Holy Museology

Religious objects in museological practice

The exhi­bi­ti­on «In the Name of the Image» at the Muse­um Riet­berg in Zurich shows con­cepts of the sacred in Islam and Chris­tia­ni­ty (Febru­ary – May 2022). The sacred is a key con­cept in Juda­ism as well, and can play a role in muse­um con­ser­va­ti­on. Dr. Caro­li­ne Wid­mer, the cura­tor of Indi­an pain­ting at the Muse­um Riet­berg, asked Dr. Nao­mi Lubrich about when and how the reli­gious sta­tus of an object influen­ces museo­lo­gi­cal prac­ti­ce at the Jewish Muse­um of Switz­er­land during the panel dis­cus­sion «Reli­gious Objects in Schools and Muse­ums» (orga­ni­zed by the Muse­um Riet­berg and the Zurich Uni­ver­si­ty Päd­ago­gi­sche Hoch­schu­le with Prof. Dr. Eva Ebel, Unter­strass Zurich, Prof. Dr. Edith Fran­ke, Uni­ver­si­ty of Mar­burg, and Léa Bur­ger, SRF).

CW: What is con­side­red a reli­gious object within the Jewish Museum’s collection? 

NL: Most of our objects are reli­gious. Any­thing that is used in ritu­al would fall in the cate­go­ry «reli­gious object», for ins­tance a kip­pah, a spi­ce box, and even a cand­le, depen­ding on the con­text. But reli­gious is not the same as sacred. In Juda­ism, objects that con­tain the name of God are sacred, abo­ve all, the Torah. And sin­ce the name of God is sacred, any object that has touch­ed the Torah is sacred, for exam­p­le map­pot, Torah bin­ders, and me’ilim, Torah mantles.

CW: Are the­re any regu­la­ti­ons as to the hand­ling of sacred objects?

NL: Oh yes! Let me give you some examp­les: No one should touch the wri­ting on the Torah with their bare hands. No one should say the name of God out loud out­side of wor­ship. Books and any other object which con­ta­ins the name of God may not be dis­po­sed of or des­troy­ed. Inci­den­tal­ly, this requi­re­ment has been of gre­at bene­fit to Jewish mate­ri­al histo­ry, becau­se dis­card­ed objects have sur­vi­ved in geni­zot, which are sto­rage rooms, some­ti­mes for cen­tu­ries. Today many of the­se stored objects are tes­ti­mo­nies of a Jewish histo­ry which might other­wi­se be for­got­ten. If they can­not be stored, sacred objects can be buried – like peo­p­le. The pho­to­grapher Fred Stein docu­men­ted a famous buri­al of Torah scrolls in 1952 at the Beth El Ceme­tery in Para­mus, New Jer­sey, in which Salo Baron and mem­bers of the Syn­ago­gue Coun­cil of Ame­ri­ca car­ri­ed a num­ber of scrolls wrap­ped in tal­li­tot, pray­er shawls, to lay them to rest.

CW: For which reasons would a Torah scroll be reti­red from use? 

NL: A Torah scroll that has faded, is torn or has fal­len down would no lon­ger be used during ser­vice. Nor can a Torah scroll be used if it has an error in the text. The Torah must be flaw­less, in which case it is con­side­red «kos­her.» If a dama­ged Torah can­not be saved, it would need to be buried. But in many cases, the scroll can be repai­red. Some Torah scri­bes devo­te much effort to repair «non-kos­her» Torah scrolls. They mend cracks, fix mista­kes, and rein­scri­be faded are­as to make them sui­ta­ble for ser­vice. The Scrolls Memo­ri­al Trust in Lon­don, for exam­p­le, res­to­red over 1,500 Torah scrolls from the Czech Repu­blic which had been dama­ged during the Sho­ah. Once repai­red, they were dona­ted to con­gre­ga­ti­ons in need of Torot.

CW: What about the Jewish Muse­um? What would you do with a non-kos­her Torah scroll?

NL: For us, whe­ther an object is kos­her or not irrele­vant. We take gre­at plea­su­re in pre­ser­ving and rese­ar­ching anci­ent objects that have a long and cir­cui­tous histo­ry. For exam­p­le, one Torah scroll in our exhi­bi­ti­on dates back to Cai­ro of the four­te­enth cen­tu­ry. August Johann Bux­torf pro­ba­b­ly bought it in Mar­seil­le around 1720, and after he retur­ned to Basel, he and seve­ral scho­lars used it at Basel uni­ver­si­ty to stu­dy Hebrew. The­re­af­ter, it was dona­ted to the uni­ver­si­ty libra­ry, in who­se pos­ses­si­on it is today. For us, the Torah scroll is evi­dence of the trans­fer of know­ledge bet­ween North Afri­ca, Sou­thern France and the Old Con­fe­de­ra­ti­on at a time when Jews were not allo­wed to live in Basel. The fact that the ink has part­ly faded and the lea­ther is no lon­ger fresh does not wea­k­en its aura – quite the opposite.

CW: And how would the muse­um dis­po­se of a sacred object?

NL: Lucki­ly, we haven’t nee­ded to deac­ces­si­on a sacred object yet! But hypo­the­ti­cal­ly spea­king, we would first offer the object to a Jewish com­mu­ni­ty or dis­cuss the pos­si­bi­li­ty of res­to­ring it with a scri­be, sofer. This is usual­ly less expen­si­ve than wri­ting a new scroll, which is a big investment.

CW: How is your hand­ling of sacred objects dif­fe­rent from their hand­ling in reli­gious services?

NL: Well, for one, we only touch our Torah scrolls with gloves so that the parch­ment does not suf­fer from the sweat and dirt on our skin. And whe­re­as cer­tain ortho­dox con­ser­va­ti­ve con­gre­ga­ti­ons do not allow women to touch the Torah scroll, we are gen­der equal. Our only worry is that whoe­ver lifts the Torah be strong, becau­se Torah scrolls are very heavy!

CW: Thank you very much!


verfasst am 31.05.2022