The Museum of the Bible and the Binary Error

The Museum of the Bible (MOTB), the largest privately-funded museum in America, opened to the public on Saturday, November 18th. It was not a Jewish project; the people behind it are largely evangelical Christians. Yet, traditional Jews have a stake in this enterprise. Its opening is welcome news. It is both a powerful voice that reminds Americans of the importance of belief in a Higher Authority, and a showcase for the interconnection of Jews, Judaism, and the Land of Israel.

America needs this museum, and traditional Jews need an America that is enriched by this project. Religious belief and practice in the United States – still one of the most religious countries in the Western world – is not what it used to be. Attendance at religious services is down. The fastest-growing religious group, according to Pew, is the “nones,” those who respond to pollsters that they identify with no religious group at all. Christian retention rates (the percentage of those who remain in the religious group in which they were born) range from unacceptable at the upper end (65% for evangelicals) to abysmal (45% for mainline Protestants).

Even more significantly, the mood of America has shifted. A plethora of lawsuits that would restrict rights of religious people, especially when they run counter to new PC orthodoxies, threatens to shrink the area in which constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion operate. First Liberty Institutes’ Undeniable documents 1400 religious liberty incidents. Behind this is an attitudinal change that augurs for more serious moves away from religion in the future. More than half of all Americans now believe that one does not need to believe in G-d to be moral or have good values.[1] The rapid about-face of Americans regarding gay marriage speaks of a large shift towards autonomy, and away from authority. This has fed a rise in atheism, and hostility to strongly-held religious values.

The culture wars are over, claim some people. Religion has lost. There has been much hand-wringing in conservative Christian circles. This is nonsense. I like to call it the Binary Error – as if life can be reduced to decisions between two options, with winner-take-all consequences. The thinking runs something like this: The spiritual cargo that the Mayflower unloaded at Plymouth Rock continued to dominate America, until the US Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision. That reversed things. Paganism scored a knockout; the champ was unseated and shamed; the godless now rule the West.

This is crude and untenable reasoning. Belief/disbelief is not a toggle switch. No matter what some shapers of our culture preach, the fact remains that the hundreds of millions of Americans who professed belief in a Creator a few years ago did not vanish into thin air. It is true that they are not yet accustomed to function as part of a sometimes-detested minority, and that they face tough cultural and political challenges ahead. It is also true that one of the most difficult challenges is the undercurrent of so much of contemporary culture that mocks and derides as primitive anything seen as old. (“Old” generally refers to something that predates the latest version of the iPhone. It contrasts with words like “ancient” and “prehistoric,” which apply to things as old as the Beatles.)

No one knows with certainty where this will all lead – whether to a further descent into a swamp of moral decay, or to some pendulum swing back to repression, or to something altogether unknown. Here is where MOTB is so helpful. Rather than mourn or wait for redemption, MOTB reminds Americans (and likely many foreign visitors) that the past continues to inspire us and guide us. It does not proselytize or preach. (It would be far less effective if it did.) Rather, it simply tells the story of what the Bible is about, the outsize influence this one work had on the history of civilization, and how its power continues to show itself in law, philosophy, popular culture, and the advancement of human rights. It subtly suggests to visitors that, paraphrasing Mark Twain, rumors of the demise of religious conscience are greatly exaggerated. The Bible – and perhaps the wisdom of the past in general – has not gone extinct as a kind of literary dodo bird. Before people buy into a world view in which only the future is important, they should pause to consider just why the Bible has been so important to so many people. They may find their lives changed by the answer. MOTB, then, is for the people who have not fully embraced the new hostility towards the Judeo-Christian message. There are lots of them around.

Surely this is important to us as traditional Jews. We cannot fare as well in the US as we have in the past if we will be surrounded by people who regard all strongly-held religious belief as repugnant. We have a vested interest in keeping alive respect for the contributions of the past in general, and for G-d and His revealed word in particular. MOTB will be an effective, non-confrontational and non-invasive tool in making that happen, at least for the many millions who are still capable of accepting such a message.

