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

A people and a book.

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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. 

It is hardly surprising that Ben-Gurion enthusiastically welcomed the creation of a Hidon. In 1958, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the State, Israel's Society for Biblical Research inaugurated a Bible Quiz for adults, which was overseen by noted Bible scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann. The star of this competition was a 30-year-old employee of the Jerusalem Center for Blind Education named Amos Hakham. Hakham, so poor that he needed to borrow a shirt from friends for this momentous occasion, dedicated hours to solitary Bible study and kept mostly to himself until his victory. Winning the Hidon catapulted him into the national spotlight, making him a darling of the press and earning him a place at Ben-Gurion's sitting room. To many scholars and lay students of the Bible, Hakham's name is now virtually synonymous with Bible study because after winning the Hidon he played an instrumental role in the publication of the "Daat Miqra" Bible commentary series.

Within a short time, other important Israeli institutions staged Bible quizzes of their own, establishing an IDF Bible Quiz, a Jewish Youth Bible Quiz, local and regional quizzes, and even one competition between two groups of construction workers in a neighborhood in Jerusalem. All of these events generally took place around Yom Ha-atzmaut, but were hardly part of a coordinated state effort. Rather, they reflected a popular focus on the Bible in the years following the establishment of the state. In 1960, Israel expanded its efforts beyond its national borders and organized an international Bible quiz for adults.

From the start, the organizers of the Hidon took their role very seriously. In the 1960 international competition, the exams were guarded in a safe by the Jerusalem police force, and translators were sequestered in an undisclosed hotel in order to preserve the integrity of the contest. The competition proceeded with austerity. As each contestant was called upon, a flag from his or her country of origin was illuminated to highlight the international character of the event and its significance for Israel as a center of world Jewry.

In 1963, on Independence Day, with great pride and ceremony, the state held its first international Bible Quiz for Jewish Youth, shifting the focus away from a general adult populace to students in high school. David Ben-Gurion, surveying the festivities alongside the annual military procession, remarked that he was witnessing "the spiritual parade alongside the military parade"--a fulfillment of the Zionist triad of people, land, and book.

How the Competition Works

Nowadays, the Hidon generally proceeds in three stages: regional, national, and international, with finalists from each stage proceeding to the next level in order to compete against other champions. It is largely coordinated by the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the precise process varies in each country, where participants compete at the national level prior to qualifying for the international round in Jerusalem. The material is organized according to a triennial cycle, drawing upon selections from the Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings.

Fewer than 20 finalists from some 36 countries come to compete in Jerusalem, where they take part in a quiz for the diaspora from which a select few join Israeli competitors in the final round. At the close of the competition, the victor is crowned "Groom" or "Bride" of the Bible, and wins a scholarship to study at Israel's Bar Ilan University. The best non-Israeli champion wins a scholarship to study at Machon Lev, the Jerusalem College of Technology.

The questions--based only on the simple, literal meaning of the Bible--are designed around themes of Jewish ethics, the nature of the Land of Israel, and human nature. To underscore the relationship between the Bible, the land of Israel, and the Jewish people, the final questions are often delivered by Israeli dignitaries. This does not always go off without a hitch. In 2009, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mispronounced a word, both competitors and members of the audience audibly corrected his gaffe.

Naysayers?

Not everyone accepts the Bible Quiz with unqualified praise. Scholars and educators have expressed concern that the competition reduces biblical knowledge to a sport, and that even friendly competition can strip the Bible of its ethical content in favor of tabulating points. Others fear that the rote memorization required for the competition might turn students away from Bible study completely.

But the greatest criticism has emerged implicitly, directed not against the competition but against the cultural underpinnings of Zionist self-understanding.

Paradoxically, the victories of the 1967 war brought Israelis into direct contact with more biblical sites than ever before, and actually demystified those places and stripped them of their romance. For many secular Israelis, the circumstances of this territorial acquisition tarnished its cultural significance. Only the national-religious camp saw the victory of 1967 in religious terms, and they repeatedly imbued the Bible's message of conquest and settlement with renewed literalism and religious fervor. 

Since the 1970s, the Bible has receded into the background as an "identity text" for Israeliness. In many ways, this is rooted in the culture wars of the post-Zionist ethos, which has dedicated itself to unearthing and undermining the founding myths of the state. The Bible is now largely the province of religious Israelis, and this is felt in the Hidon clientele as well.

Recent History

The competition today continues to be a site of identity politics. In 2008, on the state's 60th anniversary, Israeli society experienced a furor over the possibility of a victory by an adherent of the Jews for Jesus community in Israel, leading some religious Jews to call for a boycott of the event. In 2009, both winner and runner up were from the West Bank and the "Groom of the Bible" presented Benjamin Netanyahu with a request to expand efforts for Jonathan Pollard's release. The Hidon persists as a symbol of Zionist aspirations and as a site of conflict over the culture and spirit of the state: Israel and the diaspora, Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular.

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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.