Author Archives: Joshua Teplitsky

About Joshua Teplitsky

Joshua Teplitsky is a doctoral candidate at New York University in the departments of History and Hebrew & Judaic Studies. His research focuses on the Jewish experience in early modern Prague, and the culture of Jews in early modern Europe more generally.

Hidon Ha-Tanach: Israel’s Bible Competition on Yom Ha’atzmaut

National days of celebration are often commemorated with great fanfare, feasts, and parades, and the State of Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut, is no exception.

However, Israel also marks the anniversary of its establishment with an unusual ritual: the International Bible Quiz (Hidon ha-Tanach). Often presided over by the President or Prime Minister of the State of Israel, the competition, held in Jerusalem, gathers high school students from across the Jewish world to showcase their scriptural prowess on national television. The event has a 40-year history and a pedigree that is older than the state itself, deeply intertwined with the ideological underpinnings of Zionism.

People, Land…Book?

How did the Bible become a part of Israeli national pride? And why hold a quiz on a day meant for celebration?
international bible contest
Many early Zionists were drawn to the Bible because of its mythic-heroic narratives and national perspective. They viewed the Bible as the perfect model for Jewish national rebirth in its homeland, and believed the Bible would allow for a people liberated from the diasporic, legalistic, restrictive, and passive Jewish political existence embodied, in their view, by the Talmud. These Zionists were abandoning a religious Jewish way of life, but by taking hold of the Bible (minus its religious prescriptions) they were establishing themselves as authentically consistent with Jewish values and Jewish continuity. Moreover, by using the ‘first” Jewish book as its guide, the movement implied that it was returning to the original (but since abandoned) purpose of Jewish civilization.

The Origins of the Competition

This project of “Jewish renewal” found its fullest articulation in the leadership of David Ben-Gurion. In public addresses rich with biblical language, Ben-Gurion consistently adopted messages from the Bible to describe the state’s “destiny.” After 1948–as efforts to ground the young state in a historical past intensified, especially through archaeology–Ben-Gurion became a model student of the Bible. He held regular study sessions in his home that were attended by scholars and members of his cabinet. 

The Sephardic Diaspora After 1492

By the 16th century, Jewish life in Spain and Portugal–the Jewish “Sepharad” that had boasted of a vibrant cultural life in the Middle Ages–was officially non-existent. Spanish Jewry had been exiled in 1492, and all of the Jews of Portugal, many of whom were refugees from Spain, were forcibly converted only five years later, in 1497. Many of these converts, known as conversos, assimilated fully into Iberian society. But a significant segment maintained a façade of Christianity while still clandestinely retaining as much of their Jewish belief and practice as possible.

brazilian synagogue

Sinagoga Kahal zur Israel, Recife, Brazil,
established in the 17th century.
Photo courtesy of Ricardo Andre Frantz

 

Over the next few centuries, many of these crypto-Jews settled in Western Europe. The migration of the Sephardic Diaspora from Spain and Portugal heralded a dual process of return: return to lands uninhabited by Jews for centuries, and return to ancestral practices that did not have the benefit of a chain of tradition to faithfully transmit them.

A People Apart, A New Exodus

Though the Jews of Portugal had been forced to convert, there was no official enforcement of that conversion, so they were generally free to practice their Judaism secretly. During the early 16th century, crypto-Jews (disparagingly labeled marranos, literally swine, by Christians of pure lineage) entered many levels of Portuguese society and forged a group identity that, on account of its conversion as a complete group, maintained resilience and vitality.

But the introduction of the Inquisition into Portugal in 1536 spurred waves of crypto-Jewish emigration. The pressure to flee persecution was compounded with a search for greater economic opportunity. 

Ironically, many conversos first moved to Spain, as it offered greater wealth and, according to Inquisitorial practice, could not punish crimes against the faith committed in Portugal. Portuguese Jewish migration was so extensive that, for many Spaniards, “Portuguese” became a synonym for “Jew.”

