Touch history and history touches you
By Ilan Preskovsky
Whether reading through the weekly Torah portion or intensely studying a page of Talmud, it’s hard not to sometimes feel like you’re reading about alien worlds that bare only a passing resemblance to our own. It’s hard enough to get one’s head around the world in which the Talmud was compiled some fifteen hundred years ago – slavery was the basis of the world’s economy, Christianity was still in its infancy, and Jews were always, at very best, second-rate citizens in the countries in which they found themselves – how much more so the entirely unrecognisable world of Biblical times? The lives and times of today’s Jews, in particular, have almost nothing in common whatsoever with our earliest progenitors: Avraham and Sarah.
Today we are a sprawling Jewish nation that stretches across countries, cultures, and races. Jews throughout the world enjoy what must be the friendliest relationship with our non-Jewish neighbours in history, as we join them as equal citizens in thriving liberal democracies. Most importantly, we are a proud, if often troubled, nation with our own state and a level of self-determination unheard of since at least the destruction of the First Temple. Contrast that to the world our holy patriarchs and matriarchs occupied. Hundreds of years before the term “Jew” was even imagined, our ancestors were a small nomadic family of Ivrim (Hebrews) who stood out as the only Monotheists among a sea of often unimaginably barbaric pagan cultures, and whose lives played out against the backdrop of the two of the oldest civilizations on the planet: Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
As we move ever further from our origins, it becomes all the more necessary to find relevance in our ancient teachings that were formed in these faraway times. Overwhelmingly, this is done by reframing the laws, philosophies, and morals of the Tanach and the Talmud into something with which 21st Century Jews can more easily relate, but, paradoxically, doing this without a serious understanding of even our most ancient past is doomed to failure.
This is easier said than done, of course, but we are fortunate enough to be living smack in the middle of an Information Age where thousands of years of history are readily available to us with nothing more than a few keywords entered into a small, rectangular box on our ubiquitous electronic screens. Even still, to get a proper appreciation of these ancient worlds, words on a website can only take us so far.
Nothing can give the feel of a time and place quite like coming face to face with actual, physical relics of the past and, once again, we are fortunate enough to live in a time where this can be done with relative ease. Historical museums are littered throughout the globe and a number of them house all sorts of fascinating artefacts relevant to the Jewish story. From the earliest days of Mesopotamia, all the way through to much more recent history in Eastern Europe, these objects provide us with unparalleled glimpses into worlds otherwise long dead.
While most museums feature different bits and pieces from our past – albeit often incredible bits and pieces – there is one museum that is dedicated purely to the display of archaeological wonders from the furthest reaches of Jewish history: The Living Torah Museum.
To Touch History
The Living Torah Museum was first opened in 2002 in Boro Park, Brooklyn, by Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch as a culmination of his lifelong interest in archaeology and history that first stemmed from his young days in Yeshiva, when he was frustrated by a lack of explanation from his teachers for certain objects referred to in the Mishnah that don’t seem to have a modern counterpart. When he was rebuked for constantly “interrupting the class” by asking numerous questions about these objects, rather than being dissuaded, he took it on himself to start matching archaeological artefacts with those objects he came across in his learning by visiting various museums that held exhibitions related to the long-gone era of the Middle East, circa the first Century CE.
Wanting to provide the kind of answers to young Jewish students that he was denied as a kid and, with the blessings of numerous gedolei hador (the greatest Torah scholars of the day), Rabbi Deutsch set about acquiring artefacts and antiques that would create a tangible picture of both the Jewish world and the world surrounding the Jews from Biblical times all the way through to more recent Jewish history. This would even include artefacts from as far back as more than four thousand years ago from the major Mesopotamian city-state of Ur, the birthplace of Avraham, whose own exodus from his father’s house in this bustling metropolis to settle in the untamed lands of Canaan is perhaps the starting point of Jewish history.
