Touching the Dead Sea Scrolls

Touching the Dead Sea Scrolls

Israel Museum scholar to talk about his work with antiquities in Glen Rock

Dr. Adolfo Roitman stands in front of the Shrine of the Book, established 50 years ago to house the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Imagine being able to lay a gentle finger on a part of the ancient, history-laden, extraordinarily evocative piece of parchment that is the Dead Sea Scrolls. Imagine having the key that unlocks the door to the room where they lie.

“It’s a dream for any scholar to have such a treasure in his hands,” Dr. Adolfo Roitman said.

Dr. Roitman, the lucky scholar, is their curator, in charge of the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where they are housed. He is going to talk about them locally on Sunday, October 12, and he Skyped from Israel to give a short preview.

“As everyone knows, the Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient Jewish documents discovered between 1946 and 1956 in the caves near a placed called Qumran, on the Dead Sea, about 35 kilometers east of Jerusalem,” Dr. Roitman said. “That discovery made a crucial contribution to modern scholarship on [the] Second Temple, and on the origins of historic Judaism.

“We have been exploring a full range of literature, beginning with biblical manuscripts – the earliest unearthed were discovered in Qumran, from 250 B.C.E. We discovered a number of books long before we discovered the scrolls; wisdom literature, magical books, liturgical books. We have a lot of layers in Qumran,” he said.

“That new perspective on ancient Judaism is particularly useful because we all are descended from rabbinical Judaism, which has shaped the understanding and self-understanding of Judaism for 2,000 years. These scrolls come from the period before rabbinical Judaism.

“When we see our modern Judaism through the lens of ancient Judaism” – that is, when we apply the lens discovered and slowly deciphered in the caves – “it looks quite different from the idea we have of ancient Judaism.”

For one thing, he said, the traditional Masoretic biblical text we use today was fixed about 1,000 years ago. Since then, “when any Jew goes into a new synagogue, he wouldn’t ask what version of the Torah they’re reading. There’s only one.”

That’s been true for a full millennium, but among the 200 or so biblical manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls, only 40 percent are very close to the texts as we have received them. “That means that 60 percent are not,” Dr. Roitman said. “There are crucial differences between those versions and the ones we have today.

“For instance, one version of the book of Jeremiah is a third shorter than the one we have in our modern libraries. So we know that there were at least two versions of the book of Jeremiah.”

In one striking variation from what we know as classic Jewish thought, “we identify ourselves as the people who brought the message of monotheism to modern civilization,” Dr. Roitman said. “We believe in one God who is the creator of the universe.

“In some of the scrolls we have a different theology, where there was one God, the creator of the universe, but below God there were two major kinds of angels.” The leader of one of the parties sometimes is called Melchizedek or the Prince of Light; his opponent may be called Satan or the Prince of Darkness. “According to the Qumran theology, these forces were in an eternal struggle. This kind of belief is called dualistic monotheism, and it sounds very strange to us because our perspective is so different.”

For a third example of changes in Jewish thought from the time when the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, “We see the books in the Bible as sacred literature, and then we have the category of apocryphal books, which are not regarded as sacred in Judaism — they are also seen as non-sacred books by the Protestants. In Qumran, we have some books that we usually call apocryphal; there are so many copies of them there that the conclusion is that some of these books which we modern Jews regard as non-sacred, were seen as sacred by ancient Jews.” Pre-eminent among those books are Jubilees and the First Book of Enoch.

Did the scrolls found in Qumran reflect the normative Judaism of the period, or was it instead a kind of heresy? “The question is a result of 2,000 years of rabbinical Judaism,” Dr. Roitman said. “We didn’t have a normative Judaism in ancient times. We had different groups or sects, some as well-known as the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes, and even the first Christians. It is a non-historical perspective on Judaism to say that we had just one kind of Judaism.

“We could say that in ancient times, we had most of the Jews defining themselves around the backdrop of the Temple in Jerusalem, but they didn’t have just one official or normative Judaism.”

It has been 50 years since the Shrine of the Book was established, on April 20, 1965, and the museum will celebrate that anniversary throughout the year. Although some of the commemorations will appeal to academics, others will be aimed at the general public. “It will be very fun,” Dr. Roitman said.

Dr. Roitman was born in Argentina; Alberto Zeilicovich, the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom of Fair Lawn, one of the two Conservative shuls hosting his talk, was his student in Jerusalem. The two come from the same Buenos Aires neighborhood, and went to the same Jewish day school. Dr. Roitman earned an undergraduate and a masters’ degree in anthropology in Buenos Aires, another master’s, this one in comparative religion, at the Hebrew University, and then remained at the Hebrew University until he received a Ph.D. in ancient Jewish literature and religion. “And then, since November 1994, I have been in my position as curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls and head of the Shrine of the Book,” he said. He is the scroll’s second curator; the first, Magen Broshi, was appointed by the fabled archeologist and military leader Yigal Yadin, and held the position for 30 years.

“I remember the first day when he gave me the keys of the safe room where the Dead Sea Scrolls were,” Dr. Roitman said. “I feel very lucky. I have reached a climax in my academic career.

“My dream was to become a professor at the Hebrew University. I couldn’t even have dreamt of the possibility of being curator of the scrolls.

“But sometimes dreams – they come true.”

Who: Dr. Adolfo Roitman, curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls and head of the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem

What: Will address “The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls for Judaism: Myth and Reality” in a presentation sponsored by both Temple Beth Sholom of Fair Lawn and the Glen Rock Jewish Center

Where: At the Glen Rock Jewish Center,
682 Harristown Road

When: On Sunday, October 12, at 11 a.m.

How: For information, email Temple Beth Sholom at or call
201-797-9321, ext. 415.

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