Visual Moment | A (Torah) Scribe Goes to Washington

By | Jan 16, 2019
Visual Moment, Winter Issue 2019

It’s one of the more unsavory parts of the Bible. Lot, after the destruction of Sodom, is seduced by his two daughters, who think they are the world’s sole survivors. “Our father is old and there is no man to lie with us as is the way all over the earth.” But Rabbi Eliezer Adam remains unruffled as he writes out these words with exacting attention. Sitting at his station at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, Adam is spending the year writing the 62 sheets, 248 columns, 10,416 lines and 304,805 letters that make up the Five Books of Moses. He asks the two women watching him if they know the story of Lot, and they shake their heads. Adam then asks if they have ever seen a Torah scroll being written, to which they also shake their heads. Adam later tells me that most museum visitors he has spoken with had never seen a Torah scroll. Actually, most have never met a Jew. “It’s probably their only chance to speak to an actual Jew—at least their first time speaking to a religiously knowledgeable Jew.”

For Adam, who moved to Israel from the United States when he was seven and until recently lived in the city of Beit Shemesh, this has been an eye-opening experience. Adam became a sofer, Hebrew for scribe, in 1978 and has been teaching sofrut, the art of scribing, for the past 23 years. Recently, he expanded his reach by teaching online and says he has trained more than 3,000 people. These online classes are what put him on the Museum of the Bible’s radar after a student recommended him to museum president Carey Sherman. “The next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Washington,” Adam says.

In a museum whose exhibitions include light shows and virtual reality tours, Adam is decidedly low-tech. Every day he sits with his quills and calfskin parchment, next to a glass case full of Torah scrolls the museum has acquired from all over the world. This is not the first time a museum has created a living exhibit out of the writing of a Torah. In 2009, an exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco featured Julie Seltzer, one of the few known female scribes, publicly writing out the entire text of the Torah over the course of a full year. And in 2014, the Berlin Jewish Museum invited visitors to watch a robot scribe the Torah.

There is one big difference: Adam is not working in a Jewish space. The Museum of the Bible, founded by Steven Green—the evangelical Christian owner of the Hobby Lobby crafts chain—courted controversy even before it opened in 2017. Located blocks from the National Mall, the 430,000-square-foot museum has been accused of being part of an effort by religious conservatives to promote an evangelical view of the Bible’s history and position it as the fundamental building block of American democracy. In particular, Jewish scholars have expressed skepticism over the museum’s agenda. At a panel discussion about the museum at the 2017 American Jewish Studies conference, one presenter described Jews involved with the museum as having taken “their 30 pieces of silver.” But Adam isn’t insulted. “I don’t respond. I don’t have to respond. There are people all over the world who think all kinds of things. I’m not bothered by it.” Adam adds that he does not view the museum as proselytizing in any way and admires how it dedicates significant portions of the exhibition space to Jewish interpretations of the Bible. He thinks much of the criticism is due to assumptions rather than first-hand knowledge. “All of us, we’re just assuming all day. Life would be so different if we could turn some of those assumptions into actual understanding.”

It usually takes Adam 1,200 hours to finish a scroll, but with the steady stream of interruptions, it will take longer. And with more than half a million visitors passing through in the first six months since the museum opened, that’s a lot of interruptions. But Adam doesn’t mind. “God is out there in them,” he says, “to an extent that I never imagined.”

In December, Adam announced his plans to return to Israel in September 2019 and is looking for a replacement sofer to take over the exhibit.

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