Are we still the 'People of the Book'?

Most secular folks under 40 are incapable of reading half-a-dozen sentences of biblical Hebrew correctly.

torah scroll 88 (photo credit: )
torah scroll 88
(photo credit: )
While condemning the lack of respect for Jewish values displayed by Yuli Tamir and Meir Sheetrit, Gila Finkelstein ("The quiz and the education minister," Jerusalem Post, May 17) overlooked one striking feature of the International Bible Contest for Jewish Youth held on Independence Day. At this annual event, sponsored by the Jewish Agency, Gadna, and the Jewish Bible Association, all the Israeli contestants are now products of the state religious education system. In days gone by teenagers attending non-religious schools also competed; now they are conspicuous by their absence. Why has this situation arisen? The answer requires a short history lesson. The cultural leaders and founding fathers of Israel, however irreligious, were all steeped in the Hebrew Bible. Chaim Nahman Bialik, poet laureate of the Yishuv, declared that he never put pen to paper without first looking into the Book of Books. David Ben-Gurion's campaign for Jewish statehood was rooted in the idea that "it is not the Mandate which is our Bible; it is the Bible which is our Mandate." He and Zalman Shazar founded the World Jewish Bible Center in Jerusalem. They also established the Prime Minister's Bible Study Circle, which met weekly and set an example for the nation. At about the same time, with Ben-Gurion's support, Haim Gevaryahu and Ben-Zion Luria created the Israel Society for Biblical Research (Hevra Leheker Hamikra), whose members - laymen and scholars, teachers and kibbutzniks - established Bible study groups "from Dan to Eilat." They arranged conferences, Bible contests and bus tours to places of biblical significance. They promoted daily Bible readings on Israel Radio and fostered a knowledge of Tanach by publishing books, source material, and a periodical entitled Beit Mikra. IN 1972, Dr. Gevaryahu established the World Jewish Bible Society to forge links with kindred organizations in the Diaspora, particularly English-speaking countries. Like its parent body, this society also published a journal, Dor Ledor, renamed The Jewish Bible Quarterly in 1989. All these activities were based in a Rehavia apartment, conducted by a small paid staff, welcomed by thousands of citizens, and funded by the World Zionist Organization's Department of Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Gevaryahu's dream was Beit Hatanach, a "House of the Bible" that would display literature, manuscripts, translations, objets d'art, and in fact everything connected with the Book of Books. For this purpose money was raised abroad and a site was reserved close to the now-disused Jerusalem railroad station. Unfortunately, however, then mayor Teddy Kollek insisted on exchanging the land for Beit Rothschild in the Old City's historic Jewish Quarter. That building was later impounded by the Jerusalem Municipality and Gevaryahu's scheme died a natural death. In Tel Aviv, however, a similar though less ambitious Beit Katanach opened in 1973. Housed in the onetime residence of Meir Dizengoff, the city's first mayor, it receives a municipal grant and now functions above the hall where Israel's independence was proclaimed by David Ben-Gurion on May 15, 1948. WHEN GEVARYAHU departed this life in December 1989, the WZO's responsibility for cultural work in the Diaspora was taken over by the Jewish Agency, which only agreed to fund the English-language association and its journal, albeit on a vastly reduced scale. These activities were finally shifted to the agency's educational center in Kiryat Moriah, where one corner of a room was made available in lieu of financial support. Worse still, the Israel Society for Biblical Research had to operate from a dingy room near the Central Post Office; reduced to a shadow of its former self, it published Beit Mikra on a miserly (and often delayed) grant from the Ministry of Education. At present, the Jewish Bible Association is more or less self-supporting, thanks to the fees received from correspondence courses in Bible prepared for American college credit. This source of income enables the association to continue and even broaden its work through lectures, a weekly Bible quiz disseminated on the Internet, a new adult education course, and publications such as the Jewish Bible Quarterly. By contrast, the Hevra Leheker Hamikra is inactive, and its journal may soon become history. A FEW YEARS ago, as chairman of the Knesset's Education Committee, Zevulun Orlev proposed a solution to these problems through the establishment of a Bible Authority on the model of those for Yiddish and Judeo-Spanish already approved by legislators. There was little or no support for his proposal in the Knesset. With such lack of enthusiasm at the highest levels, is it any wonder that university Bible departments are not teeming with students, that the number of study groups has shrunk, and that Tanach has become the most unpopular subject in the (non-religious) state curriculum? Should we be surprised if most secular folks under the age of 40 are incapable of reading half-a-dozen sentences of biblical Hebrew correctly? Should we be surprised if their attachment to our biblical homeland is on the decline, and if interest and participation in the Bible Quiz is largely restricted to one section of the public? The writer, a veteran contributor to The Jerusalem Post, is chairman of the Jewish Bible Association.