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

A people and a book.

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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.

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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.