In telling the story of the Bible, MOTB offers an important dividend for traditional Jews. The visitor cannot help but absorb the story of the connection between the Land and the People. Too many Americans have been exposed to the opposite. Some have swallowed the line of the left and of the Palestinians, that the Jewish claim to a piece of the Holy Land began with Western guilt for the Holocaust. Others have been exposed to the revival of theological supersessionism, which strips Jews of any connection to the covenants of the Bible. MOTB vividly exhibits the history and archeology that demonstrate the ancient Jewish stake in the Land. It also shows the foundational contributions of Judaism to Christianity. This has to be good. We lost the liberal churches decades ago. We want the conservative churches to stay in Israel’s corner. Without addressing the Middle East conflict at all, MOTB’s subject matter will work to keep friendly Christians committed to Israel’s well-being.

Some transparency. I have been involved with MOTB for almost two years. I have been impressed (overwhelmed might be a better word) by the graciousness of the people in charge. They have tried as hard as they could to not offend the sensitivities of other religious communities (especially those that share a reverence for Scripture), as well as secular and academic groups. I served, along with a few other Orthodox representatives, on their International Advisory Board, and can attest to their willingness to make the changes we suggested. (I am not suggesting that their portrayal of the message of Tanach is suffused with the spirit of Chazal and traditional Judaism. It isn’t. But it lacks the crudeness and offensiveness of other portrayals in popular media.)

Everything about the museum is of biblical proportions. The building itself houses 500,000 square feet of space, including permanent and temporary exhibit areas, theaters, and a restaurant. It is airy and roomy, with high ceilings. All the funds (about $600M) were raised – without Federal contributions – from some 58000 donors. It is located in close proximity to the Smithsonian museums, and the National Mall. It benefits from a close relationship with the Israel Antiquities Authority, as well as the Vatican Library.

Delivering the invocations at the pre-opening dinner last Thursday night were Dick DeVos (married to the pro-voucher Secretary of Education), and Rabbi Steve Weil, the Senior Managing Director of the OU. Sitting among the 800 very Christian guests at the dinner, I felt like an honored guest, rather than a tolerated nuisance. The program was redolent with pro-Israel material.

Will observant Jewish visitors to DC want to visit the MOTB? That depends on their objective. MOTB can offer the Bible – but not what we know and experience as Torah. We are fortunate in having the humble beis medrash for that, and for not needing the assistance of cathedral-scale buildings to intensify the message.[2] I cannot think of a better place, however, to bring groups to consider the impact that the Torah had on Christians, and on the development of Western society. These are topics well worth our consideration.

  1. Contrast this with the words of the Malbim, Bereishis 20:11, explaining Avraham’s response to Avimelech: “[Avraham] informed him that even if a person…appeared to be a great thinker, and determined for himself proper rules of conduct, accustomed himself to good character as dictated by his reasoning, and practiced justice and charity according to his reasoning, nonetheless we cannot rely on such a person or people…There is no fear of G-d without belief in Divine Providence on an individual basis – that Hashem sees, knows, and oversees all the steps man takes. This is not so if he believes that the world had no beginning, and runs entirely by natural law.”

  2. See Meshech Chochmah, Shemos 12:21

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22 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Many people with political axes to grind “reinterpret” the US Constitution to mean whatever they want. For millennia now, heretical sects led by Jews have done likewise with our Written and Oral Torah.

    In the same vein, the Christian religion has attempted to appropriate Tanach while distorting or negating much of its actual content. Even if the result is morally better than paganism and more conducive to a properly ordered general society, no one should confuse it with the genuine article. The sooner all B’nai Noach reject lies, the better.

  2. dr. bill says:

    Bob, we can celebrate the universal impact of the Hebrew Bible or marvel at the particular impact of the Jewish Bible; it is more nuanced if you want to “tantz bah beidah chasunahs.”

  3. mb says:

    Bob Miller said “The sooner all B’nai Noach reject lies, the better.”
    And that’s what they say about us. A pointless exercise.

    • Bob Miller says:

      We have rejected lies, and they will, too, in the future. There is an objective reality.

      • Mycroft says:

        We have irked emunah . They can’t be proven . If ikreinemunah could be proven it would be science not faith.

