DE has been operating since 1998 as a public organization, whose main goal is the study of classical Jewish culture and the dissemination of its scientific, humanistic interpretation. In order to achieve this goal, DE has carried out a series of educational and cultural projects aimed at developing a dependable, historically grounded interpretation of the Jewish religion legacy, and its promulgation in the Israeli society.
DE has reached the conclusion that the amazingly rich classical Jewish legacy, which makes up the main body of Jewish culture, has been deliberately misinterpreted for a long period of time; as a result, it has become a political tool in the hands of self-interested fundamentalists who lay claim to having exclusive ownership of this legacy. Over the last several decades, the state of Jewish culture has been steadily deteriorating. Today, in fact, there is a mere handful of academic researchers resisting the onslaught of those who openly exploit the Jewish legacy for their own political and social agenda. Not only is the voice of these scholars virtually unheard; the fundamentalist interpretations have started to permeate academia itself.
There is another, still more crucial factor: before DE appeared on the scene, it had not occurred to anyone to engage in a public dialogue with the adherents of Jewish fundamentalism, to address them in their own language, or to take part in the cultural process taking part in their own midst. This process, however, is becoming fatally important for the Jewish people and the state of Israel.
The corpus of Jewish culture contains masterpieces of world importance created in different times, under different circumstances, and for different purposes. Unfortunately, in the last millennium the traditional Jewish thought has practically frozen in its treatment of classical texts, having provided them with an extra-contextual, fundamentalist, essentially political interpretation. Naturally, the role of classical texts in the Jewish mentality has been drained of substance. Were it not for the external, non-Jewish humanistic interpretations, we would treat the inspired predictions of Jewish prophets as trivial halachic reminiscences; more likely yet, they would have been totally forgotten. The humanistic interpretation of biblical prophecies, the greatest edifice of Jewish culture, has been preserved for us by people belonging to a different spiritual domain — a stern reminder that retains its relevance to this day.
The Jewish culture has a sad history of internal Jewish censorship and misinterpretation. The body of biblical scripture reached us in a reduced form, having been subjected to repeated revisions motivated by ideology; most importantly, any alternative versions have been irretrievably lost to orthodox censorship. Not a single “secular” historical chronicle or “technical” account from the periods of Jewish monarchy has managed to survive this censorship. The reactionary rabbinical circles created an emasculated interpretation of biblical texts, which became the sole approved version for centuries to come; they set the biblical canon, destroying practically everything else, whether alternative versions of the biblical texts or books declared “apocryphal”. The major part of Jewish literature from the Hellenistic period was thrown overboard altogether. Without the Christian scribes and interpreters, we would not have the Books of the Maccabees, of Judith, of Enoch, of Ben Sirrah — not to mention Aristeus, Tuviah, and so on. As a result of Jewish intolerance, many of these works, originally written in ancient Hebrew or Aramaic, have been preserved in their Greek translation only. The archaeological findings at Qumran “introduced” us to the real catalogue of two-thousand-year-old Jewish literature — finally bringing home the immensity of our cultural loss, as well as the paucity of the known Jewish culture filtered through the rabbinical canon.
Yet this is not all. One direct consequence of the rabbinical propensity for ideology and censorship was the remarkable loss of interest in their own literature. As a result, we have managed to lose virtually the entire body of rabbinical exegesis from the second half of the first millennium CE, the time of the geonim, and later a large portion of the Jerusalem Talmud, which found itself in actual opposition to the dominant Babylonian one.
Having set up their totalitarian approach to Jewish culture, the rabbinical reaction wiped out every competing ideological alternative. Were it not for the “external” reminders, we would not even know about the existence of the Essenic movement — the canonic literature does not contain a single mention of it. Rabbinical Judaism “revised” Jewish history, rewrote biblical texts, and created its own all-embracing version of contemporary reality. From the outset, its declared goal was to supersede all theoretical and practical Jewish ideologies. Using the cessation of religious worship in the Jerusalem Temple after the city’s destruction by the Romans, it declared this cessation to be eternal and theologically inevitable — up until the messianic times. This venture ended in brilliant success: all the other currents in Jewish culture were effectively eliminated.
What is most astounding is that the triumph of rabbinical dictatorship continues to plague us to this day. The entire traditional sector of the Jewish collective body still lives in full conformity with the cultural rabbinical dogma; what is more, the Jewish liberals, having rejected the rabbinical interpretation, failed to create a new one. Essentially, the ancient monopoly continues to dominate Jewish culture.
The damage caused by this monopoly is not confined to the cultural sphere alone. A large and steadily growing part of Israel’s Jewish population bases their entire life on the fundamentalist cultural recipes. These people live in an insulated artificial enclave, contributing nothing of real value to the country’s economy and security, while consuming a vast portion of its limited resources. According to demographic models, within the next twenty years or so this sector will comprise the majority of Israel’s Jewish population. Unless their lifestyle changes drastically, and as long as they remain entrapped in their “eternal” doctrine, Israel will simply cease to exist. Recognizing the critical nature of the present situation, DE has devoted its efforts to seeking an alternative interpretation of the classical Jewish cultural corpus, above all its talmudic and halachic aspects, and its dissemination among traditional Jewish collective bodies.
According to the fundamentalist interpretation, the Jewish sources in their rabbinical version are divinely inspired and retain their original, changeless form. DE clearly demonstrates that the Jewish sources are not only of earthly origins, but they themselves deny the idea of their changeless nature; moreover, this fundamentalist theory is inconsistent with both common sense and Jewish tradition.
According to the fundamentalist interpretation, the sages of the Talmud and the subsequent generations created superhuman, divinely inspired texts, and are therefore infallible. DE convincingly demonstrates that the authors of the Talmud and of the later classical rabbinical works did not view themselves or their colleagues in this light, nor did the later tradition. The idea of the divine origins and omniscience of rabbinical sources is a fairly late invention, which goes totally against ancient tradition; it is merely it marginal ideological branch, which became commonly accepted only in modern time.
In essence, DE created a new scientific and humanistic interpretation of the classical Jewish legacy, restoring it to its natural historical context. This interpretation solves two crucial objectives at once: it fosters Jewish culture and protects it from fundamentalist outrages, enabling its bearers to function successfully in the modern world.
The material created by DE has been widely circulated in Israel, triggering nothing short of a revolution in the ultra-religious circles. For the first time, these circles have had their texts, theology and laws exposed to an interpretation that is both critical and protective, created by specialists who are equally versed in halachic sources, and who, moreover, are armed with the latest research techniques and interdisciplinary knowledge. This material consists of dozens of records dealing with every sphere of Jewish culture, from interpretation of the Pentateuch to analysis of the status of women in Jewish society throughout history. While disseminating the existing material, DE continues its intensive work on new studies, in light of the ever-growing interest they provoke.
In 2002, DE decided to expand considerably the targets and scope of its social and public activity; its intention is to reach all of Israel’s citizens with its far-ranging program of liberal cultural and civic reforms.