In the late 1950s and well into the 1960s Chacham was something of a cultural hero in Israel, for an achievement which today wouldn't garner more than 15 minutes of fame: he knew the Bible almost by heart, and demonstrated his knowledge by winning various national and international contests in the late 1950s. (The contests required of the participants to retrieve sentences or parts of them from all over the Bible in the original Hebrew, so the international contests were sort of like the Baseball World Series: they were only notionally international).
Reconnecting the Jews to the Bible was one of the many aspects of Zionism, enabled by the resurrecting of Hebrew as a living language for daily use, and connected to the return of the Jews to the very hills and valleys on which the Biblical stories had played out. There was also a socio-political aspect, expressed by no-one more adamantly than David Ben Gurion: the Bible is the story of the Jews as a normal nation, and it’s time to return to the normality while reading the immortal book about it.
Here's a letter Ben Gurion wrote on April 10th 1954 to Moshe Haim Gevaryahu, a prominent Bible scholar:
I know the Bible is not the only nor the latest creation of our people, and in our heritage there are many treasures from the recent and distant past which must be made known and learned. Yet I know of no cultural treasure such as the Bible. For various reasons, some undoubtedly justified at the time, the glory of the Bible was diminished when we were in exile, and it became a peg on which to hang many later writings and expositions of ideas which fit our condition as a nation without its home and lacing independence…
It appears to me that only with the rejuvenation of the Jews in their land have the conditions been created to fully comprehend the Bible as it was intended, to return to its greatness. I have no doubt the Bible is above all the creation of the greatest and most original chapter in our history, between Moses and Ezra…
The letter was published in our book of documents about Ben Gurion, and includes a photograph of Gvaryahu, President Shazar, Golda Meir and others listening to Ben Gurion giving a speech about the Bible in 1963.
Did it work out as the Old Man intended? Well, not really, though that's a topic for a different blog than this one. Jews are complicated, and if there has been a steep rise in the study of traditional Jewish books, the steepest rise has been in the study of the Talmud, a layer of Jewish creativity Ben Gurion saw no need to celebrate. Just two weeks ago 90,000 people convened on the MetLife Staduim in New Jersey to celebrate the completion on the 12th cycle of studying Daf Yomi, a program in which people throughout the Jewish world study the entire Talmud in seven and a half years, all doing the same page each day. No-one knows precisely how many people participate in this program, but the number is in the hundreds of thousands. So the rejuvenation of the Jews in the past sixty years, ironically, seems to have enhanced the study of what Ben Gurion might have regarded as the "wrong" part of the national heritage. Except that much of the Talmud was created in this land, and its creators, there can be no doubt, all knew the entire Bible by heart. (I once wrote about the Daf Yomi program here).