban Maryland home of Ameinu Board Member Haya Laufer to study Talmud with Tal Shaked, Deputy Executive Director of the Israeli organization, BINA. Several years ago Ameinu established a relationship with BINA in order to bring their unique approach to Jewish learning to the United States. This was one of a number of get-togethers Ameinu has been hosting in order to expand awareness and attract more members who share our progressive values.

“BINA”, which means “wisdom” in Hebrew, is a secular, progressive center for Jewish learning and tikkun olam, based in Tel Aviv. BINA is also the acronym for a phrase coined by the poet Haim Nachman Bialik, “A Home for the Creation of the Nation’s Soul”. BINA’s mission is to provide a means for secular Israelis to connect with their Jewish roots through study and service, with the goal of helping participants to develop an enduring appreciation of the inter-relationship between text study and social justice. In turn, it is hoped that this perspective will contribute to the creation of “a compassionate, humanist national ethos which is both Jewish and Israeli.”

To this end, the organization sponsors a number of projects: The Secular Yeshiva, which is the only non-orthodox institution of its kind in Israel today; BINA BaSh’chuna, a community social action network based in the economically disadvantaged neighborhood of South Tel Aviv; the BINA Beit Midrash at Ramat Efal; and a seminar center promoting pluralistic Jewish education within secular schools across the country through teacher education and student enrichment programs.

BINA is representative of a growing movement of secular and progressive Israelis who are engaged in coming to terms with their Jewish heritage through innovative study and practice, thereby helping to build a more pluralistic society in Israel.

The primary focus of the evening with Tal Shaked was on replicating the approach of the Secular Yeshiva by grappling with a passage from the Talmud which tells the story of Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai, the 2nd century (C.E.) mystic who was falsely credited as the author of the 13th century Zohar. Bar Yochai is said to have spent twelve years hiding with his son from the Roman authorities in a cave on Mount Meron, near Tsfat. He spent those years buried up to his neck in sand, studying Torah.

One might well wonder how one could study anything, let alone Torah, while buried up to one’s neck. The answer, as it emerged through our spirited discussion of the text, is that the study was entirely carried out within R. Shimeon’s mind. When bar Yochai and his son finally emerge from the cave, their spiritual state is so intense that “Whatever they cast their eyes upon was immediately burnt up.” By studying in such isolation from the real world, they have become dangerous, and it is necessary for them to retreat to the cave for another twelve months.

The moral here is that study alone is not sufficient to understanding Torah. It is also necessary to be immersed in the world, to be an active participant in the work of tikkun olam. And that sums up BINA’s vision — one foot in tradition, the other foot firmly grounded in the modern age.


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