Thursday, January 11, 2007

Curator of San Diego Exhibit responds to criticism

Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn, the curator of the San Diego exhibit, has responded to a comment submitted by our East Coast colleague, Charles Gadda, to the San-Diego-based Jewish Sightseeing site.

The link is:

The San Diego Natural History Museum's website states that Dr. Kohn is "the current president of the Society of Biblical Literature, Pacific Coast Region (SBL)...."

Perhaps Dr. Kohn could let us know if SBL has ever invited an opponent of the Qumran-Essene or Qumran-sectarian theory to lecture under its auspices?

Dr. Kohn's letter contains several highly misleading statements and, in certain fundamental respects, seems to be indicative of an alarming incapacity on the part of the Museum's award winning staff to understand the nature of this debate.

Ultimately, Dr. Kohn's letter puts a spotlight on the danger of entrusting an exhibit on a topic of this importance not to a specialist in history, archaeology or Hebrew manuscript investigation, but to a professor of religious studies who describes herself as a "Dead Sea Scrolls scholar" even though no publication by her on this subject appears in her bibliography posted at

Below, we reprint this open exchange of letters, together with Mr. Gadda's reply to Dr Kohn, which was not published by Jewish Sightseeing but which clearly reveals the evasive and misleading nature of Dr. Kohn's letter.

Additional comments of our own (in bold throughout) will assist the reader in evaluating these opposing claims.

We invite Dr. Kohn to respond to each of our comments. Hopefully, she will address our points in a direct manner, without deploying the evasive rhetoric of her response to Mr. Gadda.



January 9, 2007

Editor, Jewishsightseeing:

I've read your article on the upcoming Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit on your site.

Unfortunately, there has been mounting criticism of this exhibit during recent weeks, on ethical and scholarly grounds.

The San Diego Natural History Museum has published a detailed description of the planned exhibit on its website. Judging from this description, the exhibit will feature exactly the same omissions and distortions that spoiled the recent Seattle exhibit.

People who feel that this type of exhibit should be balanced and informative, rather than biased towards a small clique of scholars whose conduct has previously led to controversy and scandal, may wish to contact the Museum with questions such as the following:

The Cambridge History of Judaism -- probably the most prestigious existing reference work on this topic -- features articles on the two salient theories of Scroll origins, namely (1) the old Qumran-Essene theory and (2) the Jerusalem-libraries theory which has come to be increasingly supported by the newer generation of scholars. Why is the Museum planning to conceal the evidence that supports the Jerusalem theory from the public? Why is the Museum's announced roster of lecturers stacked with scholars who support the old Qumran-Essene theory of Scroll origins, without including a single opponent of it?

Why aren't they planning a public debate on the Scrolls controversy, between proponents and opponents of the old theory? Why doesn't their website material include an accurate description of the newer theory that has played a prominent role in research over the past decade? In a word, is the Museum planning to adhere to the principle of scientific neutrality prescribed by the American Association of Museums?

Thank you for your attention.

Charles Gadda


DR. KOHN'S RESPONSE, with our commentary in bold:

Editor, Jewishsightseeing:

A couple of points in response to your reader's critique:

The "mounting" criticism to which your reader refers amounts to one critique of the Seattle Pacific Science Center's Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition by Norman Golb, a long standing proponent of the view that completely disconnects the Dead Sea Scrolls from the site of Qumran. Your reader's letter has taken Golb's criticism of the Seattle show and applied it to what he incorrectly believes will be coming to San Diego. [Dr. Kohn appears to have been unaware of our blog, which existed already several months before Golb's critique appeared on the University of Chicago website.]

The Exhibition at the San Diego Natural History Museum (SDNHM) is not in any part related or similar to the Seattle exhibition, other than it being sponsored in part by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the government body in Israel responsible for all national treasures. The SDNHM exhibition is being created by and exclusively for this museum and as such will not duplicate any previous Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition to date. [This appears to be a fundamental admission of responsibility on the part of SDNHM.]

The materials available on the SDNHM web site do not provide anything more than a brief introduction to the scrolls in general. On that basis, it is quite premature to draw the conclusion that the exhibition is either "biased" or "unbalanced." Noteworthy is the fact that the SDNHM web site text does not refer to the potential authors of the Scrolls as Essenes, a problematic association based on historical sources but not found in the Scrolls themselves. Similarly, the site points to the fact that "many," but not all scholars, associate the Scrolls with the site of Qumran. ["Many" scholars now believe, on the basis of the sole historical document found "in the Scrolls themselves" as well as other historical sources, that the Scrolls were not the product of a sect, but are the remnants of the libraries of Jerusalem. A common variation on the Qumran-Essene theory holds that the "sect of Qumran" was actually a different sect. By contrast, the proponents of the Jerusalem-libraries theory argue, on the basis of solid empirical evidence rather than speculation, that no sect whatsoever inhabited Qumran or authored "the Scrolls". Dr Kohn is simply evading the fact that instead of fulfilling its mission to educate the public by providing it with information on this fundamental opposition between two contrasting views, SDNHM has chosen to present one of the views as being supported by "many scholars", and to hide or distort the evidence that has led an increasing number of scholars to support the other one.]

