In first, Israel pitches Bible study sessions to foreign envoys

Ahead of High Holidays, Foreign Ministry organizes seminar linking ancient Jewish texts to today’s challenges

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative photo of a young man reading from a Torah scroll (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a young man reading from a Torah scroll (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The diplomatic toolbox is filled with devices running the gamut from gentle cajoling to a full court press, but Israel is probably the first country to try to get foreign envoys to throw the prophet Jonah — yes, the one who got swallowed by a whale — into the mix.

As the Jewish High Holidays approach, the Foreign Ministry is inviting foreign ambassadors serving in Israel to a first-of-its kind study session to explore ancient Jewish texts and how they relate to today’s world.

The Foreign Ministry organized the three-hour “seminar of study and dialogue” in conjunction with Kolot, a pluralistic study center dedicated to contemporary Jewish thought. It is scheduled to take place on September 21, two days before Yom Kippur, in Jerusalem.

Invitations to all 87 heads of diplomatic missions in Israel were sent out earlier this week, but it is yet unclear how many will actually attend the event.

“The Jewish Holidays at the beginning of the Hebrew calendar year are traditionally a time of reflection and give expression to many of Judaism’s fundamental ethical values regarding the meaning of society and human purpose in the world,” the invitation reads.

“We’re using the Jewish New Year as the reason for inviting them,” explained Daniel Meron, the head of the Foreign Ministry’s UN and international organizations division, who initiated the program. “We’re telling them that this is a time of reflection in Judaism.”

Rabbi Baruch Brener (Courtesy)
Rabbi Baruch Brener (Courtesy)

After introductory remarks by Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, Kolot scholars will lead two separate study sessions seeking to connect themes of the Jewish holiday season with challenges facing diplomats in the 21st century, organizers said. The first round, facilitated by Rabbi Baruch Brener, will deal with “Jonah in Nineveh: The Universal Message and Mission of the Prophet-Messenger.” The second discussion, led by Rabbi Dov Berkovitz, is entitled “Water as a Global Gift: The Ecological Dimension of Sukkot.”

“We’re always looking for ways to expose the foreign representatives in Israel to ways of life in Israel,” said Meron, who describes himself as traditional and regularly studies Jewish sources and their relevance to diplomatic matters with a rabbi. “By inviting them to this session we are achieving a few things: We’re exposing them to Jewish texts and talking about relevant issues, bringing to light issues that were discussed maybe 2,000 years ago but are still relevant today.”

President Reuven Rivlin meets with ambassadors from Latin American countries in February 2015 (photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin meets with ambassadors from Latin American countries in February 2015 (photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO)

Before inviting the foreign ambassadors, Meron discussed his idea with the secular Talia Lador-Fresher, Israel’s ambassador to Austria and the ministry’s former chief of protocol, and with kippah-wearing Akiva Tor, who heads the ministry’s Bureau for World Jewish Affairs and World Religions. Both were enthusiastic about the idea.

“Part of what my bureau deals with is how do we speak to other faith communities as a state,” Tor said. “We thought it would be wise for the diplomatic corps to have a deeper understanding of Jewish tradition regarding Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot; and Judaism’s approach to ecology and other issues.

“We want them to understand things about Israeli society and culture. We thought it would be interesting for them to have an opportunity to have some sort of understanding of Jewish texts as well.”

The Foreign Ministry's 200-year-old Torah scroll (Raphael Ahren/TOI)
The 200-year-old Torah scroll used in the Foreign Ministry’s synagogue (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

The foreign envoys will not be listening to lectures but rather are expected to engage in beit midrash (Jewish study hall)-style analysis of ancient Jewish sources, explained Kolot’s Merav Israeli-Amarant.

In both sessions, the senior diplomats are encouraged to look at ancient Jewish texts and interpret them by thinking about their relevance to today’s world, she said. “Based on our general approach, we will try to develop fresh ideas and new approaches to 21st century challenges through the lens of Jewish culture and tradition.”

The Prophet Jonah, as depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel (Wikipedia)
The Prophet Jonah, as depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel (Wikipedia)

The session on Jonah the prophet, for instance, will focus on the ambassador as a messenger whose job is to better people’s lives, Israeli-Amarant said. The discussion about water and Sukkot will examine Biblical and Talmudical sources, examining the role of diplomats as representatives of their nation’s interests who also are members of a global community tasked with responsible treatment of world’s natural resources, she said.

Founded in 1997, Kolot “serves secular and religious participants from a broad spectrum of Israeli society,” according to its website. “Together they engage in the study of Jewish sources so that they can understand their relevance and application to contemporary society.”

Although both Hotovely and Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold are Orthodox, the study session’s organizers insist their initiative does not indicate increased religiosity among Israel’s diplomats.

“We absolutely want the pluralistic approach, without question,” Tor said. “I don’t view this as a religious activity. I view this as a Jewish cultural activity.”

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