Why does Progressive (Reform) Judaism sponsor archaeological research?

The connection between archaeology and progressive Judaism was initiated by reformed Rabbi and archaeologist Nelson Glueck (1900-1971). Most of Glueck’s work was carried out in the desert of the Levant--the Negev, Sinai and Transjordan. Glueck's aim was to illustrate and document the formative experience of Israelite-Jewish peoplehood. In his view, the bible preserved the historical memory of the Jewish people. At the same time he acknowledged that the bible was primarily a theological document and as such there was no point in trying to “prove the Bible” (Biblical Archaeologist 22/4 [1959]: p. 106).

An unknown Egyptian scribeToday we take this approach one step further.  Modern Biblical scholarship recognizes that the biblical text was compiled and written by people of brilliant intellect and vision over a period of hundreds of years. These people, scribes and prophets, were a product of their times and their writings reflect their cultural milieu.  The biblical writers did use archival material with earlier origins and there is much that is historical in the biblical text.  But the Bible is theological and political in nature, whose intension it was to galvanize a fragmented people and forward an ideology of unity under the Davidic Dynastic and its clerical annex.  While Reform Judaism holds that this text is divinely inspired, it also holds that an individual has the right to decide whether to subscribe to any particular belief or not.  In any event, the way we see it, one of the jobs of biblical archaeology is to investigate the historical and human context of the Bible’s compilers and the cultural origins of this context.

All Jews have an obligation to study the traditions that
have been entrusted to us.  

The study of archaeology raises difficult questions about the biblical text and about Jewish origins; Judaism encourages a healthy skepticism. We believe that a people that questions its origins, as it questions its behavior and its faith, will, in the end, be a stronger people—one that is not threatened by intellectual challenges to its legitimacy and one whose adherents and potential adherents will be enthralled by its questioning, its intellectual honesty and its spiritual resilience.  In this way the study of archaeology is part of an ongoing Jewish renaissance based on Torah study and spiritual renewal.

Archaeology is a proven means of elevating Jewish literacy. 

The tangible expression of our people’s past, in the form of archaeological sites and artifacts, puts the mosaic of history in context.  Ideas were born in particular times and places, in real houses and temples, containing real people, pots and frescoes. Material culture reflects these ideas and the ideas reflect material culture. A 2,600-year-old clay seal impression, or bulla, bearing the name “Gedaliah ben Pashur”The seal impressions from the City of David in Jerusalem include those belonging to scribes mentioned in the Bible; perhaps some of whom inked the first versions of Deuteronomy and the Book of Kings on parchment or papyrus.  The tiled synagogues of Tzipori overlooking the luxuriant Beit Netofa valley were the locus of rabbinical debates described in the Talmud.

Reform Jews are heirs to a vast body of beliefs and practices embodied in TORAH and the other Jewish sacred writings.  We differ from more ritually observant Jews because we recognize that our sacred heritage has evolved and adapted over the centuries and that it must continue to do so. If Judaism were not capable of evolution, of REFORM, it could not survive.   Archaeology is capable of documenting the evolution of our heritage by means of material culture.  It demonstrates the human ability to fail and suffer catastrophe but also to adapt and improve.

Reform Judaism accepts and encourages pluralism.

The zodiac panel of the Talmudic period Beth Alpha synagogue

Judaism has never demanded uniformity of belief or practice.  But we must never forget that whether we are Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or Orthodox, we are all an essential part of Klal Yisrael -- the worldwide community of Jewry.  Archaeological research demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, that Israel and Judaism have always been heterogeneous and pluralistic.  While the Temple in Jerusalem was the premier cult place in the Iron Age, other temples existed at Arad and Kuntillat Ajjrud in the Negev and at Tel Dan in the far north. 

The Talmudic period synagogues of Israel were designed to accommodate the demands of the community.  Some communities, such as those at Baram or Rehov for example, proscribed human images (orthodox?), while others (e.g. Beit Alpha and En Gedi) include exuberant portrayals of the human figure.

A NGSBA community excavation: Palestinian students excavating the Ottoman levels at Khan el Hilu in LodIn the same spirit, archaeology shows that people of different traditions and beliefs have coexisted in the Land of Israel and can still do so.  Our research does not demonstrate Jewish exclusiveness or prior claims on the Land of Israel.  It demonstrates Jewish roots but does not discount the claims of Palestinians, Moslems, Christians and others to roots of their own.  Rather than reject these claims we should embrace them and discuss them.

One of the guiding principles of Reform Judaism is the autonomy
of the individual. 

A Reform Jew has the right to decide whether to subscribe to particular beliefs or practices.  The Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology has adopted a platform that requires that investigators be reflexively aware of their own background and motivations.  This platform also emphasizes the individual and free will, or “agency”.  While we are interested in societies and social systems, in the environment and its restrictions, we are also keenly aware of human individuality, symbolic behavior and cognitive factors that impact on human behavior and the resulting material culture.

A family affair - digging at Givat Sher as a community serviceA people created "in the image of God," should also be dedicated to tikkun olam -- the improvement of the world.  Our new community archaeology projects are carried out in this spirit. We at the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology feel that archaeology can make a difference to people and society, here and now.   People excavating with their neighbors, in their own backyards, develop a sense of rootedness and common destiny—a sense of community.  People from different ethnic groups or religions working in a square together get to know each other and hopefully, over time, lose their fear of “the other”.

For an explanation of the tenets of Reform Judaism see the web pages of the Union for Reformed Judaism.