Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

The Chidon Ha-Tanach (“International Bible Contest”) is an international competition on the Tanach (Torah, Prophets, and Hagiographic Writings) for middle school and high school Jewish students sponsored by the Israeli government and held annually in Jerusalem on Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day).

 

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The Chidon was conceived by David Ben Gurion who, ironically, exhibited a cognitive dissonance of sorts with respect to Torah-true Judaism. On one hand, he did not believe in the G-d and the Sinaic revelation but, on the other hand, he believed Torah knowledge to be fundamental to Jewish existence. Nonetheless, he was enormously well-versed in scripture and Jewish learning, and he held regular weekly meetings at his home with the “Prime Minister’s Bible Study Circle,” a select group of students of the Bible including many prominent Israeli biblical scholars.

The role of Judaism and the Bible in his life may perhaps be best summarized by his famous statement: “Since I invoke Torah so often, let me state that I don’t personally believe in the G-d it postulates . . . I am not religious, nor were the majority of the early builders of Israel believers. Yet their passion for this land stemmed from the Book of Books . . . [and the Bible is] the single most important book in my life.” In one famous episode, when he appeared before the Peel Commission and was challenged to produce a land deed proving Jewish ownership of Eretz Yisrael, he held up a Bible and exclaimed: “Here is your land deed!” He often adopted biblical messages in public speeches and characterized the Bible as underscoring Jewish destiny.

 

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In 1958, Israel’s Society for Biblical Research, with Ben Gurion’s enthusiastic support, inaugurated a Chidon Ha-Tanach for adults as, ironically, a “one-time special event.” This first Chidon was overseen by Yechezkel Kaufmann (1889-1963), a Jewish philosopher, biblical scholar, and author of many highly-regarded scholarly works, the greatest of which is his ambitious The Religion of Israel from its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile (1960). In this masterwork, he traces the history of religion and biblical literature and presents his thesis that Jewish monotheism did not evolve from paganism or any of the cultures surrounding the first Jews but, rather, was an entirely new religion. He was awarded the first Bialik Prize for Jewish thought (1933) and the prestigious Israel Prize, for Jewish studies (1958).

First place medal awarded in the first Chidon Ha-Tanach, 1958.

The first Bible Quiz, which was heavily text-based and extraordinarily challenging, commenced on August 4, 1958, at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem. The questions were treated as national security secrets and extraordinary measures were instituted to preserve the integrity of the contest, including the assignment of 300 police officers and sending a special contingent to guard the examinations and the 14 translators sequestered at an undisclosed hotel. The final, which was held in the open-air amphitheater at the Hebrew University, was attended by 2,400 spectators, including members of the Israel Cabinet and Knesset, diplomats, heads of religious communities, and other dignitaries.

During the tightly run proceedings, each contestant appeared on stage backed by an illuminated country flag, which demonstrated not only the internationality of the contest, but also the role of Israel as a Jewish nation taking its place amongst the family of nations, an important propaganda goal during Israel’s early years. Television and private radio broadcasts in Israel did not exist at the time, so the entire country tuned in to the broadcast of the event by Kol Yisrael (Israel’s public radio station). The Chidon became a matter of great interest and positive discussion not only in Israel, but also worldwide, although several of the first participants and others were upset to learn that the questions were limited to the “Old Testament.”

Amos Hakham portrait.

The two leaders among the nine male and six female finalists from 14 countries were Israel’s representative, Amos Hakham, and Irene Santos of Brazil. The American contestant, Mystelle Davis, the wife of a Georgia farmer, won the Bible quiz and a spot in the finals on the popular $64,000 Question television show. Hakham (1921-2012), a remarkable man at the center of an incredible and deeply moving story, was the first-prize winner. A solitary man who kept mostly to himself, he became a national hero; he was thrown into the spotlight and idolized by both the press and the public, and his name became synonymous with Bible study.

Hakham had sustained a head injury as a young child that caused a speech impediment such that his father, Noah, feared that his son would be ridiculed and, as such, declined to enroll him in school. Instead, Noah – who earned a doctorate at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Vienna, became the founder of the Seminary for Teachers of the Mizrachi movement, and was a scholar in his own right – personally taught him Bible. When Hakham’s father died, he was forced to become the family’s only breadwinner and, with no formal education and having learned no trade or craft, he took a low-paying position as a clerk with the Institute for the Blind. While devoting himself to the study of Bible on his own time, he also aided disadvantaged blind students attending regular schools in Jerusalem and helped to create a Hebrew Braille Bible.

