Reporter´s Notebook: Studying Bible with Bibi (JERUSALEM POST) By HERB KEINON 05/25/12)
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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
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
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
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
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
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
tenant of the Torah. And therein lay the irony and the paradox that
others sitting to the left and right of the prime minister then
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. (© 1995-2011, The Jerusalem Post
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