Crypto-Jews

Converso, Marrano, New Christian, Catholic, Crypto-Jew: these titles, amongst others, are intermittently applied to the men and women of 15th-17th century Spain and Portugal whose identities lingered somewhere between Jew and Christian. In most cases, multiple labels can be used to describe the same individuals, because the boundaries between their identities were porous. For both contemporary observers and for modern historians, the label used reveals more about the labeler than about the phenomenon described.

Historical Circumstances

For most of the Middle Ages, control of the Iberian Peninsula (the geographic entity comprising modern Spain and Portugal) alternated between Muslim and Christian hands. At times this meant a more tolerant society, from which Jews benefited in kind. By the 14th century, however, as the Christian Reconquista (reconquest) of Spain was in full swing, a crusading spirit permeated most levels of society. Compounded with the fear and desolation of the Black Death in the mid-14th century, the atmosphere was ripe for anti-Jewish sentiment.

the spanish inquisition

A Jew being persecuted in the Spanish Inquisition

Encouraged by a decade-long anti-Jewish campaign by the Sevillian preacher Ferrant Martinez, a rash of popular riots against Jews erupted across the peninsula in the year 1391. By the time the riots subsided, 100,000 Jews were dead, 100,000 had fled the peninsula, and another 100,000 had converted to Christianity. By the year 1415, another 50,000 Jews had converted to Christianity.

Suspicions and Hopes, Labels and Labelers

After the wave of conversions in 1391, three loose groups emerged: Jews who held fast to their faith and religious practice; Jews who converted to Christianity and were absorbed by Christian society; and those who existed outwardly as Christians but practiced Judaism in secret.

To outsiders, secret Jews were indistinguishable from those who had fully converted to Christianity. The titles converso (Spanish for “convert”) or cristianos nuevos (“New Christians”) were thus equally applied to the second and third of these groups–fully devout Christians who were once Jewish, and those secret, or crypto-Jews.

Traditional Jewish Life, 1700-1914

The major political and intellectual shifts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries resulted in dramatic upheavals to the traditional patterns of Jewish life in Europe. While some Jews responded to these changes by advocating for reform of Judaism from within, others held fast to tradition. But even the patterns of traditionalism that emerged in this period were not seamlessly continuous with a premodern past. Rather, the practices and beliefs that would come to be termed “Orthodox Judaism” were shaped in the crucible of modern conditions.

Cracks in the Foundation

In Europe prior to the 18th century, Jewish life was defined in every way by belonging to the institutionalized Jewish community, the kehilla. Across Europe and the Ottoman lands, the kehilla functioned as a “state within a state,” containing its own system of courts led by rabbis, and providing its own basic social services such as education and support for the sick and elderly. 

rabbi moses sofer, the hatam sofer

Rabbi Moses Sofer, also known
as the “Hatam Sofer

Beginning after the French Revolution, legal Emancipation for Europe’s Jews spread gradually across Western and Central Europe. And so, over the course of the nineteenth century, the autonomous Jewish community legally ceased to exist. The collectivity lost its coercive powers and Jews were free to operate as individuals in a larger society. 

At the same time, leaders of the Haskalah introduced Enlightenment ideas into the traditional Jewish community, advocating for a more expansive curriculum which included secular studies and instruction in Hebrew language. Most significantly, Enlightenment thinkers, and leaders of the burgeoning Reform movement, flouted the authority of rabbinic elites, challenging the very foundation of the traditional system.

Initial Responses

Although many Jews saw the appeal of the Reform movement and the allure of secular Jewish life, most clung to their understanding of traditional Judaism as the only authentic form of Jewish life. In the German lands, where the ideological battles over tradition and modernity were most fierce, an overwhelming majority of Jews still followed traditional Judaism in the mid-19th century. By the close of the First World War, however, traditional Jewry’s ranks had declined to between 10 and 20 percent of the German-Jewish population.