The 'Jew in a Box' on Masada

In a variation on the controversial exhibit at Berlin's Jewish Museum, the soferim at Israel's ancient fortress site engage visitors with a vibrant tradition passed on through an ancient craft - the writing of our Torah.

"The Whole Truth, everything you wanted to know about Jews" at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany is causing some degree of controversy. Its “exhibit,” featuring a Jewish man or woman in a glass box answering questions about Judaism, is an intentional allusion to the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann sitting in a glass booth. As such, in Berlin and worldwide, reactions both for and against have been strong, based on the evocative nature of this image.

An interesting variation of this theme can be found on Masada today. The isolated ancient fortress, overlooking the Dead Sea, is where King Herod established the site of one of his palaces between 37 and 31 BCE. It was here in 66 CE that the sicarii, a group of Jewish zealots, overwhelmed the Roman garrison stationed there and established a southern stronghold. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, rebels from Jerusalem joined up with those on Masada, under the leadership of Eleazar Ben Yair. As the Romans built an embankment wall along the western face of the plateau to facilitate the siege, it was this group which orchestrated the mass suicide of 960 people to avoid capture and certain death or slavery.

I had last been to Masada in 1994 and kept meaning to make a return visit. When a friend of mine told me about his involvement with a project at the site, my interest was piqued and I planned the day trip from Jerusalem.

Adjacent to the ancient synagogue on top of Masada, is a small room that was the site of the geniza for the Jewish community before the Roman destruction. In accordance with the reverence we hold for sacred works, a geniza is a room for storing worn out texts before they are given a proper burial in a Jewish cemetery. Two scrolls were found buried in this room, one containing the final two chapters of Deuteronomy, the second with excerpts from Ezekiel’s prophecy of the dry bones. Both, as opposed to many of the Dead Sea Scrolls found in Qumran, are virtually identical to the Masoretic Texts that are the authoritative versions for our Bible today.

Under the direction of Eitan Campbell and Dani Wolf, Director and Deputy Director of Masada National Park, the geniza room was reconstructed in 2008. Three years ago, with inspiration provided by Rabbi Shimon Elharar, Chabad Rabbi of the Dead Sea, the space took on a new life.

Today, in this air conditioned, humidified room, behind a glass wall, two soferim writing Torah scrolls sit on a rotating basis. A Sofer ST”M (abbreviation for Sifrei Torah, Tefillin, Mezzuzot) is a scribe, an observant man of good character who writes Jewish texts according to the laws of soferut (Hebrew calligraphy). At present, each sofer spends part of his day writing a Torah and the other part answering questions by visitors to the site.

In contrast to the Berlin exhibition, where knowledge of Judaism is so rare that a Jew answering questions about his religion is a historical novelty, the soferim on Masada engage visitors with a vibrant tradition being passed on through an ancient craft; the writing of our Torah, our living covenant with G-d, rising from the ashes of a geniza and the site of martyrdom.

To date, three Sifrei Torah have been completed by the soferim on Masada, including one delivered to a branch of the Israeli security establishment.

With over 700,000 visitors last year, Masada is the fourth most frequented tourist site in Israel today (after the Kotel, the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meiron, and the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo.) In 2007, a new museum opened, presenting the story line of Masada from the viewpoints of the participants, through archaeological artifacts. Masada is home to hundreds of Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations every year, linking one generation to the next.

“Masada is a site that remembers Jewish courage, under extreme pressure, with a tragic end,” remarks Rabbi Elharar. “Today, on the spot where holy texts were buried, where our enemy, now long gone, brought destruction to our people, sprouts forth new Jewish life through the writing of new Sifrei Torah. Am Yisrael Chai!”

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.

Rabbi Shimon Elharar.