The museum, which would add a second location in the Catskills area (Fallsburg, NY, to be exact) within a few years, would continue to grow to include everything from those early days in Mesopotamia to items from the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem to a collection of the peculiar items that are referenced in the Talmud. It would also incorporate the Torah Animal World museum, which is comprised of taxidermy displays of nearly every animal referred to in both the Tanach and the Talmud. Special attention is paid to the animals listed in Perek Shirah, the ancient text that has been attributed by some to King David that lists dozens of natural phenomena, including many animals, and their source in the Tanach.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the museum, though, is that visitors are encouraged to not just look at, but to hold the artefacts (under supervision, of course) and Rabbi Deutsch even goes so far as to provide hands-on presentations of how they were actually used. This harkens back to the original raison d’être of the museum, which is to make both Jewish history and our ancient teachings as real and as tangible as possible. As Rabbi Deutsch puts it, “Touch history and history touches you.”
Garnering the Right Kind of Attention
Within six months of opening its doors, the Living Torah Museum was profiled in the esteemed Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), and that single article proved to be a crucial turning point for the museum. The article brought the museum plenty of attention, and, in particular, it caught the eye of Dr Donald Brown, a highly-acclaimed archaeologist whose is best known for creating the “core boring technique” that transformed the surveyance of large archaeological sites, and for discovering the Ancient Greek colony of Sybaris in Southern Italy, but who was also the last living member of the team that excavated King Tutankhamen’s tomb in the early 20th Century.
Dr Brown was allowed to keep duplicates of artefacts found during that famed excavation and, as he approached the final years of his life (he died at the tender age of 105 in 2014), he wished to donate his private collection of thirty-five rare artefacts to a museum. He didn’t, however, wish to donate it to one of the larger museums that already had extensive Egyptology sections. So, when he read the article about the Living Torah Museum in the BAR, he realised that he had found the perfect home for his precious collection, where it has remained ever since. Because of Dr Brown, the Living Torah Museum now features astonishing artefacts from the reign of the Egyptian monarch that – though hotly debated – many historians believe was the unidentified Pharaoh during the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt.
Moving slightly forward in history, Dr Brown also donated a number of artefacts from the Judean city of Tel Lachish. The city was central to a number of battles in the Tanach and is said to have been second only to Jerusalem in importance in the Kingdom of Judea (ancient Israel was split into two kingdoms after the death of King Solomon: Israel in the North, Judea in the South) and was seized first by the Assyrian King, Sancheriv, during the reign of King Hezekiah circa 700 BCE and again by Nebuchanezzer, the Babylonian king who destroyed the First Temple. With these and other artefacts from same period as part of the Living Torah Museum’s collection, visitors to the museum are able to confront one of the most vitally important periods in Jewish history, head-on.
Many other donors followed Dr Brown’s lead, donating outright or lending their private collections long-term. One of the most notable of these is Harvey Herbert, a Brooklyn lawyer with what is believed to be the largest collection of ancient Hebrew inscriptions, who loaned his entire collection to the museum with the understanding that it be donated outright after his death. Most of these inscriptions come from the First Temple period and many of which bear the names of various powerful men referred to explicitly in the Tanach itself.
These sorts of objects stand both as a rebuttal against those who wish to write off the Biblical narrative as a work of fiction, and bring to vivid life events from a past so distant that it can very easily feel like fiction, even for those of us who believe and know them to be true. They alone may not necessarily make the entirety of the Torah immediately resonate to the modern Jew, but, as those who have visited historical sites in Israel itself can no doubt attest, a direct, tangible experience with our history can’t help but make real things that otherwise exist purely in our collective imagination. Or, again, as Rabbi Deutsch so eloquently put it that it’s worth repeating, “Touch history and history touches you.”
Visiting the Museum
For those of us who don’t live in the New York area and aren’t planning on going there any time soon, we will have to make do with taking the “Virtual Tour” of the museum available on the website, www.torahmuseum.com. For those who do find themselves anywhere near either Boro Park or, during the summer months, the Catskills (the museum’s second location is only open from Memorial Day through Labour Day), the Living Torah Museum is clearly a must-visit.
Note, however, that all tours must be arranged beforehand by calling Rabbi Deutsch and booking a visit: +1 877-752-6286