Ehud Banai’s “Hebrew Man” was undoubtedly the theme song of our adventure in Israel. It’s catchy and had us dancing on the tour bus after many long days on the go, but the lyrics reveal something more interesting—the overwhelming and sometimes subtle presence of Biblical laws, narratives, and themes that are embedded in Israeli popular culture. Marc Zvi Brettler, Professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University, joined us one evening to discuss the nuances of this cultural phenomenon. He began his lecture by pointing out that biblical studies is undergoing a shift. Although much time is spent studying the Bible in antiquity, scholars are beginning to place new emphasis on the Bible and its reception in the contemporary world. Brettler engages this area of research through the Bible and Talmud as they are interpreted in non-Haredi Jewish Israel, particularly among secular and religious-nationalistic Jews. At the core of his research is an attempt to understand “Bible culture” in contemporary Israel, which is present in politics, civl law, music, colloquialisms, art, and archeology (to name a few).
With that in mind, where do we begin to look for specific evidence of the Bible in Israeli culture? When we were asked to come up with our own examples based on what we have seen in our day to day explorations of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, it was difficult to state anything but the obvious. We were able to identify the predominance of kosher restaurants, the use of the Hebrew language, and that Shabbat was a weekly government holiday, but our understanding of the breadth of biblical references was limited by the fact that we could not speak or understand Hebrew ourselves. According to Banai’s 2004 hit, Hebrew “is the language of the prophets,” “it is old and sacred” and, quite remarkably, it can “open up your soul.” This implies that there is a history to the language that is rooted in Bible and continually informs one’s spiritual and cultural consciousness, which is highlighted in the following lyrics:
You know, Abraham spoke the language of the Hebrew Man
And also Jesus from Nazareth and Maria Magdalene,
Einstein, Jeremiah, the Dylan and the Cohen
They knew something about the language of the Hebrew Man
In these verses, Banai manages to connect key biblical characters from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament with modern Jews who have made an impact in the contemporary world through science, music, and poetry. He creates a sense of commonality between them through the Hebrew language, which represents more than idiom. It is an allusion to a shared history, identity, and set of beliefs. In the world of Israeli music, Idan Raichel (who has collaborated with various artists to create a “blend of traditional Ethiopian folk music, Arabic poetry, Yemenite chants, Biblical psalms and Caribbean rhythms”) is doing something much different. He uses music as a means for “looking beyond intercultural differences and celebrating the value of diversity” among Jews and non-Jews. Like Banai, however, Raichel does use biblical themes in his music. “Hinach Yafah” (Thou Art Beautiful), for example, is a play on the poetry of Song of Songs—a sensual collection of words exchanged between lovers that have been widely interpreted as both theology and pure literature. Brettler notes that Raichel is re-interpreting rather than directly quoting Song of Songs, as is the secular tradition. Raichel is therefore adding and changing words and imagery around, essentially taking full artistic liberty over the biblical passage, rather than aiming to preserve its “sacred form.” That said, he is drawing on the Bible as a source of literature, or poetry, that is of cultural and aesthetic value rather than purely theological. This is reminiscent of Sarah Vered’s experience as a young girl in Palestine, before the foundation of the state, when she (along with other Jews) would travel the country with the Bible as their guide. They would open the book and read it as a source of history, poetry, and culture that taught them about the Jewish people and their land. The focus, in this case, is much more secular and educational, rather than theological. Does this suggest that the Hebrew Bible can stand apart from its theologically oriented reception history? As a tool of both the secular Jew and the strictly observant?
Despite these different approaches, Judaism remains a religion and culture of the book. Brettler emphasizes, however, that when Jews do theology there is no real “center” of the Hebrew Bible. This is because not all parts are of equal importance to all people of Jewish communities over time, but they are typically “Torah-centric.” The exception to this is the haredi community, which draws its influence from the Talmud and other rabbinic interpretations. One would think that Israel’s Knesset, and secular politics in general, would also keep a distance from anything Bible related, but that is far from the case. One of many examples of the Bible’s influence in Israel’s parliament is the International Bible Contest, where young Jews from around the world are quizzed on their Bible knowledge. What is most interesting about this event is the fact that the 2014 winner received his prize from the Prime Minister of Israel, the Minister of Education, and the Speaker of the Knesset. They are each quoted for saying things along the lines of how the Bible is “part of the compass and conscience of Israelis” or that it is the “flame of Zionism” and part of “everything we do in the state of Israel.” This demonstrates the magnitude of the Bible’s influence in Israeli life and culture, particularly in defining a common sense of secular “Jewishness.”
