Diversity is a Jewish Tradition, Too

I came away from the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit with a renewed sense of the diversity of Jewish life all through our history. Even though we talk about Am Echad, One People, we are one people with a multiplicity of opinions and practices.

The Jews at Qumran seem to have been deeply caught up in a fascination with the end of the world. They believed themselves to be living in the end of time. Indeed, that particular sect of Judaism was dead and buried and nearly completely forgotten until the scrolls came to light.

The exhibit also contained a vast number of female figurines and small private altars, both of which represent Jewish practices that did not survive. Today Jews do not make sacrifices at private altars (thank goodness) and we don’t reverence any deity other than the Eternal. But the evidence was there, right before my eyes, of how different Jewish practice had been at one time.

I hear regularly from other Jews who remind me that there are some Jews who disapprove of something I’ve said or something I’ve done. I am well aware of that. But I would ask you who are worried about “some Jews:” do you realize it’s always been like this? Jews disagree about Torah; it’s nothing new.

History sorts us out eventually, I hope for the better. We stopped keeping small idols. We stopped sacrificing animals (although there are those who’d like to go back to that.) Some of us have commenced giving women the privileges once reserved for men. Others of us are experimenting with other aspects of Jewish life.

The way I see it, we are all busily carrying Torah forward through history. I don’t know what Judaism will look like in 500 years, but I suspect some of the same old arguments will continue, and some new arguments will arise.

Beit Shammai didn’t approve of Beit Hillel’s rulings. The Ashkenazi rabbis were apoplectic over Maimonides’ Yad Hazaka. The cultured Sephardic Jews of New York were horrified by the Ashkenazi cousins who came off the ships in 1889. Reform Jews tried to do away with brit milah; we were wrong about that one.  My friend and teacher René Molho z”l was told (in Auschwitz!) that he couldn’t possibly be Jewish because he didn’t know Yiddish. Reform Jews ordained Rabbi Sally Priesand in 1972 and “some Jews” predicted doom.

History moves on, and Jews still disagree. Everything changes, and some things remain the same.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 1:9

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A Visit to the Dead Sea Scrolls

The California Science Center in Los Angeles has an exhibit titled The Dead Sea Scrolls now through Sept 7, 2015, and yesterday my friend Rabbi Sabine Meyer and I went to see it. If you live in L.A., or will visit there anytime soon, it’s well worth the admission fee.

They have done a nice job of putting the Scrolls in their historical context, explaining how they relate to other documents (the Hebrew Bible, Christian Bibles, and the Quran) and to the history of the Middle East. They also explained some of the science involved in their restoration. I could have used a bit more of the science: without it, the scrolls would have been nothing more than a curiosity, because we would not have been able to read them.

There’s a nice archaeological exhibit included as well, with a huge stone from the Temple Mount, pottery and building stones, figurines and inscriptions. Those who wish to read scripture as history, or who wish to read the Bible as infallible will be uncomfortable with it, but I liked the forthright approach to the science of the scrolls.

The scroll fragments come at the end of the exhibit, in a display that echoes the display at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. It is always a shock to see how tiny the fragments are, and how difficult it is to make out anything on them. I wish there had been more to explain how the scientists who reclaimed the scrolls made it possible for scholars to read them. When I looked at the blown-up images of the scroll fragments, enhanced for legibility, the calligraphy on them is beautiful and in fact easy to read – but the little flakes of actual scroll are hard to see, much less read. (If you’d like to see the scrolls for yourself, you can also take a look at them at the Digital Dead Sea Scrolls site maintained by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.)

So if you get a chance, go! But if Los Angeles is far away, let me give you a brief primer on the scrolls:

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered accidentally by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947. They include most of the books of the Hebrew Bible, with the exception of the Book of Esther. They also include some other texts which seem to have been exclusive to the Jews who lived together at Qumran in the first century CE.

The people who owned and hid the scrolls may have been Essenes, a sect of Judaism mentioned by Josephus in his history of the Jews. However, this is by no means certain. What we do know is that about the time of the failed revolt against Rome, the owners of this library of scrolls sealed it up in jars, stashed it in hard-to-reach caves above the Dead Sea, and there they stayed until the 20th century.

For more about the history and significance of the scrolls, the Virtual Jewish Library has an excellent set of articles.