The drive to pass the Jewish nation-state law and the growing appeal of sophisticated Bible study stem from a similar profound place: a desire to entrench our roots in this land.
As David Ben-Gurion once said: “The British mandate is not our Bible. The Bible is our mandate.” Or as Menachem Begin proclaimed: “The Jewish people have returned to the land of Israel not by the right of force, but by force of right.”
The annual Herzog College Bible study seminar at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut – attended this week by over 6,000 men and women, young and old, religious and secular — is a magnificent enterprise. Participating in it is an intellectual treat and an exhilarating spiritual experience. Too bad that it gets no media coverage.
The Israeli press regularly ignores this uplifting event, year after year. The military censor herself couldn’t have done a better job of blocking news of the conference. Why? Probably because Israeli journalists are embarrassed by the Bible’s popularity. They may be petrified that so many people feel that the Bible is relevant.
The Herzog College Bible studies seminar (Yemei HaIyun BeTanach) was founded 25 years ago by its parent institution, the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva in Alon Shvut. The seminar offers a choice of 200 lectures across five days, ranging from Biblical archaeology to hermeneutics, linguistics, poetry, prophecy, politics, theology, history, geography, translation, cosmology and creationism, mysticism, midrash, and law, covering all 24 books of the Bible.
The classes are both academic and traditional, incorporating twenty-first century scholarship and Talmudic interpretation, creative readings alongside conventional approaches. Dozens of books with contemporary analysis of the Bible are published every year by the College.
The lecture days are nearly always sold out, as is an additional two days of Biblical field tours. Busy doctors, lawyers, scientists, bankers and businesspeople take time off work to delve into Biblical texts and thousands of years of commentaries. This is their favorite summer vacation pastime!
Herzog College lecturers are yeshiva deans, university professors and educators, men and women, such as Benny Lau, David Nativ, Elhanan Samet, Haim Misgav, Menachem Liebtag, Michal Tikochinsky, Uriel Simon, Yaakov Medan, Yael Ziegler, Yehuda Brandes, Yoel Bin Nun, Yonatan Grossman and Yuval Sirlow.
Alas, these names mean little to the average Israeli.
This year, president Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin participated in the Herzog seminar, to mark completion of the first cycle of the 929 Bible study project (in which all 929 chapters of the Bible were studied day-by-day by thousands of Israelis across the country for 2.5 years). Even Rivlin’s appearance at the seminar hardly made the news.
To understand my frustration, consider this: Were a new A.B. Yehoshua or Amos Oz novel to be published, Israeli radio and television alongside Haaretz, Yediot Ahronot, and even The New York Times and Le Monde, would break-out in festivity. The media would celebrate at great lengths the wisdom and wit of their favorite literary oracles.
It’s the same in the world of entertainment. Every avant garde and fringe rock musician from Scotland, Belgium or Germany that comes to play at Hayarkon Park is the subject of three dozen radio, television and newspaper features for weeks on end. Every Japanese movie shown or Korean art exhibit displayed at a summer cultural festival is worthy of page-length stories with oversize photos in our newspapers and breathless reporting on the airwaves.
You have to wonder what all this says about the cultural anchors and mores of our society.
Happily, the Herzog Bible seminar’s growing popularity suggests that many Israelis feel that the Bible, too, is relevant to modern Israeli society and culture.
The Bible is relevant because it fleshes out the mistakes of our past and suggests fixes for the future. Because it demands of us loyalty to high moral principles. Because it teaches personal responsibility and public accountability. Because it insists on social justice and social welfare. Because it is the anchor of Jewish civilizational identity.
Indeed, every year, Rabbi Yuval Sirlow and Rabbi Dr. Benny Lau use their Herzog College bully pulpits to exhort about the need for greater social justice in Israeli society, drawing instruction from the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micha and others. “Zion shall be redeemed with justice and righteousness” (Isaiah 1:27).
In my mind, this week’s passage of the “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” dovetails nicely with the draw of the Bible that I describe above. At some deep level, I sense that the drive to pass the law and the growing appeal of sophisticated Bible study stem from a similar profound place: a desire to entrench our roots in this land.
Of course, the Jewish People’s right to live in its homeland like other nations should be obvious and self-evident. But the State of Israel’s identification with Jewish nationhood is today under attack from large parts of the international community, and from Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, post-Zionist Jews, and anti-Jewish Jews.
Therefore, Jewish self-determination in the Land of Israel and the Jewish character of Israel needed to be enshrined in constitutional form – in a Basic Law. And our communal-societal identity needs to be reinforced by recourse to the wisdom of the Bible.
As David Ben-Gurion once said: “The (British) mandate is not our bible. The Bible is our mandate.” Or as Menachem Begin proclaimed: “The Jewish people have returned to the Land of Israel not by the right of force, but by force of right.”