While the International Bible Contest seems as old as Israel itself, it only began ten years later. Inspired by Ora Herzog, current President Herzog’s Mother, the first International Bible Contest for Adults, known as Chidon HaTanach, was among the festivities celebrating Israel’s tenth year of independence. In 1963, a separate contest opened for Jewish youth known as the Chidon HaTanach Le No’ar Yehudi.
After five contests, the adult competition ceased for three decades. In the meantime, the competition for Jewish youth went on. As part of the annual Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations, the final rounds are broadcasted on national television and attended by the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the Knesset, and the Minister of Education. To one of my fellow Times of Israel bloggers, Moshe-Mordechai van Zuiden, this event is “utterly un-Jewish.” As a former competitor, I beg to differ.
I agree with the argument that the Torah can never be Israel’s constitution; this would be, among other issues, unfair to Israel’s non-Jewish residents and impractical. I also believe that the Torah and the Talmud are both crucial parts of Jewish tradition. However, I disagree with the notion that learning the simple text of Tanach is “utterly un-Jewish.”
Those who attend shul on Shabbat will not hear a single word of commentary during the Torah reading. Given that Moses himself instituted this practice, it seems he believed that the plain words of the Torah have immense value and should be an important part of Jewish life.
In Pirkei Avot, there is a list of ages at which one should start learning and practicing various aspects of Judaism. The youngest age, five, is given to the study of scripture. This highlights the importance of having a stable base of biblical knowledge before learning other texts. Chidon HaTanach allows and incentivizes competitors to acquire a strong base of knowledge that can also help with the study of Talmud, Halacha and other religious texts.
This strong base, however, is missing from many who do not compete in Chidon Hatanach. Many of my classmates who did not do Chidon only learned a small sampling of commentary-heavy chapters; my school’s the Tanach Department prioritizes piling five commentators on every Passuk rather than giving students a broad education. Students are not taught a single chapter about King David, a single Proverb, or the first chapter of Isaiah. This forces other departments, namely Talmud and Ethics, to spend time filling the gaps, teaching material – like the Binding of Isaac – that they are shocked so few students actually know.
This lack of knowledge is not only a religious issue but also a cultural one. Israel’s Declaration of Independence shows the Tanach’s importance as a cultural document in its first paragraph:
“ERETZ-ISRAEL was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”
As the Tanach is so ingrained in Israeli culture, I hope that none of my peers will have the misfortune of walking down a street named Yermiyahu while on vacation in Israel and asking “Yermiya-who?”
The Tanach also has cultural significance outside Israel, both in the Jewish diaspora and the outside world. It is, perhaps, the most influential document ever written, and a strong knowledge of Tanach is helpful in secular life.
Some criticize Chidon being insufficiently focused on values and principles. However, a broad and thorough understanding of Tanach allows one to extrapolate values and principles. Chidon Hatanach builds on this by having a theme for each competition. Most crucially, however, are the values that one gains before the contest. While studying, competitors learn to value the Hebrew language. During the trip, Jewish unity and a love for the land of Israel are fostered when competitors from Paraguay to New Zealand tour places in Israel like Jerusalem and the ancient city of Dan.
Others say that the Chidon reduces the study of Tanach into a competition. Agnon countered this claim by saying that Chidon creates an atmosphere for the study of Tanach; this atmosphere stays long after the contests. Nevertheless, I believe that the competition has its benefits beyond creating an atmosphere for Tanach: by pushing competitors to do their best. The Olympic Games motivates athletes to run faster, jump higher, and be stronger. Most importantly, as highlighted this year, Tokyo showed us the power of competition to bring people together; this, perhaps, is the greatest achievement of the Chidon, its ability to bring, as illustrated by my year’s theme, “the tribes of Israel together” [Deuteronomy 33:5].
Given that my year’s competition was the last in-person Chidon before COVID, in hindsight, the theme was more than fitting. I hope that next year, the competitors and their families will once again be in Jerusalem on Yom Ha’atzmaut for the Chidon.