Biblical Hermeneutics: what hinders Jewish participation?

Biblical Hermeneutics is a site on the Stack Exchange network. Its founders said it was intended as a scholarly, not religious, site for Q&A about the bible -- the focus would be on hermeneutics and showing your work, not on theological claims. A couple years in, one of the moderators observed that there was very little Jewish participation and asked what hinders people. I wrote the following answer, now deleted.

I'm making this a separate answer instead of editing my current one because it goes in a different direction. I still agree with everything in my other answer.


I came here, and stuck around, because of the promise in a site that is neutral, without a doctrinal basis. That would be an interesting site to participate in. We have a few people who write excellent questions and answers in that style1 -- but not enough. The site, like the general population, is dominated by Christians, too many of whom assert belief as Truth (and then get upset when you ask for a source). This has gotten worse in 2013.

Since most people here (and all moderators) agree with those basic assertions of truth (if not all the details), they don't see the problem even when someone objects. To them it's like saying that the sun rises in the morning. To people in this group, doctrinal assertions in posts add character and couldn't possibly do any harm.

I don't have a problem with Christians.2 I have a problem with Christian axioms -- or any other religion's axioms -- being treated as givens on a site that claims to welcome all. I thought we could keep that in check, but now I wonder. That a very-reasonable request for a polite, academic tone has been challenged is disturbing.

I came to teach and learn in a classroom. But people brought in an altar, crucifix, and communion wafers, and the caretakers gave them directions.

Current status

I've just celebrated Rosh Hashana. The liturgy includes hearing the shofar, which is basically a wake-up call. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides) wrote the following about this:

Awake, you sleepers, from your sleep! Rouse yourselves, you slumberers, out of your slumber! Examine your deeds, and turn to G-d in repentance. Remember your Creator, you who are caught up in the daily round, losing sight of eternal truth; you are wasting your years in vain pursuits that neither profit nor save. Look closely at yourselves; improve your ways and your deeds. Abandon your evil ways, your unworthy schemes, every one of you! (Hilchot Teshuva 3.4)

When I read that Thursday morning, "vain pursuits that neither profit nor save" jumped out at me. I've spent a lot of time on this site, and what has it gained me? I recently reviewed the questions I've participated in -- which aren't all the ones of Jewish interest, but they might be as many as half -- and asked myself what of this could move to Mi Yodeya if/when this site fails.3 I found almost nothing.4 Mostly the questions are too basic for Mi Yodeya. On Mi Yodeya I mostly ask questions; here I mostly answer them. That should have told me something.

Not only have I been teaching torah to those who already have a history of grossly distorting the Tanakh to their own ends,5 but I haven't even been helping any Jewish readers who might wander by. At best I've been helping a few open-minded people who are interested in text without doctrine, but I wonder if I would need two hands to count them.

The Rosh Hashana liturgy also contains the prayer Unetaneh Tokef, a powerful, frightening prayer that shines the harsh light of judgement on all of us. According to legend, it was written after Rabbi Amnon of Mainz gave the mistaken impression that he might consider conversion to Christianity, which would be a terrible transgression against God and the Jewish people. And while I, like Rabbi Amnon, would never6 consider giving up my Judaism for that or any other blasphemy or idolatry, I wonder if I, too, have given inadvertent support to those who are up to no good. This question will be one focus of my contemplation and teshuvah this season.

1 (listed three examples)

2 I've invited Christian friends to my Passover seder, for example, and been invited to some of their celebrations (including an ordination, which was fascinating). Respectfulness, not religion, is what matters.

3 Or merges into Christianity Stack Exchange.

4 (a couple links)

5 Not everybody here of course, but enough to be worrying.

6 I almost never say "I would never X", because who really knows what the future will bring? But on this point I say it with confidence.

(My earlier answer, from July 2013, explained the ways in which the site looks very Christian and seems to presume Christian axioms. I also talked about not having much motivation to ask questions, only answer, because I have a better place to get Jewish answers to my questions and I'm not generally interested in the abundance of Christian answers I would get.)