The curators, developers and designers of the DSS exhibition are well versed in the variety of theories and hypotheses concerning the interpretation with respect to the relationship of the site of Qumran to the provenance of the Scrolls and have sought in their presentation of the material to present facts based on current scholarly consensus as well as considered analysis of the evidence, including the variety of theories posited by Golb and others. [This statement evades the fact that, according to many news reports and the Cambridge History of Judaism, there is no "current scholarly consensus" on the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but rather a polarization of Scrolls research into two opposing schools.] SDNHM is the only Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) venue in North America to have a full time biblical scholar on its staff and oversee all aspects of this particular exhibition.

A collection of twenty-two world renowned lecturers from different institutions, backgrounds and even nationalities can hardly be referred to as a "small clique" of scholars. Your reader is also clearly not familiar with the work of the archaeologist Dr. Jean Baptiste Humbert who will be presenting his views on the site of Qumran as part of our series in July 2007 and whose archaeological analysis of Qumran is far from mainstream. [On this absurd claim that Dr. Humbert has "non-mainstream" views, see below. Here we point out merely that Dr. Kohn is in essence acknowledging that not a single one of the 22 invited lecturers is a proponent of the Jerusalem theory -- thereby flatly contradicting her earlier assertion that the exhibit is neither "biased" nor "unbalanced." Is the purpose of Dr. Kohn's statement to convince us that traditional Qumranologists form a "big" clique rather than an increasingly "small" one? Why did she choose to invite Dr. Humbert to "present his views", but not Drs. Magen and Peleg, the Israel Antiquities Authority team leaders who after ten years of excavations at Qumran have concluded that the site was a pottery factory and that the Scrolls came from Jerusalem? Is this a balanced, unbiased curatorial decision? Doesn't the San Diego public deserve better than that?]

In short your reader has made several premature assumptions based apparently on Golb's critique of an unrelated exhibition at a different venue entirely. He will likely be pleasantly surprised come June 2007.

Some unique points regarding the SDNHM DSS Exhibition:

This is an original exhibition to the SDNHM, not a "traveling" exhibition. It is designed by our own, award-winning staff, and will not go to any other Museum after it closes here.

[Several statements follow which describe various aspects of the San Diego exhibit. We omit a few of them that appear to be advertising the exhibit rather than contributing any useful information to this debate; the full text of Dr. Kohn's letter may be found at the above-linked site.]

* Of the museums hosting the scrolls, SDNHM is the only museum that has its own curator for the exhibition. As a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar and professor of religious studies at SDSU, I am fortunate to have been selected for that position. [Again, (1) this appears to be a fundamental admission of responsibility on the part of Dr. Kohn and SDNHM -- this time, the Israel Antiquities Authority is not being blamed for the content of the exhibit; (2) we would be grateful if Dr. Kohn could refer us to any published work of hers that qualifies her as a "Dead Sea Scrolls scholar", so that we can set to rest any doubts our readers might otherwise entertain on her credentials in this area, since her on-line bibliography includes no such works.]

* Our team of Dead Sea Scrolls scholars selected the scrolls SDNHM is displaying. 100% of the scrolls she requested were granted to SDNHM. These scrolls are different than the scrolls that have been displayed at other museums; ten of them are being displayed for the first time. [We assume that by "she" in the second sentence of this paragraph, Dr. Kohn meant to say "we" or "they".]

* Some of the scrolls SDNHM is featuring are the very same scrolls that are being studied by the lecturers who are speaking in our Distinguished Lecturer Series.

* SDNHM is the first museum to have the actual Copper Scroll from Jordan. Until now, this scroll was not permitted to be displayed outside of Jordan or with the Dead Sea Scrolls. [Will the Museum frankly acknowledge that this scroll is now widely regarded as the sole historical document (as opposed to scribal copies of literary texts) contained among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and that it lists objects known in part, from rabbinical sources, to be identical with treasures of the Temple of Jerusalem? Or will it offer an evasive description of it such as that employed in the Seattle exhibit, so as to allow it to be reconciled with the Qumran-Essene or Qumran-sectarian theory?]


* A fine-art landscape photography exhibition will feature photos by Israeli photographers; this exhibition will foster a sense of place for Israel and its deep cultural history. Additional photos will highlight the similarities in terrain, habitat, and Mediterranean climate between Israel and San Diego County. [The reference to Israel's "deep cultural history" rings hollow in the context of an attempt to justify a series of curatorial actions that include the decisions (1) to invite a Dominican priest, rather than Israel's finest archaeologists, to present his "views on Qumran", and (2) to prevent any proponents of the Jerusalem theory from presenting and explaining the empirical reasons that have led a new generation of scholars to reach dramatic historical conclusions concerning cultural life in the ancient Jewish capital.]

