Bible studies

Israel Prize winner Prof. Yair Zakovitch: Bible values remain relevant

 The new winner of the Israel Prize in the field of biblical studies, Prof. Yair Zakovitch, believes that quotes about social justice by the prophets Amos, Micah or Joshua should be engraved on the wall of every government office. 

One option he suggests contains the following lines from the Book of Micah, Chapter 3:

“Hearken now to this, you heads of the house of Jacob and you rulers of the house of Israel, who condemn justice and pervert all that is straight.

Each one builds Zion with blood and Jerusalem with injustice.

Its heads judge for bribes, and its priests teach for a price; and its prophets divine for money, and they rely on the Lord, saying, ‘Is not the Lord in our midst? No evil shall befall us.’

Therefore, because of you, Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the Temple Mount like the high places of a forest.’

“There are beautiful rules in the Bible,” Zakovitch explained excitedly, “and one of the most wonderful is that each time a new king takes the throne, he must write a new copy of the Bible, since it’s important that he knows he’s not above the law but subject to the rules just like everyone else; that he may not take for himself many horses, wives, silver and gold, so that ‘his heart will not be haughty over his brothers.’ He should live a modest life. We should live our lives according to these values.”

For Zakovitch, 76, the Bible is not just a field of research he’s been devoted to for five decades, but also a value set. 

“Yair Zakovitch is one of the most original biblical scholars in Israel and in the world,” the Israel Prize Committee – Prof. Devorah Dimant, Prof. Shmuel Ahituv and Prof. Michael Segal – stated in its decision. “In his works he explores the literary aspects of the Bible, and the intra-biblical interpretation and the evolution after the Bible. He has published many important books and articles in Hebrew and English and has taught many students. Zakovitch has also contributed greatly to bringing the Bible closer to the general public in his publications and lectures.” 

Zakovitch noted, “First and foremost, Israelis need to develop a love for the land. It doesn’t matter if you live on top of a hilltop in northern Israel, or smack in the middle of Tel Aviv. Everyone is supposed to feel immense love for our country. I certainly do. Another important aspect of the Bible is the Hebrew language. There are so many powerful gems in Tanach [the Jewish Bible]. Although the Hebrew language is alive and always developing, its foundation can be found in Tanach. 

“There are so many associations in the modern language that are connected to events that are described in Tanach, such as the Akeida [the binding of Isaac] or the Garden of Eden. We articulate ourselves by using these stories.”

Zakovitch grew up in a religious home in Haifa. He obtained his undergraduate degree at what is now known as the University of Haifa, then completed a master’s and doctorate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the 1970s, after which he joined the faculty there. Zakovitch has served as head of the Biblical Studies Department at Hebrew University, as well as head of the Institute of Jewish Studies, and dean of humanities. He also served as the head of the Biblical Studies Committee of the Education Ministry. 

He sums up the main insight he gained during his years of research in one sentence: “A people created a book and the book created the people,” an idea he expanded in his latest book, The Bible: A Divine Revolution (Magnes Press), which is an examination of monotheism. 

“The club of believers in one God is the people,” explains Zakovitch. “That’s how the people was created – a group that congregated around this idea. Whoever believes in this idea is part of our people. Anyone who does not is not part of our group. We rejected all the other groups. The people who were not similar or close to us because they didn’t believe in one God – they were the ones who were the most cursed and rejected. For example, it is written about the Canaanites: ‘Cursed be Canaan; he shall be a slave among slaves to his brethren.’ Afterward, we let some groups in and pushed others out. For example, in the Second Temple period, we brought the Moabites in. The Book of Ruth was written as a statement of defense of the Moabites, and the law was changed by using a particularly creative interpretation vis-à-vis the Moabites.”

In other words, there are dynamic developments both from within and from outside.

“Exactly. The people created the book, and the book determined the boundaries of the people. But what’s much more important is that this book is what has kept the people united, especially during the years we were in exile in the Diaspora. The process of biblical interpretation has not stopped even for one second. The Tanach interprets and scrutinizes itself. It’s formed of geological layers of intra-biblical interpretation. If I’m unhappy with what you wrote, I’ll add on my opinion about what you wrote. 

Then there was a marvelous process of canonization. At a certain point, they stopped adding more commentary, but then we need to continue living with this book that is no longer relevant to our lives if we cannot interpret it in a way that is relevant to our lives. So, what do we do then? We continue to reinterpret it and create new midrashim (biblical exegesis). The genetics of the interpretation of scripture began in the body of the Tanach itself, in the intra-biblical interpretation. The desire to engage in interpretation is buried deep in Jews’ DNA.”

This is the opposite of what’s happening now. There are no real geological strata – there’s a tectonic fracture. 

