On Wednesday afternoon in Baghdad, a few thousand kilometers away from
the Prime Minister’s Jerusalem Residence, the world powers known as the
P5+1 – the US, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany – sat down for
much anticipated talks with the Iranians about their nuclear program.
the same time, just a few hundred meters away from the Prime Minister’s
Residence, 100 or so people loudly demonstrated for the rights of
Ethiopian immigrants and against discrimination.
And all the
while, for two hours on a mild afternoon, Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu – with a small black kippa on his head – sat in the covered
courtyard of his home with 16 rabbis, academics, Bible scholars,
archeologists and linguists, and discussed the meaning of the Book of
Ruth, which will be read on Shavuot on Sunday in synagogues around the
world. His wife, Sara, sat next to him, and his two sons sat on a bank
of chairs set to the side.
There was something at once heartening
and slightly humorous about Netanyahu setting aside precious time in
the late afternoon to talk about Biblical figures Tamar and Yehuda,
Naomi and Boaz, Ruth and David, while Iran loomed so large, and domestic
issues beckoned so seriously.
It was heartening in that it is
uniquely elevating seeing the prime minister of the Jewish state taking
time out to study the Bible, the heart of Jewish existence. One cannot
talk about Jewish historic rights to this place, which the prime
minister does constantly, without appreciating and understanding the
And the scene was slightly humorous in that there is no
other way to describe watching Avshalom Kor, the legendary radio
linguist with the bass voice and perfect Hebrew pronunciation, read
chapters from the Book of Ruth, while in the background chants from the
Ethiopian protesters grew louder and louder and threatened to drown him
Netanyahu – try as he may to set aside some time for Bible
study to block out the everyday – could not totally succeed. The outside
world seeped in, even as he tried hard to ignore it.
attempt was praiseworthy because it put into wider perspective the
matters on the agenda that seem so overwhelmingly critical at the moment
– Iran and domestic problems the Ethiopian protesters raised.
as Rabbi Yehuda Ben-Yishai, whose daughter Ruth was killed with her
husband and three children in a terrorist attack in Itamar last year,
put it at the meeting, the Bible is a chronicle of how – despite it all –
“we came out of it all right.” He said the Bible was a chronicle of
finding the “light” in very complicated and complex situations.
Kor wanted to read only a few verses from the Book of Ruth, but the prime minister urged him on to read more.
is better then the usual matters he has to deal with, Netanyahu quipped
as the session – originally scheduled for an hour – went 60 minutes
longer than planned.
“The Bible is a parable for humanity,”
Netanyahu said at the outset in English, giving a powerful sound-bite to
the cameras invited to film just the opening of the study circle. “If
the Jews are able to cross the river of time, and in their vast odyssey
cross the chasm of annihilation and come back to their ancestral home,
that means there is hope for humanity.”
The PMO, along with the
Menachem Begin Heritage Center, organized the event, a reincarnation of a
tradition David Ben-Gurion began, when as prime minister he hosted a
regular Bible study circle, and also Menachem Begin adopted when he was
prime minister. It is dedicated to Sara Netanyahu’s father, Shmuel
Ben-Artzi, a noted Bible teacher and enthusiast who passed away in
A tale is told that one Saturday evening Begin was
studying the weekly Torah portion with his group, when a call came in
from the White House. US president Jimmy Carter was on the line. Begin
is said to have replied that he was in the middle of studying verses
from Deuteronomy, and that Carter should call back in a couple of hours.
or not, the story sends a message that certain things are important,
like calls from the US president, and other things are even more so.
That seemed the message Netanyahu was trying to send as well.
meeting, the first of a number of study sessions that are to take place
throughout the year, was more symbol than substance, more message than
And Netanyahu made clear what the message was: “Ben-Gurion
and Begin believed that the Bible should be the heritage of the entire
nation – secular and religious, young and old, men and women. The Bible
is the foundation of our existence. It unites the Jewish people, as it
has throughout the generations. It also serves not only as a foundation
but also as a map and compass,” he said.
“The Bible is always
relevant vis-à-vis today’s problems and challenges. It inspires, it is a
source of life for our people and I think that it is important to
expand Bible study and love of the Bible among all parts of the nation.
This is also the goal of this circle.” Wednesday’s format was neither university lecture, nor yeshiva shiur (lesson).
Goodman, the dynamic head of the Ein Prat Academy for Leadership and a
lecturer on Jewish thought at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, handed
out a short source sheet and then began the discussion by explaining
how the Book of Ruth – the story of the Moabite convert Ruth –
contradicted the Biblical injunction of never letting Moabites and
Ammonites enter the ranks of the Jewish people.
On the Shavuot
holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah, Goodman said, the book
the sages selected to be read contradicted a tenet of the Torah. And
therein lay the irony and the paradox that others sitting to the left
and right of the prime minister then addressed.
Granted, when a
group that includes rabbis like Benny Lau and Yeshivat Har Etzion
co-head Yaakov Meidan, archeologists like Adam Zertal, linguists like
Hebrew Language Academy head Moshe Bar-Asher, and Judaic studies
scholars like Hebrew University’s Nili Wazana, get together, the
discussion is bound to be illuminating. In a group like that, everyone
has what to say – especially when they feel compelled to say something
intelligent since they were invited by the prime minister expressly for
But the significance of the afternoon was less in
the insights given – talk about how the Bible is both law and spirit,
full of complexities reflecting life’s contradictions and compromises –
and more in the very fact that Netanyahu decided to resurrect Ben-Gurion
and Begin’s tradition. While an absorbing discussion ensued,
Wednesday’s prime ministerial study circle shed more light on Netanyahu –
his psyche, world view and the way he sees his role – than it did on
the Book of Ruth.