The Knesset itself is decorated with Biblical imagery, specifically in the Chagall State Hall, where Marc Chagall’s three tapestries that depict biblical themes and characters are on display for visitors to admire. Although I only had a short time to observe the art, Chagall’s tapestries are visually and emotionally stunning, to say the least. I could not help but sit and stare at the colours and details of what I initially thought was a painting. In a hurry, I took as many photos as possible and listened to what our guide had to say about the themes addressed in each panel. The overarching motif of the work is biblical, but it also portrays Jewish memory and identity from the perspective of modern Jewish history, which pieces together the past, present, and future. Although there is a certain ambiguity to the meaning of work as a whole, each part of the triptych has a narrative of its own.
The left tapestry is called the “Entrance to Jerusalem,” or “Return to Zion.” That said, it brings together two different time periods: the era of King David and the modern state of Israel. The King David narrative is drawn from 2 Samuel 6, where the ark is moved to Jerusalem, uniting the house of god with the house of David. In the tapestry, David is greeted by a crowd of “Hassidim alongside pioneers, symbolizing the return to Zion in modern times.” Other scenes in the tapestry include allusions to the holidays of Israel and the symbols of the State. This suggests that although the Bible is used as a point of reference, there are other aspects of Israel’s history that are incorporated, which are not necessarily religious, but tie in well with Biblical themes. As a result, the tapestry presents a mingling of sacred text with non-religious history, which speaks to the Bible’s overarching influence in all aspects of Jewish-Israeli life and culture.
The center depicts “The Exodus” from Egypt, as well as the Diaspora. The two central characters of this tapestry are Moses and King David. The many images that represent these two narratives are the burning of a Jewish village in Eastern Europe, the wandering Jew, and the worship of the golden calf. There is also an image of a dead body surrounded by six candles, which symbolizes the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. This tapestry ultimately expresses the tumultuous relationship between the land of Israel, the people of Israel, and their god. The right tapestry, however, represents the future of this dynamic. It is an image called the “End of Days” whose central figure is the prophet Isaiah having a dream. It is a dream of peace, which is drawn from the book of Isaiah 11:6-8. That said, the animals depicted in the tapestry symbolize this passage:
“a wolf will reside with a lamb, and a leopard will lie down with a young goat; an ox and a young lion will graze together, as a small child leads them along. A cow and a bear will graze together, their young will lie down together. A lion, like an ox, will eat straw. A baby will play over the hole of a snake; over the nest of a serpent, an infant will put his hand.”
This passage prophecies the coming together of various animals who could not be more different than each other—the carnivorous wolf and the innocent lamb, or the curious baby and the wily snake—but it imagines them living, eating, and playing together in peace. This reflects the vision of the Idan Raichel Project, to build a sense of commonality among diversity. My speculation is that this imagery appears in Chagall’s tapestry as a hope for what he imagines the future of Israel to be, which is a place of peace and unity between the world’s Jews, their diverse beliefs and practices, and even potentially Israel’s neighbours.
This idea becomes complicated, however, when we consider how Biblical archeology has played a key role in justifying the foundation and expansion of the state of Israel. Undoubtedly, this has created tension between Israeli Jews and the various non-Jewish communities who see Palestine as their home. A great example of this is the City of David—an archeological site uncovered by Eilat Mazar in 2005 in Silwan (a Muslim neighbourhood in Jerusalem) that some believe is the actual palace of David dating back to the tenth century B.C. According to Brettler, the site is an amalgamation of “archeology, nationalism, and theme-park tourism”. It therefore represents the epitome of the Bible’s overarching influence in Israeli popular culture and in Israel’s statecraft. That said, the City of David holds significant political and religious implications for Israelis, especially those who wish to use it for political ends. The trouble with this is that some Jews and scholars believe that David and Solomon never existed, while others suggest that they may have been real historical figures, but since there is no archeological evidence, one should avoid jumping the gun.
Despite the lack of definitive evidence, the site has an enormous impact in shaping these debates. This is particularly evident in Robert Draper’s article “Kings of Controversy,” which discusses how Mazar’s discovery “carries particular resonance in Israel, where the story of David and Solomon is interwoven with the Jews’ historical claims to biblical Zion.” Brettler notes that this is not the first time that the Bible has been used to justify the conquest of various territories (e.g. Judea and Samaria in 1967). As a result, the Bible has become a historical, geographical, and political book, rather than a strictly theological text used for moral, ethical, and ritual guidance. It is through these examples that we truly get a sense of the Bible’s overwhelming presence in Israel’s public life. The malleability of the text in its cultural and political manifestations therefore validates the “Bibliocentricity” of the modern state of Israel, particularly in defining what “Israeliness” means for contemporary Jews and the ongoing expression of their unique and diverse history through art, music, and the language of the “Hebrew man.”
Draper, Robert. “Kings of Controversy.” National Geographic Magazine (2010).
Ehud Banai, “Hebrew Man”:
The Idan Raichel Project:
Artwork in the Knesset: