The colorful, politically-significant protests on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv have drowned out all other stories from Israel over the past month – including news of the exciting Bible-studies festival held last week in Gush Etzion.
The Herzog College Bible studies seminar was founded 20 years ago by its parent institution, the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva in Alon Shvut, in the southern West Bank. 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.
This year, no less than 5,000 men and women, young and old, religious and secular, took time off from work and vacation to participate!
The classes are both academic and traditional, incorporating 21st-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 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. They should.
But there is a problem. The Israeli press regularly ignores this uplifting, exhilarating intellectual event, year after year. And not just because it is busy covering the Arab-Israeli conflict or street demonstrations in Tel Aviv.
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 A.B. 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.
But when thousands upon thousands of Israeli men and women indulge in the definitive festival of modern Bible studies – nada. Nothing. Not a word in the Israeli media. The military censor couldn’t have done a better job of blocking news of the event.
Why? It is probably because Israelis today know little of the Bible and many journalists are embarrassed by its popularity; they’re petrified that so many people feel that the Bible is relevant.
Happily, the Bible seminar’s growing popularity suggests that many other people 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.
Indeed, the far-reaching social teachings of the Bible could prove to be of great interest to protestors on Rothschild Boulevard. 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.
Every year, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow uses his Herzog College bully pulpit 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).
Next summer, it might be a good idea if our Jerusalem-based politicians and Tel Aviv-encamped protestors join me for a bit of study and introspection at the Bible seminar in Gush Etzion.
David M. Weinberg is director of public affairs at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (and an alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion).