When the directors of NYC's famous Discovery Center, a tourist attraction located in the Times Square district, looked for a “consultant” to assist with the mounting of a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, they turned to Lawrence Schiffman, Yeshiva University’s vice provost of undergraduate education.
Dr. Schiffman joined YU a year ago, after resigning from his position as chairman of NYU’s Jewish Studies department in the aftermath of what appears to be a major academic scandal.
Schiffman’s advisory role is one of the details emerging from the important article by historian Norman Golb, which I have reported on in a separate post.
Unfortunately, allegations of serious unethical conduct, including plagiarism and fabrication of sources, have been dogging Schiffman for the past year. In his article, however, Golb does not mention those allegations, even though they involve, in part, Schiffman’s alleged mistreatment of Golb himself along with his family.
Instead, Golb focuses, in his usual dispassionate manner, on what he regards as unscientific claims of a speculative nature (or what he calls “faith-based” claims) that have been presented to the public in Dead Sea Scrolls exhibits, including the one currently taking place at Discovery Times Square. Insofar as they specifically regard Dr. Schiffman, here are the passages in question:
First, Golb quotes a statement made by Schiffman on a museum audio guide, asserting that
[artistic] images of Biblical scenes were not accepted by the Jewish tradition, because they were considered to be a violation of one of the Ten Commandments which forbade graven images.
This statement paints a most misleading picture, which may well reflect particular faith-based attitudes, but only partially depicts actual historical Jewish tradition. The ancient transjordanian Dura Europus synagogue, for example, includes many different illuminated Biblical scenes, and this tradition was continued by various Jewish artists and communities in the Middle Ages… The exhibitors should have explained that it was communities following the traditions of Babylonian Jewry, not others, who hyper-literally interpreted the Biblical “graven images” passages.
(See this beautiful pictorial representation of a female face in the Dura Europus synagogue. A recent NYTimes article by John Noble Wilford explains that the walls of the synagogue were “painted with biblical scenes: the infancy of Moses, the Exodus, the sacrifice of Elijah and more than 50 other events.”)
Next, Golb writes:
In a class by itself is the claim found on a plaque in the exhibit currently taking place at New York’s Discovery Center, informing visitors that most Jews, during the time the Scrolls were being written, “were barely literate.” […] The [claim] is based on the unwarranted and dogmatic assumption that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written by a presumed sect living at Qumran, and not by the Palestinian Jews at large.
Golb indicates that the “barely literate” claim
receives comfort from the belief in an “oral law” — i.e., the orthodox Jewish belief that rabbinical law was given simultaneously with the written Biblical law to Moses by God on Mount Sinai, and that it was then passed down “orally” from one generation to the next and put in writing only by the final generation of the Tannaitic rabbis (third century C.E.). Unfortunately, discussion of the legendary nature of this belief is often avoided by scholars.
At this point, Golb inserts a footnote quoting a passage from a book by Schiffman:
See, e.g., the words of L. Schiffman […]: “In the Jewish tradition, the Oral Law — the unwritten, revealed tradition — bridges this chasm. This Oral Law, when it was finally committed to writing in the third century or later in a text known as the Mishnah, preserved traditions from a much earlier period.”
Golb explains that Schiffman
initially acknowledges that the [Oral Law] idea is a “tradition,” but then slides into treating it as a fact, without explaining to his readers that the legend actually originated as a response to the arguments of early Christian polemicists who sought to delegitimize rabbinical authority by pointing out that the rabbinical laws were different from the Biblical laws.
And Golb concludes:
The claim of Jewish illiteracy, based on dogma and faith rather than science, is highly dubious and should not have been featured in a public exhibition of the Scrolls.
As indicated in my other article, Golb further argues that the Discovery Center exhibit includes anti-Jewish rhetoric and false claims (ones offensive, incidentally, to Jews) concerning the origins of Christianity. If Golb is right, then it would appear that the rather surreal “academic” role being played by Schiffman at Times Square raises serious issues about the educational ethics of religiously oriented museum exhibits.
P.s. Schiffman’s influence as a purveyor of “faith” or religious apologetics can be seen in articles published by two of his fans on the Yeshiva University student news site, the YU Beacon.
One of the students lauds the Discovery Center exhibit and quotes Schiffman as telling her that he is “privileged” to serve as consultant. This use of the term “privilege” is interesting, because it appears to evoke a statement at the end of Golb’s article, where he asserts that in the field of Scrolls scholarship,
the personal interests of the [Dead Sea Scroll] monopolists — including, above all, their interest in preventing criticism of their work, and in maintaining the privileges they had earned as members of the “editorial team” — rapidly took precedence over the critical pursuit of the truth.
The same student writer also naively quotes Schiffman as urging Yeshiva students to flock to Discovery Times Square (the price, by the way, is $25 per ticket: will students get extra credit for contributing to the coffers?). There is, in fact, only one small, but significant, omission in the student's article — she fails altogether to inform her readers of Dr. Norman Golb’s critique of the exhibit. It would appear either that Schiffman chose not to inform her of the existence of the critique, or that she knew of the controversy surrounding her Vice Provost’s work but refrained from mentioning it. Talk about an “interest in preventing criticism” of someone’s work!
The other YU Beacon article reports on a lecture that Schiffman recently delivered at NYU’s Bronfman Center. The article is by Rachel Renz, the editor of the Beacon’s Shma Minah section, which aims to “spread the Torah’s radiance” with discussions of things that are “controversial in Jewish thought today.”
Renz begins her article by, it would appear erroneously, referring to Vice Provost Schiffman as a “rabbi”; later, she describes his interaction with the author of the other student newspaper article mentioned above during a nice little “question-and-answer” session after the lecture.
More important, however, is Renz's report on the contents of the lecture itself: we are informed that Schiffman, urging his audience to read the Torah, broached the well-known fact that different biblical passages, manifestly written by different authors, have different styles and use different terms to refer to God. This fact poses an obvious problem for orthodox Jews who wish to believe that the Torah was literally written by one author (i.e., by God, who according to religious fantasy gave the holy word to Moses on Mount Sinai).
Schiffman, according to Renz, proposed the following solution of this sticky problem to his audience:
A traditional Jew can make an equally respectable claim that these two names for God are used in order to stress two dichotomous attributes of the Almighty, namely His mercy and His justice.
Unfortunately, this explanation flies in the face of reason by setting theological hocus-pocus on the same level as rational, critical, historical analysis of the biblical text. Researchers in secular educational institutions immediately recognize, and reject, such proposals as examples of faith-based “bible scholarship.” The uncritical acceptance of Schiffman’s Kabbalistic suggestion by a YU Beacon editor can only raise questions about the influence that Yeshiva University’s Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education is exercising on the minds of students at that institution.