Cover honoring Israel’s 10th anniversary and the first Chidon Ha-Tanach.

When news of the coming Chidon Ha-Tanach began to circulate, Hakham’s neighbors, who were aware of the breadth and depth of his scholarship, urged the shy and quiet man to become a contestant and, mired in extreme poverty, he had to borrow a suit for the competition. The combination of his victory and his modest personal story made him the center of national and international attention to the point that Israeli newspapers proclaimed that he had become the most popular person in Israel.

After Hakham’s great triumph, Ben Gurion took him on a national tour, and he was offered a position as a Bible teacher at the Ayanot Agricultural School. He later formally studied Bible to earn an academic degree and he went on to write eight volumes (including Psalms, Job, and Isaiah) of the seminal Daat Mikrah, a series of biblical commentary in Hebrew published by Mossad Harav Kook, which serves as a foundation of contemporary Israeli Orthodox Bible scholarship. He is credited with creating the model for a methodological, word-by-word, verse-by-verse commentary.

The success of the Chidon Ha-Tanach launched other Bible contests, including a competition sponsored by the IDF (Israel Defense Force), and numerous local and regional quizzes, usually also held on Yom Haatzmaut, reflecting the broad popularity of learning Torah even among secular Israelis. Two years after the inaugural Chidon, Israel instituted an international Bible quiz for adults marked by great publicity.

The success of this adult competition led to Israel’s establishment of Chidon Ha-Tanach Le No’ar Yehudi, a Torah Quiz for Jewish Youth, with the first such contest held in 1963 on Yom Haatzmaut in Jerusalem with much pomp and ceremony. The change in emphasis from the adult population to Jewish high school students was seen by many as the fulfillment of the quintessence of the transmission of Judaism – the Torah of Israel, in the land of Israel, for the people of Israel – to the next generation. Even the secular Ben Gurion, who delivered the final questions at the first Youth Chidon during his final year as prime minister, characterized it while witnessing the annual grand military procession as “the spiritual parade alongside the military parade.”

The Youth Chidon Ha-Tanach, which is today run by the Jewish Agency, begins at the regional level and then nationally, with each country setting its own rules, and the national winners, about 20 finalists from about 60 countries, are invited to Jerusalem to participate in the finals of the international competition. Following the precedent set by Ben Gurion, the final questions are delivered by Israeli notables, including prime ministers. The first-place winner is awarded a full scholarship to study at Bar Ilan University, and the highest finisher from the Diaspora is awarded a scholarship to study at Machon Lev (the Jerusalem College of Technology).

The 2020 Youth Chidon, which had no live audience because of COVID, generated some controversy when the master of ceremonies, Avshalam Kur, repeatedly berated and demeaned Diasporan contestants for not making aliyah. Below are ten sample questions from the 2020 U.S. national finals (the answers are intentionally not provided):

  • Aside from the land of Israel, what other land is known as a land “flowing with milk and honey”?
  • What did Kish send Saul and his servant to look for?
  • How old was Eli when he died?
  • Who was joined by “everyone who was in straits and everyone who was in debt and everyone who was desperate”?
  • For how long did the Ark of the Lord remain in the territory of the Philistines?
  • Who said to whom: “Should you gouge out those men’s eyes?”
  • Who set out on a trip “versed in divination?”
  • To what tribe did each of the following belong: Gaddi ben Susi, Ammiel ben Gemalli, Gamaliel ben Pedahzur.
  • About whom is the following said: “But when his courtiers as well as the woman urged him, he listened to them; he got up from the ground and sat on the bed?”
  • Who says: “Do nothing for their well-being or advantage, then you will be strong and enjoy the bounty of the land and bequeath it to your children forever”?

For many years, the youth event overshadowed the adult Chidon, which was discontinued in 1981. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought unsuccessfully to revive it in 2007, but it was Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose son Avner beat 12,000 participants to win the Youth Chidon in 2010, who succeeded in getting it reinstituted in 2012, and many former youth competitors from different countries now participate in the adult Chidon.

