A day at the museum: A history of rejection and reconciliation

How these three traditions, shaped through their mutual interactions, continue to mold us today.

The Israel Museum  (photo credit: TIM HURSLEY / COURTESY THE ISRAEL MUSEUM)
The Israel Museum
In my literary humanities class in the Bar-Ilan University English Department, our multi-ethnic class focused on the importance of stories in different traditions from Homer to Virgil to Augustine. At the semester’s end we toured the Israel Museum, which ended in the gallery featuring a sixth-century mosque, as well as a church and a synagogue from the same period. It was there that one of our instructors, Daniel Feldman, described how these three traditions, shaped through their mutual interactions, continue to mold us today. No doubt, the canonical works we studied have shaped the world for centuries, but no less impactful are the conversations – like that one that follows – which we shared that day.
“So why do the Jews reject Jesus?” The girl who asks me is wide-eyed and hijab-clad, and I cannot remember her name, even though I have been attending class with her for three months now.
“Why do Jews reject Jesus?” I repeat, half laughing, thinking perhaps she is half joking. But she nods, looking earnest. I wonder if she has lived her whole life surrounded by the largest Jewish population in the world and still never knew why we are the way we are.
She is one of the girls who sits in the back, speaks to her friends in the Arabic I have never understood and always (I’m ashamed to admit) feared. I have gotten to know more of these Arab girls over these months, their kindness and their humor, learned not to fear their quiet laughter, but I do not know this girl.
We are standing beside a casket with “Joshua, son of Joseph” etched on the cover. To my right is a rock with King David’s name scratched on the surface. Below our feet is a mosque’s mosaic with Arabic too ancient to be read by my modern friends. These items are all made of stone and have lasted through these many years with their precious words cradled quiet and close. They are silent and ancient and yet ours, and we give them significance, glass thrones and spotlights.
“In Islam,” my classmate explains, “We are taught there is only one God, and we must accept and honor all of His prophets. So of course, we accept Moses and Jesus. Why can Jews not do this?”
In class we have been learning about Christianity, which resulted in my first foray into the text of the New Testament and my first attempt to view Christianity as anything beyond commercialized Christmas. Could it be that I lived my whole life surrounded by Christians and never asked why they were the way they were? Yet now I am beginning to learn. We have learned how Christianity grew out of imperfect Judaism’s broken rib, into a whole person with her own ideals and contradictions, who would later turn around and stab her sister synagogue in the back. Is it not, I want to say, Jesus who rejected Jews?
But I don’t say that, because we are standing in a room with naked Aphrodite behind us. Because in the room before this, there was Canaanite Ba’al and Egyptian Ra. Maybe, as we walk through these halls, we have been seeing the history not of God and man, but of rejection and reconciliation. Maybe that is what history is: a record of searching for a truth that fits while we leave the other stories behind.
With so many people in the past of this place – all whose hands fit a rock in the same way as mine, all whose eyes loved the light the same way as mine – who is to say there cannot be more than one truth that sings?
This is mine: I reject Jesus. This is mine too: I try to understand why she accepts Jesus. I try to understand that I am being taught not just how to tell a story or understand a story, but maybe most importantly, how to tell a story kindly.
We both move to the next hall.
As we walk, I say, “He didn’t fit our idea of Messiah. He didn’t bring sovereignty, or the Temple, or peace. We don’t believe that God would inhabit a physical body. There’s more, but also that’s all.”
“Oh,” she says, and I don’t know if she understands, but I’m not sure if I understand her either. I don’t think it matters if we do. What matters is that we are here in this museum, asking truth of each other and of those who came before us; and this is how the stones speak.
The writer immigrated to Israel when she was 13 and has spent the last 11 years exploring her religious identity and her place in Israeli society. She currently studies in the English Department at Bar-Ilan University.