Visiting the Museum of the Bible

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by R. Gil Student

On Chol Hamoed Pesach (middle days of Passover) last year, I went to the Museum of the Bible with my family after receiving strong positive recommendations. Based on what I saw in my limited time there, I highly recommend it to open-minded Orthodox Jews. Due to time limitations, we went to only two large exhibits — stories of the Hebrew Bible and the history of the Bible. The “stories of the Bible” exhibit has three separate sections — Hebrew Bible, New Testament and Nazareth in the time of Jesus. They are all on the same floor with separate entrances next to each other.

At least when we were there, the Hebrew Bible exhibit had a 30-45 minute line while the other two had no lines at all. That might be due to the nature of the exhibits but I also noticed that almost everyone on the floor went straight onto the Hebrew Bible line. And my family was one of only two visibly Jewish families in the crowded museum! Note the name of the exhibit — the Hebrew Bible, not the Old Testament. The entire museum (that I saw) seems extremely sensitive to Jewish concerns. Most of the English translations of the Hebrew Bible are from Jewish translations — JPS or NJPS. All controversial passages are avoided (eg virgin birth). The stories of the Bible were told as simply as possible, obviously skipping much because of time constraints but also ideological humility. There was a focus on Davidic lineage, which could be interpreted as a subtle Christian messianism in the Hebrew Bible. But Jewish messianism considers that lineage important, as well, and so do the books of Ruth, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles (not to mention the later prophets).

Not only were inter-religious disputes avoided, but also scholarly disputes with tradition. Nothing was said that would offend traditionalists who believe in a divine Bible, while nothing was said to contradict biblical critics. Personally, I felt more comfortable in this museum than in most Jewish museums, as I explain below.

The exhibit on the history of the Bible was primarily about translations — Jewish and Christian. If you go to this exhibit, you will be exposed to the Christian Bible in the context of the fascinating and important history of its translation. My kids skipped most of this but I insisted on pointing out some highlights — the story of Christian Bible translations is intimately connected to European political history. This exhibit also has replicas of the Rosetta Stone and Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as many Jewish texts throughout the ages. There is a lot of Aramaic, plus some Syriac and Arabic. I cannot think of any other museum where my kids could learn about Rav Saadia Gaon’s Tafsir and see a Medieval French Chumash with each verse alternating in Hebrew and Aramaic. When my oldest son was young, to encourage his reviewing the weekly Torah portion in Hebrew and Aramaic we bought a Chumash with each verse alternating languages, just like that Medieval French Jew who probably had it for the same reason! The ancient texts are large enough that I could stand next to them with my sons and point out verses they know in the ancient scripts. There is a video of (an actor portraying) Maimonides giving a dramatic reading of the introduction to the Mishneh Torah! (Apparently there is usually a scribe at the end of the exhibit but when we went he was off for the holiday.)

Can I nitpick about the museum’s exhibits? Yes but surprisingly very little. (For example, there is an exhibit on the first floor about archeological finds in Israel in which the English title is not a faithful translation of the Hebrew title. The Hebrew-Aramaic Chumash I mentioned above is supposed to have Old French also but I didn’t see any on the pages shown. The Hebrew fonts in graphic sections are generally Arial or something modern and generic, rather than historical.) But overall it was a positive, kosher learning experience. If you want to avoid Christianity, it is very easy — but you have to do it consciously, which may deter some Jewish families from visiting. And the Christianity they discuss is about it, not promoting it — there is no proselytizing.

Jewish museums tend to promote the different movements of Judaism as equal alternatives. For example, the old Diaspora Museum in Israel (which I loved despite that but now seems to lack that entire historical overview). The Museum of the Bible stays far away from that kind of theological pluralism, carefully avoiding those issues. I wish Jewish museums were as Orthodox-friendly as the Museum of the Bible.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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