One of the things I want to do with this blog is to take Jewish field trips and then write about them. My goal is to highlight places that are a little off-the-beaten-path – in other words, places you wouldn’t necessarily think of immediately upon visiting a city but that are interesting and/or enriching and/or fun, nonetheless.
I was in New York City late last week. New York is rife with Jewish things to do. Perhaps my favorite Jewish thing to do in New York is to visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. (www.tenement.org) I’ve taken almost every tour they offer, including their walking tour, which I highly recommend. I also like popping into the Museum of Jewish Heritage (www.mjhnyc.org) and the Jewish Museum (www.thejewishmuseum.org).
But, alas, I visited all of those before I started blogging, so you’ll just have to go on your own to get the skinny.
My destination this time was the Discovery Museum (www.discoverytsx.com/exhibitions/dead-sea-scrolls) near Times Square, which is currently playing host to the Dead Sea Scrolls. The exhibit starts with a timeline, describing the history of the land of Israel and changes in governance over thousands of years. It then goes on to describe people, culture, and daily life during the time the Scrolls are believed to have been written. It ends with pieces of the Scrolls themselves, with blown up pictures and translations. I lingered over 2 hours.
I should mention that I am currently fixated on the Ancient Near East, what religions pre-dated Judaism and existed in tandem with it, and how the Torah evolved and was canonized. The exhibit did not disappoint.
THINGS I LEARNED (in no particular order)
- Ancient Hebrew folk religion (paganism?) existed in tandem with the development of the Hebrew bible.
- Israelite folk religion considered the goddess Asherah to be the consort of YHVH, but the writers of the bible were monotheists. They did not, therefore, include her as a divine being but there is mention of her symbol in Exodus and Deuteronomy, as well as in a handful of the writings of the prophets. Asherah’s symbols were powerful symbols for women of the Great Mother and many small statues of her have been excavated.
- Archaeologists posit that southern Israelites (Judea) were the ones who escaped from slavery but that those in the Kingdom of Israel in the north were Canaanites who then moved south and adopted the history of Egyptian bondage.
- Monotheistic Judaism evolved and grew during the Persian/Hellenistic periods when it replaced the old Israelite folk Judaism.
- Christianity and Judaism developed at the same time from the same religious tradition, that of ancient Israel, with the apocalyptic, Messianic strains evolving into Christianity.
- The Scrolls are from a time when the biblical canon was still taking shape and each Israelite community had its own set of authoritative texts. There wasn’t just one Bible at this time.
- Judaism was divided among religious communities and governing parties. After 70 C.E. all disappear except for the Pharisees, which becomes rabbinic Judaism.
This is all good context but who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls and why?
No one knows.
But, we do know that multiple mikvaot have been excavated and we infer that purity was important. We also infer from the 1,000 or so dishes found in a single room that communal meals were taken.
We know that the Jewish canon was still in flux at the time the Scrolls were written and that the writers of the Scrolls refer to themselves as Yachad (“unity” or “community”). They believed themselves to be the sole rightful inheritors of Israel’s legacy.
We know the Scrolls were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Scholars believe that they were written by multiple communities not just one.
This is my first exposure to life in ancient Israel and there is much more to know. But, five days after I visited the exhibit, I am still thinking about what I learned and I am inspired to keep learning. So, for me at least, my visit to the exhibit was time well spent.