* In our giant-screen theater we will feature a virtual-reality "walk" through the Qumran community settlement; this tour is being developed by a doctoral candidate from UCLA. [Will this "virtual reality" tour of the "community settlement" be designed to lead the public into giving credence to Father De Vaux's sectarian identifications of rooms and other areas in Qumran, such as the so-called "scriptorium" and "ritual baths", or will it point out that these identifications have been rejected by an entire series of archaeologists over the past decade, including the Donceels, Dr. Hirschfeld and the Israel Antiquities Authority team led by Dr. Magen?]

Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn

Curator, Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition, San Diego Natural History Museum


At this point, the Jewish Sightseeing moderator saw fit to end the exchange, but we publish Mr. Gadda's Reply:

Editor, Jewishsightseeing:

I have read Dr. Kohn's response -- many thanks for obtaining this from her.

My immediate reaction is that the response is both encouraging and evasive -- it engages a dialogue, but it speaks merely of "the variety of theories posited by Golb and others", and does not address the problem of two salient views, one of which is not represented at all in the Museum's recommended reading list or in the announced lecture series.

Let us be very clear about this. Matti Friedman's recent Associated Press article (Jan. 2, 2007) states that "the nature of the settlement at Qumran is the subject of a lively academic debate. The traditional view... is that the settlement was inhabited by Essene monks who observed strict rules of ritual purity and celibacy and who wrote many of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The second school says the people living at Qumran were farmers, potters or soldiers, and had nothing to do with the Essenes. The scrolls, according to this view, were written in Jerusalem and stashed in caves at Qumran by Jewish refugees fleeing the Roman conquest of the city in the first century." This statement coincides perfectly with the fact that two theories (and not a "variety of theories") are presented in the Cambridge History of Judaism.

In her statement about 22 lecturers not being a clique, Dr. Kohn implicitly concedes that only traditional Qumranologists have been invited to participate in the lecture series, but she cites the participation of Jean-Baptiste Humbert to refute this point. I am not an expert on Dr. Humbert's view, but I read the following on the web:

"Dr. Jean-Baptiste Humbert of the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem, successor to Father de Vaux at the school, now deceased, generally defended the traditional interpretation. But he conceded, 'Today, no one can prove that Qumran is an Essene site, though the hypothesis remains the most likely one.'"

In other words, while Dr. Humbert is perhaps not a strict adherent of the Essene theory, he does, like many traditional Qumranologists, follow a modified form of it according to which Qumran was inhabited by a sect that wrote most of the scrolls, although "some" of the scrolls may have come from Jerusalem.

So the question remains, why is the second salient theory, the one developed at length in the Cambridge History of Judaism and cited in news accounts over and over again, not represented by even a single proponent of that theory in the lecture series, let alone the recommended reading list?

If the Museum is responding to my critique in good faith, then, since we are six months away from the exhibit they should be willing to address this question head-on and make additions and/or changes accordingly. In a spirit of openness, would the Museum be willing to invite a scholar like Golb, Magen, Donceel, Wise, Elior, etc., to evaluate the planned exhibit and recommend modifications?

Charles Gadda


We add a clarification to Mr. Gadda's statement on Dr. Humbert. This scholar, of the Dominican Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, has responded to the Magen and Peleg findings by arguing that the Essenes (who, according to him, authored many, most or all of the Scrolls) might have lived not inside Qumran, but around the site.

Dr. Humbert's latest, question-begging statement of his view is as follows: "We refuse to limit the 'Community of Qumran' to a single, 'unique' site and instead emphasize that the sectarians preferred living in the surroundings of the Dead Sea.... If our interpretation is acceptable, Qumran served as a religious center for a Jewish sect living around the Dead Sea". The Site of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Archaeological Interpretations and Debates, ed. Galor, Humbert and Zangenberg (Brill, 2006), pp. 36, 38.

It is astounding that Dr. Kohn blandly characterizes this "view" as "far from mainstream". Unlike Magen and Peleg's findings which result from ten years of digs, Dr. Humbert's proposal is based not any empirical evidence but only on a series of conjectures; nonetheless, it is an obvious attempt to defend the traditional Qumran-Essene theory against the findings made over the past decade, which have led the official Israel Antiquities Authority team to conclude that the Scrolls were not written by a sect living in the desert but must have come from Jerusalem.

By evading this point, as well as the Museum's failure to invite Dr. Magen and Dr. Peleg to present their findings to the San Diego public, Dr. Kohn obliges us to ask once again: has she chosen to violate the ethically fundamental transparency standard of the American Association of Museums by using this exhibit to defend a distorted, one-sided view of current Scrolls scholarship?


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