ancient columbarium - Tomer Appelbaum - 09092011
An ancient columbarium discovered under Jerusalem. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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In the heart of ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem two weeks ago, an unwritten taboo was shattered in broad daylight: The first Haredi conference on "Torah archaeology" - having been boldly advertised in the Haredi daily Hamodia, and approved by several leading rabbis - drew a packed audience.

The opening speaker, Chabad Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch, brought several ancient coins to the conference, held in the Beit Bracha hall near Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood. Deutsch, who flew in from Brooklyn for the event, runs a museum that displays artifacts he acquired on the private market from the time of the Mishna. Also among the artifacts, he displayed an intact scale that he said had been recovered several weeks earlier from a sunken ship in the Mediterranean Sea.

The scale, he said, settled once and for all a dispute that has raged among Torah scholars for centuries: How much did the litra, a Talmudic measure, actually weigh? The answer: 354 grams, just as the 11th-century commentator Rashi claimed, and contrary to the opinion of other great medieval commentators such as the Rambam.

This, as all the speakers agreed, is the purpose of Haredi archaeology: using ancient artifacts to shed light on religious texts - as long as they don't undermine the traditional reading of the texts, of course. Thus, when Deutsch showed the scale to Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, leader of the Lithuanian (non-Hasidic ) Haredim, Elyashiv "said it was really a wonder of wonders," Deutsch related.

Speakers also included distinguished archaeologists such as Prof. Benjamin Z. Kedar, a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, who chairs the Israel Antiquities Authority's board. Kedar concurred that archaeology at times intersects with traditional Jewish texts, as "each sheds light on the other."

This new attitude toward archaeology is already having a practical impact: While extremist Haredi groups like Atra Kadisha have often demonstrated violently against archaeological digs in the past, today these groups are holding ongoing talks with the antiquities authority.

The new approach also has implications for the Haredi outlook on secular knowledge. As one of the conference organizers, Rabbi Eliyahu Soloveitchik, said, "We're all Haredim who are guided by the fear of heaven, but that's not a reason to be afraid of science. The Haredi fear of science is gradually dissipating."

Soloveitchik - who helped found Matmonei Eretz, an organization that promotes Haredi study of archaeology and history - said several years ago that his group's goals extend beyond the field of archaeology. "Archaeology is just one of 20 fields where we need to enrich the Haredi education system," he said. "We also want to introduce the study of chemistry."

"We aren't coming in a spirit of revolution or change," Soloveitchik said. "We see enough strength in the Haredi world today that we can embrace the entire world."

Asked what he and his colleagues would do with findings that appear to contradict the Torah, Soloveitchik said, "If there are findings that contradict my fundamental beliefs, we'll let the experts resolve it." Evolution, for instance, "isn't the issue," he said. "The message is that we aren't afraid of science and can digest it."

"There's an outcry for change from within," Soloveitchik added, noting that more Haredi men are leaving yeshiva for the work world due to financial pressure.

Haredim "grew accustomed to fearing" secular education over the last 250 years, he said. But now, he said, the Haredi world is strong enough that "we no longer need to be fanatics."