On Ben Gurion, the Bible and an Unusual Press Conference

With Israeli election results still in motion, let’s take a look at David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, and one of the most significant Zionist leaders of the 20th century. He remains a fascinating figure in Israeli history.

Dr. Ari Ackerman, Golinkin Chair of TALI Jewish Education at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, describes an extraordinary press conference Ben Gurion held devoted entirely to his understanding of the Biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt. What was problematic about Ben Gurion’s approach and how does Schechter’s approach to Bible education differ?

Full transcription below:

In 1960, David Ben Gurion held a very atypical press conference. He asked journalists to bring to this press conference a Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) and he devoted the entire press conference to his understanding of the biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt.

Now I don’t want to detail Ben Gurion’s innovative and controversial understanding of this Biblical episode, but I want to emphasize what an important political, social and cultural event this was in Israel society in the 1960s. It grabbed the headlines for a number of days and it is difficult to imagine a parallel event occurring in Israel society today.

Our relationships with the Tanakh is much more tenuous.  It has a much more minimal role in Israel public discourse and in the educational system. I want to try to understand what caused this disconnect and how we can create a renewed connection to the most important book in the Jewish canon. I think if we look a little deeper into Ben-Gurion’s approach we’ll see that his approach was actually somewhat problematic.

He was interested in the Tanakh for a specific reason, he wanted to create a connection between Israeli youth in the Land of Israel. He saw the Tanakh as an important educational text, it could increase the willingness of people –  of Israelis –  to defend and settle the land. Therefore, he was interested in only certain sections of the Tanakh and he wasn’t interested in integrating the Tanakh into the cultural creativity of the Jews throughout the years. Therefore, if we want to create a different, stronger relationship with Tanakh, we have to build it on a different foundation. That is what we’re trying to do at Schechter in our Bible track.  We encourage students to creative dialogue with the Tanakh.

We interact with the Tanakh and other disciplines with the cultural creativity of the Jews from the time of the Tanakh to Israeli society today.