Bible Club Founded by Ben-Gurion Gets Revived With a Peres Twist

Club's first meeting under Peres included a lecture on status, size of J'lem during the First, Second Temple periods.

The president's Bible club, which resumed activity Wednesday at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, after a hiatus of more than four years, has undergone several incarnations.

David Ben-Gurion started it as prime minister in the mid-1950s. The club met every few weeks at his Jerusalem home, on Ben Maimon Street.

"It was attended by judges, professors, researchers, senior government officials, and even President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi himself," the second president's bureau chief, David Bartov, recalled.

The sessions were led by a series of well-known scholars, mainly from the Hebrew University, with Ben-Gurion, who considered himself a Bible scholar in his own right, taking an active role in the erudite discussions.

In Ben-Gurion's era the club had a distinctly secular flavor, consistent with the worldview of Israel's first prime minister, who viewed the "Book of Books" as a national and universal document and tried to remove it from an exclusively religious context.

"Ben-Gurion once said about the verse 'Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place?' that it doesn't say you have to go up there wearing a skullcap," notes Yad Ben Zvi director Zvi Tzameret, who organized the club's revival. "He also said that Torat Moshe [Mosaic Law] and Torat Moshe Shapira [a minister from the National Religious Party] are two different laws."

President Shimon Peres, who was Ben-Gurion's right-hand-man, recounted how at a secret meeting in Paris in the 1950s, one of the hosts asked a question about the Bible, in response to which Ben-Gurion delivered an impassioned, 90-minute lecture, nearly forgetting the matter they were there to discuss.

After Ben-Gurion resigned, and Ben-Zvi died in 1963, Israel's third president, Zalman Shazar, moved the Bible club to the President's Residence, located then in Ben-Zvi's hut in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood. When the present residence was established, in 1969, the club continued to be held there. After Shazar retired in 1973, several attempts were made to carry on the club, but it did not last long under any of the presidents who followed.

Moshe Katsav revived the club, this time led by Rabbi Mordechai Elon. Despite the fair share of secular attendees at Elon's lessons, some old-timers grumbled that it no longer bore the scholarly character of yesteryear.

The club stopped meeting in early 2004, when Elon quit for health reasons. It has now been regenerated by two young Bible scholars, professors Oded Lifshitz of Tel Aviv University and Nili Wazana of Hebrew University, who together with officials from the Yad Ben-Zvi institute applied to the President's Residence, where their enthusiasm was greeted with by Peres.

Peres, in contrast to Ben-Gurion, insisted on including religious elements. The eclectic program for the first meeting included a lecture by Prof. Lifshitz on the status and size of Jerusalem during the First and Second Temple periods, a lesson by Kotel Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, who is close to Peres and the Labor Party, about "Spiritual Jerusalem versus Temporal Jerusalem," readings of poetry by S. Shifra and young musicians performing a piece entitled "Jerusalem Blues."

The event drew over 200 people, secular and religious of all stripes, teenagers, students, teachers, and academics.

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