“Yes, that’s true. A terrible thing has taken place in recent times. People are creating new midrashim, but only when it’s convenient for them. When I was young, the Tanach belonged to all of us. When I was a student in the Department of Bible Studies, there were 300 students enrolled with me. Today, of course, a certain group of people requested that they be given complete ownership of the Tanach, and foolishly we agreed. The result is that we have lost contact and that’s the most terrible sin. 

Everyone can find in the Tanach what they want. It belongs to everyone. When one group takes it and the others give it away, then a terrible rift is created. One day while I was visiting at the Israel Museum, I heard a boy speaking with his father, who was a professor. The pictures before them depicted scenes from biblical stories, but the boy didn’t recognize even one of them. I cannot describe to you how that made me feel. I don’t want to say despair, because I’m not a person who despairs, but it really shook me up. And so, that’s why I want to shake the public awake and tell them: ‘Return and take possession of the Tanach and its wellsprings.’”

You’re saying to ‘return’ as if we have abandoned the Tanach. 

“It’s important to understand that we should not be learning Tanach as if it were a pure oil. If people don’t even know how to read what’s written in the Tanach, if we stop engaging in biblical criticism, we will lose all access to the Tanach. We need to understand that the Tanach is not monolithic, we need to see all of its complexities and realize that there are different approaches. A person looking at Tanach with a critical eye will see how complex the texts are, how they interact and wrangle with one other, and discover a rich spiritual world. 

“On the other hand, if someone views the texts without a critical eye, then he can’t see the wonderful complexities that exist there. Besides, if you learn to read the Tanach critically, you’ll be better prepared to read newspapers or even to serve in the IDF 8200 Intelligence Unit. You’ll understand who wrote each section and what his goal was. People need to know how to read critically, how to listen to the radio and watch TV critically, and not just accept every written letter as if it were the word of God. Someone who wants to think needs to know how to read, and the best training for this is reading the Tanach.”

What can we learn from reading the Bible?

“We can learn about tolerance and the multiplicity of opinions. For example, the story about Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, involves praise of zealotry, whereas the story about the Prophet Elijah is against zealotry. Instead of teaching about defending the people of Israel, he teaches about prosecution and is fired. And even if there is no tolerance, there are many opinions that can exist simultaneously. This is what all the people who are searching for monolithic meaning are trying to obscure in the Tanach: They are unwilling to acknowledge this truth of the multiplicity of opinions.”

Where does God fit into all of this?

“God is important to people you can convince using logic that morality is an important thing and then you can threaten using punishment. It’s like the mother who tells her child who is refusing to eat, ‘If you won’t eat, a policeman will come.’ A person can be autonomous and moral even if he doesn’t believe in God. Morality is not the domain of believers alone. It’s true that the Tanach is religious literature, but I want people who are not religious to benefit from the important compassionate lessons we can learn from reading Tanach. 

“What many people don’t understand is that we can learn so much from the criticism of the biblical stories that express these values without spelling them out explicitly; the sharp, but covert, criticism of David, Eliyahu and all the other characters. You have to know how to uncover this. There is so much we can learn from the Tanach. I don’t expect the Tanach to deal with modern situations, but it is still relevant to our lives.”

There have been attempts in the past suggesting the title ‘Book of Books’ be given to the Talmud, which is considered to be more relevant to our current lives.

“The Tanach is the root. It is already reacting and interpreting traditions that were written before it and giving them a new direction to prepare them for the Jewish community. It’s the most basic foundation. The Talmud, whose honor is steadfastly in place, has no place without the Tanach. There are tremendous spiritual treasures in the Talmud that are relevant to our lives, but the Tanach is the trunk of the tree, and only afterward can the branches grow and spread out. The Tanach belongs to all of us.”

What is redemption for you?

“Redemption is peace. One example is Isaiah’s prophecy, which has become almost worn out. In reading these four short verses, it’s understood what Isaiah is saying: ‘Until today, you’ve been separatists, and now change is upon you.’ The giving of the Torah is a story of separatism. Only we receive the Torah in a cultural vacuum in the desert, in direct speech from God. And yet, Isaiah says, on the contrary – everyone should come to Jerusalem. The moment they receive the authority of God, then they can come. “‘And they shall beat their swords into plowshares.’ This prophecy is also the opposite of the story of the Tower of Babel, in which they wanted to build a tall structure, then dispersed…. There is a second meeting and communication among all the nations, which will lead to peace.”

What are your feelings about receiving the Israel Prize?

“I’ve received hundreds of wonderful email messages and phone calls from people here in Israel and all over the world. I’ve been walking on clouds for a couple days, but now I’m trying to pull myself back down to the ground. 

I am always in both places.” 

Translated by Hannah Hochner. 

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