Where artifacts and midrash meet

Beit Avi Chai and the Israel Museum partner to produce a weekly lecture series

Curator Daniella Shalev and Prof. Avigdor Shiran discuss ‘Poverty and Riches’ at the Vayikra event (photo credit: BENNI MAOR)
Curator Daniella Shalev and Prof. Avigdor Shiran discuss ‘Poverty and Riches’ at the Vayikra event
(photo credit: BENNI MAOR)
There are many classes that deal with the weekly Torah portion in various ways, be it through a halachic, spiritual or purely academic approach. But the Israel Museum is offering a lecture series in Hebrew on the weekly Torah portion that is quite unique.
It combines a midrashic interpretive study with an artistic or archeological perspective, eliciting a theme upon which to create discussion. The lectures are facilitated by Prof. Avigdor Shinan and curators from different departments of the museum. The series, a project born from a partnership between Beit Avichai and the museum, began three years ago with the Book of Genesis. Last year, they presented Exodus. This year, it’s Leviticus.
Shinan, a former Hebrew University professor and scholar of rabbinic and midrashic literature, says, “We started with Genesis with incredible success. We were afraid that Leviticus would not be as alluring for people, but it’s not the case. The gallery has been full to capacity with 180 people. They come and really enjoy it. The idea is to combine the aggadic literature on the weekly parasha with one artifact from the museum. The hour is divided between me and one of the curators. We’ve managed to find good connections between the two. Some of the attendees go to synagogue and some don’t. But they get a taste of the parasha and, at the same time, a good explanation of some artistic elements. The combination proves itself.”
The first lecture in the Leviticus series was titled “Poverty and Riches.” Shinan shared the lecture with curator Daniella Shalev, director of the Department for Cultural Enrichment Programs and curator of the Youth Wing. She discussed the 17th-century painting The King Drinks by Flemish artist Jacob Jordaens. The portion of Vayikra deals with the sacrifices that were brought to the Temple – who brought them, when they were brought, what was sacrificed, and how. Shinan points out that the subject matter can be seen as dull or even barbaric, both of which can be off-putting.
“We focused on the issues of wealth and poverty as they relate to the artist’s painting and the midrashim, which talk about the sacrifices brought by the rich and the poor,” Shinan says. “The rich people brought expensive and impressive sacrifices, but God preferred the sacrifices of the poor because they were more difficult to bring. We spoke about the intention of the one who sacrifices: Does he do it to impress and show off his wealth, or does he do it from genuine feelings of gratitude to God at the expense of his wealth?”
The painting aptly fits into the theme of poverty and riches, as it depicts a gluttonous celebration of food and wine that is shared by a family, where one member plays the role of king for the evening.
“I like the idea of combining two things that at first glance look very different, but suddenly we find a lot in common,” Shalev says. “It shows something very optimistic that two such different elements can share common ground. Beit Avi Chai came from the midrashic perspective, which gives explanations for the things written in the Torah. Meeting Prof. Shinan has opened my eyes to all the subjects the parasha talks about. I’ve started to see all the things in the museum as dealing with these subjects, too. It’s a kind of magic. These subjects are relevant throughout history. I think the location of the lectures is also important. It’s in front of the piece of art itself, not in an auditorium or a classroom. The people who attend can listen and look in a different way.”
Shinan stresses that the midrashim on the portion of Vayikra seek to find meaning in the sacrifices. When the Midrash was composed, the sacrifices were no longer in practice, thus it became a text to be studied.
“I think that is why the midrashim discuss the sacrifices from rich and poor people,” Shinan explains. “Is there a connection between your reward on Earth and the reward in the world to come? The curator spoke about the Calvinistic idea that if you’re rich in this life and you were a good person who behaved correctly, then the same wealth would be your share in the world to come, as opposed to the midrashic idea that there is no connection between your wealth on Earth and your moral behavior. You could be rich and a wicked person, and the righteous could suffer. But the real reward is in the world to come. So we compared these Christian and Jewish ideas of wealth on Earth as opposed to spiritual wealth.”
The second lecture in the series, held on April 7, was “Tzav: Peace between a People and Their God.” The theme of peace was discussed between Shinan and Hagit Maor, curator of the museum’s Archeological Wing. Maor spoke about the Lachish tablets, artifacts depicting scenes from the battle of Lachish in 701 BCE during the Assyrian Empire. The tablets were discovered in 1846 in Iraq. The museum, which usually deals only with original objects, has a special copy of the tablets from the British Museum.
“This was so crucial to the gallery to have, that we got a copy,” Maor says. “I talked about the king of Assyria at that time and the meaning of the victory of the battle of Lachish. The professor spoke about the meaning of shalem and the korban shalem. This led me to the subject of a complete victory. The king considered the battle of Lachish to be complete and one of his major achievements. What makes a victory complete? On the tablets, there are scenes of the Assyrians torturing people. So there is also the matter of keeping the body whole. In Judaism, you don’t damage the body, even after the person is dead. The tablets are like snapshots of the time. They are so realistic, it’s shocking. Archeology tells us of our past, but it is not a cliché that history keeps repeating itself.”
The fact that these tablets were discovered thousands of years later and that the scenes depicted are at once historically and currently relevant is quite remarkable. In this way, the Weekly Torah Portion lecture series speaks to the eternal relevance of the Torah portions themselves, by extracting themes that resonate as much today as ever.
“We discussed the idea of shalom,” Shinan says. “Combining the midrashic interpretations of war and peace with an ancient artifact from Assyria is a unique task. There is a saying that whoever wants peace should be ready for war. The Assyrian king saw his wars as part of the way to bring peace to his empire. I am also learning from my partners in this series. I know almost nothing about art or archeology, so I am benefiting greatly from these events. I hope that those who attend the lectures feel that they are benefiting from both perspectives.”
For a complete guide to future events: www.imj.org.il/Vision/?subject=8