      • Bob Miller says:

        Emunah itself will spread in due course. We need to set the example as in the past. Emunah links us to the type of objective truth that can’t be proven to mortals through scientific investigation alone.

  4. This is a wonderful development. But I believe the source of moral decay in this country has a far greater influence on American culture. That source being Hollywood. The world loves what Hollywood gives us. But they give us more than entertainment. In subtle (and in some cases not so subtle) ways they project the very values that are eroding societal respect for biblical values. I believe that is one reason for the near sudden change of the American heart about something like gay marriage. What is needed is a counter to that influence of similar influence. I only wish I could think of a way to achieve that. MOTB seems like a good start though. Kol HaKavod for your participation in it.

  5. Weaver says:

    Some Christians are recognizing the value of Orthodox Jewry in particular, and are even looking to them for inspiration to thrive in an increasingly post-Christian West. From Rod Dreher:

    “I don’t think most Christians have anything quite like the social occasion of the bar/bat mitzvah, but still, reading this short account of how this ultra-Orthodox Jewish community celebrates its faith communally, I find myself inspired, and wondering, “What if our church communities approached our faith in that spirit. That is, if parents were fully engaged with the faith, if families observed the laws and traditions at home, if churches were fully welcoming to inquirers, and families welcomed these visitors into their homes on feast days. And religious milestones were treated with the dignity — and indeed the sanctity — appropriate to them, not co-opted by the usual consumerist garbage . . . The Orthodox, in all forms (including the Modern Orthodox, who aren’t the black-hat types), are marrying within the faith, having lots more kids than non-Orthodox Jews, and actually living out their faith in community. They’re going to make it. The others have much longer odds . . . Orthodox Judaism, in all its forms, is what the Benedict Option looks like among Jews.”


    Incidentally, the increased visibility/recognition of Orthodox Jews, though not without its challenges, can also act as a valuable counterweight to the liberal (often obnoxiously so) Jews active in popular culture.

  6. David F says:

    I would absolutely love to visit the MOTB and it’ll definitely be on my itinerary for my next trip to DC. This is very welcome news indeed.

  7. Marc Hess says:

    Salutes to you, Rabbi Alderstein and to Rabbi Weil and the OU, for leading on this important effort. Marc Hess

  8. Allan Pincus says:

    Your article fails to mention the driving force behind this Museum-the Green Family. Please refer to the work “Bible Nation” by Joel Baden and Candida Moss, which provides a different perspective on the impartiality of the Green Family and their political agenda in promoting their particular brand of Evangelism via, among other things, the MOTB.

  9. Lara Gedzelman says:

    Although until Moshiach’s arrival (may it be soon) we are still dependent on the nations of the world and can’t have “too many friends”, I am still bemused and wonder how much we can still rely on such friends. That said, for the sake of the general population, whatever their persuasion, reminders of the debt society owes to “the Bible” must have value.

    However, for our community, one of the truly sad things is that we don’t have enough philanthropy to support a proper construction and inauguration of Rabbi Deutch’s Living Torah Museum in Brooklyn. Rabbi Deutch has collected a world-class collection of artifacts that support and clarify the Torah perspective on Biblical and post-Biblical Jewish history. In his cramped space in Boro Park, he creates curated tours through Bais Rishon, Bais Shaini, Mishnaic, and Gaonic periods and beyond.

    With the proper financial support (preferably including a spacious building in Jerusalem), he has enough artifacts to create a museum that would rival the Bible Lands Museum — all reflecting a Torah perspective that brings our true history alive. In a time when so many within the frum world struggle to stay inspired, an intelligent awareness of Jewish history is a profound support to our other efforts.

    It’s a pity that we manage to have enough money to build lavish developments throughout Jerusalem, but not enough to properly support an institution that could inspire us all, young and old alike.

    • I will second the motion. The time I spent at the Living Torah Museum was the single most memorable museum experience of my life!

