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New Bible museum talks a lot about Jews; why are some so skeptical?

By Michelle Boorstein
Dec. 29, 2017 at 11:02 p.m.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld,of the modern Orthodox synagogue Ohev Shalom in Washington examines a Torah exhibit at the Museum of the Bible.

Funded and founded by evangelicals, the new Museum of the Bible sticks out for something its leaders clearly wanted to emphasize: Jews.

The eight-story, cutting-edge $500 million institution, which opened last month and is already one of the world's largest Bible museums, devotes more space to stories of the Hebrew Bible (Jewish texts) than to the New Testament (the part of the Christian canon featuring Jesus and his teachings), highlights a special permanent exhibit on Israeli antiquities, sells Jewish items in its gift shop like menorahs and mezzuzahs, and pipes the sound of people praying in Hebrew through its speakers. A real, live yarmulke-wearing rabbi from Israel is seated at the end of the final major exhibit, writing the letters of a Torah scroll, deliberately there to emphasize museum leaders' perspective that "God started with the Jewish people, and he is still with the Jewish people," said Cary Summers, the museum's president.

Then why do some Jews express skepticism about the museum?

The answer blends politics, culture, theology and the question of whether it's possible for disparate groups to ever share the Bible in a meaningful way. While modern liberal rhetoric aspires to religious pluralism, the reality is that Christians and Jews see the Bible in fundamentally different ways — from what counts as "the Bible" to how to read and understand it. Not to mention the significant differences within faith groups.

Shmuel Herzfeld, a modern Orthodox rabbi who leads the Ohev Shalom synagogue in Washington, wanted to go weeks ago, when the museum opened, but members of his study group weren't willing. He finally went alone last week and said he felt awed and a bit weird walking through a bustling museum that to him seemed more about Jews than for them.

He noticed a stack of Star of Davids placed in the gift shop next to statues of a girl in what appear to be God's hands — which was jarring to Herzfeld since Jews avoid statues, idols or images of anything Godlike. He felt uncomfortable watching the experiential, Disney-like "Jewish Bible" show, much of which is told through impressionistic video. That it was presented without noting the post-biblical Talmud and other rabbinical commentary Jews consider crucial parts of their canon seemed to him to imply that God's story continues through Christianity — not Judaism. He shook his head as the show depicted Abraham kneeling before God — an image much more in keeping with Christian than Jewish prayer.

"You're seeing the Bible the way Christians do," he said of the museum.

"I don't want to sound cranky because they went out of their way to be nice, and certainly we're not opposed to teaching what Judaism is about. But there is an uneasy feeling that we're part of this marketing campaign where the point is to convince people of the prophetic message of Christianity," he said.

A panel at this month's annual Association for Jewish Studies conference, entitled "the Museum of the Bible As Mediator of Judaism," included panelists who all agreed that the museum's "self-description as religiously neutral" was inaccurate, said Mark Leuchter, professor of Hebrew Bible at Temple University and a participant in the panel.

However, while some Jewish visitors said they felt like props, or felt they were being proselytized to, or had concerns about the legality and authenticity of some items (Hobby Lobby, a craft chain whose owners founded the museum, paid a $3 million fine this summer for smuggling ancient Iraqi artifacts), other Jews are happy with the museum.

The museum collaborated with a number of paid Jewish consultants — including Bible scholars, community advocates and rabbis. The consultants sit on an international advisory board or are expert guides. The Museum's director of content, Seth Pollinger, said 35 to 40 percent of the board and of the guides are Jewish, a dramatic number when you consider Jews are less than 2 percent of the adult U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center (and less than a half of 1 percent, worldwide, Pew says).

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