Monday, January 15, 2018

Notes on a visit to the new Museum of the Bible

On Wednesday January 10 I visited the new Museum of the Bible with a number of other Jewish educators from the Greater Washington Area. On Saturday January 13, I gave a talk on my impressions. A lot of folks who couldn't attend expressed interest, so here it is.

When I give a talk I usually talk from notes, and since I am (as always) pressed for time I am just going to publish my actual notes rather than try to re-work it into a narrative.

Trip was a result of outreach from the Museum’s Education Department to Jewish educators in the area. From our perspective the purpose of the trip was simply to answer the following related questions:

Would we organize field trips there for our congregations or Hebrew schools?

Would we recommend that our members visit, take their kids.?

They’re very aware that Museum is controversial among Jews. They treated us very well and were incredibly hospitable.

Museum is massive and as a museum is very well done. They say that if you wanted to see everything you would need to spend 9 8-hour days there and that actually seems about right.

They state that they are non-sectarian and do not promote any particular denomination or any particular view of the Bible. They are presenting the Bible as it is and simply want to encourage people to engage with it.

Because the Museum is funded and run by Evangelicals there is a lot of suspicion. I can’t evaluate people's’ hearts but I actually don’t think that there is subterfuge here. The people running this Museum seem to be very sincere.

There is a lot that they do right. They do not use the term “Old Testament” but rather “Hebrew Scriptures” and even “Tanakh.” They make clear -- something that apparently many Christians don’t know -- that the Bible was originally written in Hebrew and that translations vary. There is a lot of Hebrew, there is a sofer writing a sefer Torah who is an Orthodox rabbi from Beit Shemesh, they have an exhibition on loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority. Their exhibit on the world of Jesus of Nazareth -- which I didn’t have time to visit -- seems to make clear that Jesus and his disciples were Jews living Jewish lives.

We met with the Israeli sofer, Rabbi Eliezer Adam, who is working there. He was born in the US and his family made aliyah when he was 7. If you know the code you can actually tell a lot about Orthodox Israelis by how they dress and what kippah they wear and he is right wing Modern Orthox. He says that he thinks that the intentions of the people behind the Musuem are “l’shem shamayim as they see it,”  meaning that their intentions are pure and noble.That nevertheless as hard as they try it is a basically Christian view (he actually said Gentile) of the Bible. “To them the Tanach and the New Testament are like Shmuel Aleph and Shmuel Bet.” In other words they see the Tanach as leading naturally to and foreshadowing the New Testament which is obviously a Christian perspective.

We attended the audiovisual exhibit on Hebrew Scriptures. Technology very well done -- some video and audio, some walk-through. Narrator has an Israeli accent. They do not mention Jesus or anything like that. But clearly a Christian view of the Bible. It is presented as history. Abraham is shown kneeling in prayer in a very Christian way. Strong emphasis on the sin of Adam and Eve and that since then human history is a struggle to repair the broken relationship with God.

My bottom line after a lot of thought: I would not bring our Hebrew school kids there. I think it is possible to do a trip there that would be worthwhile if perhaps you only went to the Israel Antiquities gallery and some of the other artifacts. But I wouldn’t take them to the Hebrew bible exhibit, etc., because it isn’t our perspective. If we had unlimited time and resources we could teach them how to view the museum critically but the reality is we just don’t. For Jewish students it is not a reliable source of information about the Bible. I would want students to be constantly asking themselves what the perspective being presented is and whether or not they agree with it, but I just don't think we have the time to equip our students to do that well.

Rabbi Adam said that the thinks the Museum will open up more interest in the Bible and we should use it as an opportunity to teach our students Jewish rather than Christian perspective. In theory he is right but the reality is we don’t have the resources.

Should you visit? I’m ambivalent. There are certainly worse ways to spend your time but again, the perspective presented is not a Jewish perspective.  Rabbi Adam is probably right that we need to develop our own resources and lesson plans to make a visit more worthwhile for Jewish visitors.