    • Nachum says:

      Rabbi Deutsch’s museum, as he readily acknowledges, gets all of its artifacts from the Israel Antiquities Authority, the same place the MOTB gets much of its stuff from. The IAA has so much there’s no room to display it all in Israel (much of the Israel Museum’s antiques collection is theirs, for example, and I imagine the Eretz Yisrael Museum gets a lot from them too), and so they’re happy to lend it out. In fact, the IAA, which is currently housed in the Israel Museum, is currently building a huge new headquarters right across the street which will function as a sort of museum as well.

      I’m troubled by your use of the words “true history.” The Bible Lands Museum (also next door) and the Israel Museum present our “true history.” It may not be from a perspective you appreciate, but that doesn’t make it less true.

      And both contain lots of references to Torah and halakhic concepts. Neither is a “minimalist” sort of place.

      • Lara Gedzelman says:

        During a short stint at Hebrew University in 1990, I studied under one Lucy Plitman, O”H, who I noticed was responsible for a film shown in the Museum of the Bais Rishon in the Old City. She was a bright and creative thinker in their Bible Criticism department and one of the fascinating aspects of getting to know her was discussing her many “theories” that she was working on, so that by publishing something original and new, she could merit tenure. When confronted by other facts from other “theories” that did not align with her newer theories, her response was, “Well, it’s just a theory!” I don’t believe that made her pull the plug on any of her views, but certainly shaped my views on academia.

        Since reconstructing ancient history is so much a function of the perspective of the one attempting the reconstruction, I am pointing out that as a Torah-observant Jew, when there is a conflict, I am giving the mesora the benefit of the doubt, not the particular academic who has crafted the narrative provided.

        Both museums you referenced are impressive institutions, but much of their commentary is not in line with Torah viewpoints. In my limited experience with Rabbi Deutch, I did not hear him overstep in his explanations into the realm of “theory”, but rather he showcased many items which bring to life a Torah view of history, which these other museums do not, and I think this is an important distinction.

        (However, I was unaware that any major part of his collection was loaned, so perhaps my enthusiasm to create a larger space for display is premature.)

  10. Raymond says:

    I delayed commenting on here for a couple of days, because I kept hoping that I would think of some positive angle to this, but honestly that moment of inspiration never came. I just can’t help but think of museums as places where society puts its dead things. For example, in that recent controversy here in America regarding those Robert E Lee statues, there were those who took a kind of middle position on the issue by saying that those statues should be removed from being displayed in very visible, public places in favor of putting them into museums. By taking such a position, they were hoping to solve that issue by essentially saying that Robert E Lee is no longer all that important to American society.

    Only a small percentage of the population goes to museums, and even then, it is to kind of give tacit approval to what they are seeing, without taking those things seriously enough to consider them to be a vital part of our everyday society. and it just seems to me that our Torah is so much more than some kind of quaint, holy relic to be objectively studied but not really taken seriously like it deserves to be. To my mind at least, there is no more important civilizing force, no more important document, period, than our Torah, and so it needs to be at least as prominent in our public discussions as are, for example, America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

  11. DF says:

    In Lancaster, PA – right in the Bible Belt – there is a small, one-room museum called “the Institute for Biblical & Scientific Studies.” I visited there recently. There are very few items actually from antiquity. However, there is a surprisingly large amount of replicas and miniatures (and as you know, in many museums of antiquity or paleontology you never see anything but replicas or models.) These items are extremely well-done, with painstaking detail, and in many cases look identical to more famous models I’ve seen in Israel or London. The individual who runs it has dedicated his life to this, and obviously has friends or resources beyond what you would expect from a small outpost in Lancaster. There are also many pictures he took personally from Tels or Biblical archeological sites, including sites in parts of the world not very hospitable to Jews. The museum proceeds from the time of the Patriarchs through the period of the Christian Bible. There are also separate rooms dedicated exclusively to each of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (These areas are interesting, but probably basic to readers of this website.) I surprised myself with how much I learned, and how many items I clarified that had hitherto been foggy.

    For those interested in the Bible and the Biblical period, it is most definitely worth a visit.

  12. Steve Brizel says:

    This nuseum is a welcome addition to the secular public arena . Just curious-are there any parts of the museum that deal with TSBP and Parshanut?

  13. Steve Brizel says:

    Those who have the chance should go to the Jewish Childrens Crown Heights with their children and granchildren.

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