Is the Museum of the Bible Fair to Jewish People?

The new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. spends what seems to be a disproportionate amount of time on the history of the Old Testament rather than the New, according to a review in the Washington Post.

That’s significant to many since that’s the section of the Bible without Jesus (depending on who you ask, anyway). The museum gift shop also sells Jewish items such as menorahs and mezuzahs, and the sounds of people praying in Hebrew can be heard through loudspeakers.

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In many ways, then, the museum seems like a very Jew-friendly place. Yet many Jews are skeptical of the museum. Why is that? Religion reporter Michelle Boorstein writes:

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 Sholom 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.

On the one hand, it’s not unusual or unexpected to go to a museum created by evangelicals and learn about the Old Testament as interpreted through the eyes of Christians. An Old Testament museum created by Jews (who, of course, wouldn’t call it the “Old Testament”) would look very different.

But since the stories and features in this museum involve Jewish characters, it’s hard to find where the line is between story-telling and “goy-splaining” (when Christians attempt to explain Jewish history to other Jews).

To its credit, the museum creators (who are also founders of the craft store chain Hobby Lobby) didn’t go out of their way to distort facts like you would expect from Creationist Ken Ham:

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 academic advisors 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).

The consultants lean to the more Orthodox side (which represent about 10 percent of U.S. Jews), but the list also includes people from across the religious and ideological spectrum.

“We are pursuing exhibits that present balanced descriptions that highlight broad consensus views … without taking up causes for the ‘religious right’ or the ‘political left.’ Although this is our goal, we will need to constantly host discussions that are open to critical and constructive suggestions on points to improve so we can advance a more ‘centrist’ presentation,” Pollinger wrote in an email.

Pollinger added that the goal was to feature “balanced descriptions that highlight broad consensus views” about the faiths, but it’s worth noting that the museum’s exhibits never explain why Jews organize the Old Testament writings differently from Christians; you won’t learn why Jews don’t consider Jesus to be the Messiah; you also won’t learn that Jews don’t consider the Torah, or any of the books of the Bible, to be an “ultimate authority” the way that Christians do, but see it instead as a teaching tool for understanding the history of the Jewish people and the way they related to God. Literalism has no place in understanding the Bible’s Jewish origins.

It’s not that the museum is deliberately anti-semitic. Rather — in the case of selling Jewish memorabilia in the gift shop — it grazes the line of cultural appropriation, thinking it is honoring the Jewish heritage, when it is really setting visitors up for inaccurate information about Judaism as its own separate religion. It would be better for the museum to give credit where it’s due, rather than claiming items like mezuzahs and menorahs as part of Christian practice, when in fact they are not.

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