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The New Jewish American Museum: How Do You Define “Work?”

An early post on this blog concerned religion, and now there is reason for return to the subject.  November 26, 2010 will bring the opening of the new home of the National Museum of American Jewish History.  It’s right off Independence Mall in Philadelphia, less than a minute’s walk from the Liberty Bell.

You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to know that the Fourth Commandment in the Bible says, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”  That proclamation thousands of years old is cause for debate.  Strict observance of Jewish law prohibits work, commercial transactions, exchanging money, and carrying anything on the Sabbath.

So that means no tourists after sundown Friday nor all day Saturday visiting (and paying for) the $150 million project.

Steven Spielberg donated $1 million.  Spielberg is no newbie to donating to Jewish causes.  There’s the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library at the National Yiddish Book Center.  In 2006, his foundation donated $1 million for Israeli relief during strife with Hezbollah.  Other big donors include Sidney Kimmel founder of the Jones Apparel Group and Susan and Michael Dell of Dell computers.

What’s the point?

But who is this museum for?  And what’s the purpose?

The National Museum of American Jewish History/NMAJH.ORG

I would think the goal would be education and enlightenment–of Jews and non-Jews alike.  Since many non-Jews observe their Sabbath on Sunday, Saturday would be the most probable day to visit.  And spend money in the gift shop.  Let’s forget about all “days of rest” for a second.  Most people just like to do touristy things on Saturdays.  The Jews should take the highest of roads to make the museum as accessible as any other important museum.  Even the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC is open every day but Christmas and Yom Kippur.

Or better, consider who this museum is honoring–people including Sandy Koufax who would not play baseball on the holiest of days, Yom Kippur.  But the museum will also pay homage to entertainers whose movies and shows are enjoyed on the Sabbath.  Many perform Friday nights too.  Sydney Kimmel has his name on the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia.  There are TEN different performances on the Sabbath the weekend of November 12, 2010.  Certainly he’s ok with work and the exchange of money on these days.

Someone’s got to pay the bills

When the museum opens with a fancy gala Friday night, November 13.  Yes, on the Sabbath!  Jerry Seinfeld will emcee and Bette Midler will headline.

Jerry Seinfeld

Jerry Seinfeld/(Heidi Gutman/Bravo)

It’s hard enough to sustain a museum in this economy.  In 2009, NPR reported that the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts sold two paintings for $15 million because it needed the money.  The museum received criticism for going against its mission.  Someone’s got to pay the bills.

The Jewish Museum in New York City (along museum mile which includes the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art) stays open Saturdays but its gift shop is closed.  An odd compromise.

Oy vey, Judaism is so confusing

That’s the thing with Judaism.  You’ve got the laws of the Torah.  But then you’ve got the Talmud.  And the Halacha.  Rabbis who lead services are considered scholars and many observant Jews study the religion over a lifetime, constantly questioning, debating, and reading between the lines to determine what was truly meant in the scriptures.

Take the concept of an “Eruv”–which in Hebrew means “mixture” or “joining together.”  The Torah (or Bible) says you can’t work or carry anything on the Sabbath.  But there’s “Halacha,” which is the application of the Torah to everyday living with input from the Torah, rabbis, and customs.  Then there’s the “Talmud” which is a record of rabbinic writings about Jewish law, ethics, customs, and history.

So some communities erect an eruv of telephone poles connected with a single string or wire, which represent doorposts.  If you’re within the eruv, it’s like you’re within your house and you can carry things in your own house.

It’s confusing.

The Vatican Museums interpret the Catholic “sabbath” by staying open just the last Sunday of every month when there is free admission from 9-12:30.  There’s free admission on September 27, too, which is World Tourism Day.

It’s an odd compromise by the Philadelphia museum as well.

You say tomayto…I say L’Chaim

The museum will be open on Saturdays but will not sell tickets.  You have to get them in advance.  The gift shop will be open too, but you’d better have a credit card.  No cash exchanged and credit card purchases will be processed the next day.  The museum will also be closed on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement), and the first two days of Passover. Staff will have the option of working on holidays or not.

All these “solutions” are good ideas.  The issue is that when those who observe the religion have to convince themselves that these compromises are “OK” under the auspices of their religion.  A compromise was made, in the name of religion, but I’m not sure it was for the right reasons.

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