Photo Credit: Jewish Press

In this July 7, 1960 correspondence, Ben-Gurion writes:

I read your letter…with great interest. I was aware of Goethe’s interest in the Bible, but I cannot claim to have read all that he wrote on the subject. When I have time, I shall read the passages from Goethe which you mention (I have all his works at home). As for my “Bible Exegesis,” I must point out that I regard the views I have expressed as no more than speculations or hypotheses.

Ben-Gurion on Goethe and the Bible.

Ben-Gurion’s familiarity with Goethe, including his views on the Bible, is not at all surprising given that he was a serious intellectual who, even during the most demanding years of his leadership, read philosophy books, commented on the Bible, and taught himself ancient Greek to read Plato in the original.

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He manifested a superior aptitude for learning languages – besides for Yiddish and Hebrew, he also learned Turkish, English, Russian, French, German, and, later in life, Spanish and ancient Greek – and he pursued an unyielding curiosity about the natural sciences. His libraries held more than 20,000 volumes in many different languages, and he was a high intellect able to simultaneously quote from Biblical sources in Hebrew and Plato in Greek.

Goethe, who knew some Hebrew, viewed the Bible as a work that had been gradually compiled and edited by many different hands over time, and he generally adhered to Martin Luther’s views and liberal translations. Focusing on inner meaning and the general purpose of the work to extract fundamental values, he simply accepted those passages that made sense to him and rejected those that did not. Interestingly, he shared much in common with Ben-Gurion’s own views in this regard.

Ben-Gurion was very cold – many argue, with some justification, that he was actually extremely opposed – to Torah-true Judaism. An enormous gap existed between Ben-Gurion the political leader, who promoted tolerance of and compromise with Israel’s observant Jews, and Ben-Gurion the man, who held radically anti-halachic views.

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 Ben-Gurion’s 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!”

On the other hand, he could not have been clearer about rejecting halacha and what he called “the rule of the Rabbis,” which he characterized as “religious coercion:”

The argument between us and them is, as I see it: if the rabbis will rule or rather the people…the rule of halacha or the rule of the law…. We said no to the rule of rabbis and asserted this in the Declaration of Independence, we set it in all the guidelines – no religious coercion. What is religious coercion? The rule of the rabbis.

It is well-known that Ben-Gurion made certain concessions to the charedim, such as granting them limited military deferments so they could study Torah and recognizing their religious political parties, believing that the charedi community in Israel would cease to exist within one to two generations.

This may well have been his single greatest miscalculation, as the charedi community in Israel today represents an ever-growing percentage of observant Israelis due to their disproportionately high fecundity rate; because a hugely disproportionate percentage of new olim are Orthodox; and because of the incredible growth and strength of the baal teshuvah movement.

* * * * *

Charles Raddock – author, newspaperman, managing editor of the leading anti-communist newspaper in the country, and an officer of the World Wide Press Syndicate – sent a copy of his magnum opus, Portrait of a People: The Story of the Jews from Ancient to Modern Times to Ben-Gurion. In this remarkable July 14, 1967 response, Ben-Gurion displays his broad knowledge of Scripture:

Ben-Gurion on the primacy of the Torah over the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch.

Your letter of May the fourth reached me early this morning. Nobody can deny the influence of the Talmud and later of the Shulchan Aruch, but even they are rooted in the Bible. Now the rule of the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch is limited only to a minority of Jews, while the influence of the Bible is growing more and more. I prefer ayin tachat ayin, zeh mammon to the original meaning of ayin tachat ayin. [“An eye for an eye – that means compensation” – i.e., the tortfeasor must pay compensation to the victim for the loss of his eye and not, as the literal Biblical words might suggest, have his own eye removed by the court.]

He goes on to cite sources in Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, Jonah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, “and many, many others [that] are superior to the whole of the Talmud” before concluding:

But know that for an Orthodox Jew the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch is more important than the Bible, and I remember well that in the little town where I was from the Hasidim looked upon learning Bible as apikorsuth (heretic beliefs). But even a very religious Jew knows that our faith is based on the Torah of Moses.

It is arguably true that charedi study during Ben-Gurion’s time – and even today – is very much centered on Talmudic study, but it is a gross exaggeration – indeed, an outright misrepresentation – to characterize Biblical study in the eyes of charedim as “heretical.” Moreover, it is the height of impudence for him to refer to what “even a very religious Jew” knows about Judaism and, once again, his anti-religious bias is manifest.

* * * * *

In a second letter to Raddock, dated February 7, 1967, Ben-Gurion writes:

Ben-Gurion on “contradictions” in the Book of Joshua.

I received with great feelings of thanks your three volumes on Portrait of A People. I have already read the first volume in its entirety, and I enjoyed it immensely. I am pleased that you do not follow the non-Jewish Bible critics who like to say that the Tanach was written much later. If they do not find proof in the history of the neighboring nations, they cast doubt on the stories of the Tanach. I accept the Bible as it is set, as it is more than 2,000 years old. Only when I find contradictions inside, like in Sefer Yehoshua, which contains many contradictions, or when it is written about miracles, I do not see that in history. But, in general, I accept the words of Tanach as they are, though they are not compatible with the testimony of the written history of Egypt, Syria, Babylonia, etc….

While Ben-Gurion manifests great contempt for biblical criticism, he nonetheless alleges that there are “contradictions” in Sefer Yehoshua, although he conspicuously fails to specify them. In fact, these “contradictions” have been a subject of discussion amongst secular commentators, who focus on several passages that they erroneously allege are inconsistent.

