Biblical rhapsody and regret

Israeli journalists are embarrassed by the Bible’s popularity. They’re petrified that so many people feel that the Bible is relevant.

July 30, 2012 22:17
3 minute read.
Torah scroll.

Torah scroll 521. (photo credit: Stockbyte)


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The annual Herzog College Bible study seminar at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut – attended recently by over 6,000 men and women, young and old, religious and secular – is a magnificent enterprise, an intellectual treat, and an exhilarating spiritual experience. Yet the Israeli press regularly ignores this uplifting event, year after year. The military censor itself 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’re petrified that so many people feel that the Bible is relevant.

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The Herzog College Bible studies seminar was founded 20 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 archeology 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 21st century scholarship and Talmudic interpretation and 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 day of biblical field tours.

Herzog College lecturers are yeshiva deans and university professors, men and women, scholarly giants such as Rabbis Yoel Bin Nun, Yaakov Medan, Elhanan Samet and Menachem Liebtag – who have birthed the critical study of Bible within the yeshiva world – along with academic stars like Professors Uriel Simon, Amos Frisch, Yonatan Grossman and Yael Ziegler.

Alas, these names mean nothing to the average Israeli.

To understand my frustration, consider this: Were five staid old professors of literature to gather at Ben Gurion University for a half-day seminar to mark the publication of a new novel by Amos Oz – the whole country would know about it!

Each of those aged academics would be interviewed several dozen times by Israeli television and radio and every self-respecting newspaper. The media would be awash in celebration of the wisdom and wit spilling forth from the pen of a favorite literary oracle. The feting would go on for weeks. Such high culture! Were it a new AB Yehoshua novel, even The New York Times and Le Monde would join the festivities. In fact, Oz and Yehoshua might get knighted for their new books, and the five bespectacled, balding professors who professionally study their works would all get Israel Prizes – and yet more media attention.

Happily, the Bible seminar’s growing popularity suggests that many Israelis indeed feel that the Bible is relevant to modern Israel. The Bible is relevant because it roots our identity in this land and inspires us to build-up the land of Israel. The Bible is relevant because it fleshes out the mistakes of our past and prescribes fixes for the future. Because it demands of us loyalty to God and to high moral principles. Because it teaches personal responsibility and public accountability. Because it insists on social justice and social welfare.

Every year, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow 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, Micha and others. “Zion shall be redeemed with justice and righteousness” (Isaiah 1:27).

But since the theological imperatives of the Bible are considered of no consequence by today’s elites and yuppies, the social impulses of the Bible get thrown out with the Divine bathwater. That’s really too bad.

The writer is the director of public affairs at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin- Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

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