70 Years: Dead Sea Scrolls Still Source of Interest, Debate

Posted Saturday, Nov 11th, 2017

 Seventy years after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, at least 20,000 students of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, the largest adult Jewish education network in the world, will begin a course which examines the historical debates about Jewish philosophy and practice brought to light by those texts

The six-part course, which is currently taking place, was created under the guidance and direction of Professor Lawrence H. Schiffman, the Judge Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University and a leading expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls.

On November 29, 1947, the day the partition of Palestine was voted by the United Nations, Hebrew University Professor Eliezer Sukenik obtained what would later become known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Professor Schiffman, who was born in 1948, has been working on the Dead Sea Scrolls for close to 50 years since he was a senior in college. In fact, his doctorate was on the Scrolls, although at that time not all the Scrolls were available for study. Schiffman went on to work on a team which published a section of the ancient manuscripts.

The course is titled Great Debates in Jewish History and the first lesson looks at the intense debate from the Second Temple Era over aspects of Jewish ritual and philosophy revealed by the scrolls. Who were these sectarians? Why did they settle at Qumran? What were their beliefs? Against whom were they polemicizing? Participants will have a rare opportunity to study the scrolls texts in their original handwriting to learn the answers to these questions.

The course also offers a glimpse into five other pivotal debates that engulfed the Jewish people at different periods of their long history, including the fall of Masada and Maimonides’ controversial writings.

“I think it’s fair to say that the Dead Sea Scrolls are the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century,” said professor Schiffman. “The Scrolls allow us to enter the debates of ancient times and then to see how conflict over the meaning of these documents has created new debates in our own time - debates in which we ourselves can participate. The Scrolls provide a paradigm for study of a series of debates in Jewish history and help us to grasp the way such debates have helped to guarantee the continuity of Jewish tradition. JLI should be congratulated for introducing the Dead Sea Scrolls and their significance for the history of Judaism to their many participants.

“The disputes that pepper our history have paradoxically made us who we are today,” said Rabbi Efraim Mintz, executive director of the JLI headquarters in Brooklyn. “Participants will discover how these debates shaped the Jewish future in significant ways and will gain a deeper understanding of important nuances of Jewish life today. The texts we study are ancient, but the ideas are as exciting and relevant as ever.”

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