Ottawa residents study Dead Sea Scrolls in Israel

JERUSALEM – Adolfo Roitman, one of the world’s leading Bible scholars, thought he knew everything about the Dead Sea Scrolls. After all, he’s the curator of the Shrine of the Book, which houses the priceless artifacts at the Israel Museum. But a group of Christians and Jews from Ottawa taught him something new: The scrolls are an instrument of interfaith understanding.

It began in 2003 when Israel allowed a few of the scrolls to travel outside the country for a Canadian exhibition. For six months, until April of last year, the scrolls were displayed at the Museum of Civilization. Mr. Roitman came too, and one day, a group of Christian and Jewish leaders told him they were planning a joint trip to Israel. The scholar was so impressed he asked the group to come to study.

This month, the group spent a week in Israel learning and travelling, hosted by Mr. Roitman’s museum. The participants called their trip “Two faiths, two traditions, one scroll,” and according to Mr. Roitman, it was the first of its kind to focus on the common heritage of Christians and Jews, as symbolized by the Dead Sea Scrolls.

“For us this was a pilot project, and it was a very great success,” said Mr. Roitman, who plans to organize similar trips for other North American interfaith communities.

The 22 participants came primarily from Temple Israel Synagogue and Parkdale United Church. They spent their week touring Jewish and Christian biblical sites and studying the scrolls with Mr. Roitman.

It was a unique scene: Men and women, black and white, some wearing skullcaps and some wearing crosses, huddling together in the basement of the youth wing of the Israel Museum studying scroll preservation techniques, or engaging in roundtable discussions at their hotel, with the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem behind them.

“What we are trying to do is to focus our trip on a study of scriptures and heritage that is common to both of us,” said Rev. Anthony Bailey of Parkdale United, who led the delegation of eight Christians, which included six members of his congregation, an Anglican from Carp and a Roman Catholic from Toronto. “We’ve been trying to find ways to understand each other and do things together.”

His counterpart, Rabbi Steve Garten of Temple Israel, agreed. “Our overall goal is for two religious communities in Ottawa to know each other in a way that could potentially resonate back in Ottawa.”

The Dead Sea Scrolls are manuscripts of biblical books and other writings that date from before the time of Christ. In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd, who according to legend was looking for a lost goat, stumbled upon the treasures in a cave on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, not far from Jerusalem. The discovery was among the greatest archeological finds of modern time, and over the next nine years hundreds of additional manuscripts were uncovered in other caves in the area.

Written in Hebrew, Aramaic and some Greek, the scrolls cover the time of Roman rule over the Holy Land, a formative period in Jewish history and also an era that saw the birth of Christianity. “The scrolls changed everything we knew about ancient Judaism, about the origin of the rabbinical movement, about the origin of the church, and actually the Dead Sea Scrolls became a crucial topic for the understanding of one of the critical turning points in human history,” explains Mr. Roitman.

“I feel like part of my Christianity is so rooted here,” said Halcian Joseph, a member of Parkdale United. “I think we formed a bond that will transcend our time here.”

Dave Malecki of Temple Israel agreed the groups experienced a shared connection to the Holy Land. “Christians are seeing Jews expressing their Judaism and Jews are seeing Christians expressing their Christianity.”

The Christians on the trip said they developed a new awareness of Jesus’ Judaism. “Jesus was a Torah-observing Jew,” said Rev. Bailey. The Jews, meanwhile, attained a new appreciation for Christianity, especially after a moving baptism re-enactment Rev. Bailey conducted for his congregation on the River Jordan.

“This has been an education on both sides. There are stereotypes you have about one another when you don’t come face to face,” said Rev. Bailey. “We’re not only studying together, we are travelling together, we are talking over meals together, we are eating together, we are trying to build a community for a time.”

Despite the good will, some subjects remained sensitive. The United Church congregants did not necessarily see eye-to-eye with their Jewish brethren on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And the groups had differing perspectives on the Mel Gibson movie The Passion of the Christ.

They voiced hope, though, that their shared experience would open the door for a meaningful conversation.

Mr. Roitman said from his perspective, the purpose of the seminar was to help “recover the lost memories of both communities.” As an academic, he played down the religious implications of the scrolls. However, he did call Jews and Christians “twins,” and hoped he could help bring the great faiths closer together.

“The Dead Sea Scrolls remind us how much we have in common,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that even if you recognize the differences you can’t also recognize how much we have in common. Most of the time we talk about interfaith, but people actually live through interfaith. It means, still you are a Jew, still you are a Christian, still the Jews will go to the synagogue, the Christians will go to the church, but it doesn’t mean they can’t share the experience of learning.”