Reporter's Notebook: Studying Bible with Bibi

There is something both heartening and humorous about Netanyahu setting aside precious time to contemplate Ruth on Shavuot.

Netanyahu at Jerusalem Day ceremony 370 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Netanyahu at Jerusalem Day ceremony 370
(photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)
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.
At 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 Bible.
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 out.
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.
Still, the 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.
Or, 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.
This 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 November.
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.
Apocryphal 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.
Wednesday’s 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 meat.
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).
Micha 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 that purpose.
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.