Sefer Yehoshua portrays the conquest of Canaan as a single campaign over a number of stages, with the end result being the slaughter of the land’s inhabitants. Joshua then cast lots to determine how to divide the land amongst the tribes, an account that some biblical critics deem problematic because it presupposes a unitary conquest, victory, and complete possession of the land.

The sefer concludes with Joshua urging the nation to follow Hashem faithfully, just as Hashem faithfully fulfilled his promise to hand them the Canaanite lands. Yet, at the very beginning of Sefer Shoftim, which commences after Joshua’s death, the Jews ask G-d which tribe shall be the first to attack the Canaanites.

Another alleged contradiction involves Joshua’s conquest of Jerusalem and of the Jebusites; Sefer Yehoshua tells us that Joshua “cut them down until they had not a single survivor” (Joshua 11:8); that “their cities were destroyed” (11:12); and that Joshua conquered Jerusalem and the land was “assigned to the Israelites” (12:7). But we are later told that “the men of Judah failed to drive out the Jebusites living in Jerusalem” (id. 15:63), while in Shoftim it is the Benjamites who failed in the conquest (Judges 1:21).

However, Ben-Gurion and the critics confuse possession with absolute conquest and they disingenuously wrest single phrases out of context. For example, Joshua. 11:8 is only about one city (Chatzor), and nothing is said about the condition of the inhabitants. Other verses cited similarly apply to this one city, and not to all the Jebusites. Joshua’s lots, in fact, presuppose nothing more than sufficient conquest, power, and ability to make ownership designations.

As to the “first” tribe to attack the Canaanites, “first” does not mean “first ever in history” but, rather, contextually, “the first in the present campaign” after the death of their leader, Joshua. Thus, Ben-Gurion’s belief that Sefer Yehoshua contains contradictions is a classic example of the fact that, though he was actually a man with deep knowledge of Tanach, he lacked the proper religious prospective to resolve seeming textual inconsistencies.

Ben-Gurion’s claim that he sees no evidence of “miracles” in Jewish history is powerfully ironic, given that he personally witnessed two of the greatest miracles in all of human history: the rebirth of the State of Israel after a 2,000-year exile, marking the first – and only – time that an entire nation has returned to establish sovereignty in its homeland, and the reconquest of Jerusalem.

* * * * *

In this February 8, 1956 correspondence on his prime minister letterhead to Yitzchak Avinery, Ben-Gurion writes:

Ben-Gurion on Rashi.

I received this morning your precious gift – the third volume of Heichal Rashi.

I only managed to peruse through this magnificent book, and I am full of awe about the breadth of knowledge, thoroughness, and acuity that is embedded in this undertaking (and I pray that you will merit to finish all five volumes); indeed, this is a work of deep and mighty love, as much as it is a work of scholarship and literacy, and it expresses love for the pure, noble and great person, the dean of the Biblical and Talmudic commentators. And even had you not expressly stated this love in the introduction to your book, every page and every column in your book evidences your “great love, the love of the heart and soul” with which you made your great and blessed work. May your hand be strengthened.

Avinery was apparently interested in having his book adopted for use as a text in Israeli schools. In a handwritten addendum, Ben-Gurion adds:

After I signed this letter, I received your correspondence accompanying your book. I will approach the Education Office that can carry out your request as much as possible. Next week, perhaps I will be able to provide you with a progress report.

Born in Kiev in the Ukraine, Isaac Avinery (1900-1977) made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael in 1926 where he published several major works dealing with the Hebrew language, among them six dictionaries. His second, and arguably his most outstanding work, was a group of dictionaries devoted to the linguistic material present in the commentaries on the Tanach and Talmud by Rashi (1040-1105). The work, entitled Heichal Rashi (“Rashi’s Palace”), was planned as a five-volume set.

The first volume (1940) contained an introduction and two dictionaries consisting of about 1,300 new forms of Hebrew nouns and verbs used for the first time by Rashi. The second volume (1949) included a dictionary consisting of about 5,000 explanations of Hebrew and Aramaic words found in Rashi’s commentaries, accompanied by Avinery’s extensive annotations.

The third volume (1956) – the subject of our Ben-Gurion letter here – was devoted to the numerous grammatical remarks in Rashi’s commentaries. The fourth volume (1960) listed Rashi’s explanations of Hebrew words based upon analogy and proverbs, expressions, and rabbinic and midrashic sayings found in Rashi’s commentaries. The fifth volume has never been published.

* * * * *

Finally, in this remarkable April 24, 1971 letter from Sdeh Boker to Paul Z. Hartal, Ben-Gurion reiterates his belief in the primacy of the Bible and replies to Hartal’s suggestion that, as an alternative to the Third Temple, which could not yet be erected, a religious shrine of Judaism should be built in Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives, and that this shrine would serve as a counterbalance to Muslim and Christian architecture in that part of Jerusalem.

Ben-Gurion on building the Third Temple.

To Mr. Zev Hartal, peace and greetings, Until the Third Temple will be built after the coming of the Messiah – there is the need to build in Jerusalem the House of the Bible – and this a project under consideration. There is nothing more important in Judaism than the Bible.

A copy of this original historic correspondence is in the Ben-Gurion Archives in Israel.

Artist, poet, and author Hartal (1936- ) fought in the Six-Day War before immigrating to Montreal (1973), where he founded and directed the Centre for Art, Science, and Technology (1987). He often combined his paintings with photography or other technological processes as part of his attempt to blend the scientific with the creative. He also worked as an urban and regional planner, and he served as honorary curator of the Israel Museum.

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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.