Most scholars and educators see the Chidon Ha-Tanach as an important pedagogical tool that inspires broad interest in the Torah and in Torah study among Jews, including particularly among secular Jews who may not have been fortunate to have parents who enrolled them in a yeshiva. As time passes and we get ever further from Sinai, the lack of Jewish education has become a growing problem and presents a greater threat to Jewish survival than our worst enemies ever could. As all reliable and statistically credible studies show, there is a direct correlation between a lack of Jewish education and intermarriage.

As such, anything that promotes and encourages Torah study on whatever level is to be embraced and promoted. Even if the level of knowledge required to participate in the Chidon is rudimentary, as some critics argue (see below), there can be no dispute that having a stable base of fundamental biblical knowledge is a condition precedent to higher Jewish learning, such as the study of Talmud and halacha. Even given that this level of study should not constitute an end in itself, public events such as the Chidon, and Bible quizzes in general, generate interest and promotes learning that may someday lead to greater in-depth study.

Nonetheless, there are critics who object to the Chidon on the grounds that Bible study is supposed to be for its own sake. They argue that the Torah is not a book of stories and history but, rather, a guidebook for a way of life and that the competition undermines the Torah study by turning it into a sport, where scoring points becomes more important than absorbing the halachic and ethical essence of the Torah. Moreover, they contend that the contest rewards rote memorization rather than the deep understanding of G-d and his ways that can only come from a lifetime of “toiling in Torah.”

In this regard, I recall a favorite theme of my Rav, teacher, and friend, R. Amnon Haramati, a”h, who was always highly critical of yeshivot that only taught Talmud and that deemphasized the study of the Prophets. He would observe that the prophets were generally not discussing such things as putting on tefillin, or sitting in a sukkah, or eating matzah on Passover but, rather, they were all about ethical teaching and the importance of being, above all, a mensch. The Rav explained that virtually all their prophesies of doom were not because Jews had failed to perform mitzvot but, rather, because their conduct was inconsistent with how G-d expected them to behave.

Thus, I would argue, by promoting the study of even no more than the text of the Prophets, the Chidon Ha-Tanach facilitates the extrapolation of the very values and principles that the critics maintain that the Chidon discounts. Moreover, Chidon participants learn Hebrew; a love for Eretz Yisrael, both through their studies and through their travel in Israel as part of the Chidon experience; and experience the Jewish unity that is cultivated through exposure to other Jews from around the world whom they would likely never have had the opportunity to meet.

An important issue concerning the Chidon arose after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War. For thousands of years, Jews romanticized the sites in Eretz Yisrael that they could only read about but never experience directly but, after 1967, they were able to follow in the footsteps of their holy biblical ancestors and walk the land of Jerusalem, Hebron, and Judea and Samaria. Religious Zionists, always a minority in Israel and across the world, saw the 1967 victory in religious terms as a manifestation of the hand of G-d in Jewish history, as the Torah and the prophetic visions of the ultimate Jewish conquest and settlement of all of Eretz Yisrael which they had been studying for 2,000 years was coming true before their very eyes.

For most secular Jews, however, the miraculous not only became commonplace, but it also became a political issue that weakened cultural Zionism as, sadly, many began to question the right of Jews to live in their own historic land. The result was that while even secular Jews – like Ben Gurion, for example – had historically seen the Bible as critical to Jewish identity and existence, one of the ways that the erosion of the Zionist ethos after Six-Day War manifested itself was that many, if not most, of the Chidon competitors were Jews with no real emotional investment in either Torah or Judaism.

In fact, some argue that the Chidon Ha-Tanach today has become a source of political and religious tension and conflict and is therefore antithetical to fostering Jewish unity in the name of Torah. For example, during the 2008 competition on Yom Haatzmaut marking Israel’s 60th anniversary, a leading contender was a Jew for Jesus, which resulted in a call by many Torah-observant Jews to boycott the event. A year later, the winner presented then-prime minister Netanyahu with a request that Israel become more active in the attempt to secure the release of Jonathan Pollard. Nonetheless, the Chidon remains an important pedagogical and cultural phenomenon that remains internationally popular.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.