Peter Kaufman’s Blog

October 31, 2008

Lawrence Schiffman’s dazzling Jewish Museum lecture

New York University Judaica chair bungles Jewish history in lecture at Jewish Museum

[November 3 post-script: be sure to see the comment submitted below from someone in New York, and my response.]

October 30 Diary:

It’s past midnight; I just got back from a long and difficult evening that included a rather strange experience listening to Larry Schiffman (chairman of the Skirball Department of Judaica at NYU) talk about the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Jewish Museum. Strange, because I had previously posted an article on Schiffman’s alleged plagiarism and misrepresentation of another scholar’s ideas, and Larry didn’t know I was in the audience.

But perhaps he was a bit worried I might be there? He was careful, at any rate, to avoid discussing the views of the scholar he plagiarized. He didn’t even raise that pesky little Masada problem! Afraid I would pounce on you, Larry? (See my linked article for details.)

What he did do, however, was reveal an embarrassing ignorance of ancient Jewish history, suggesting that while some scholars (including Israel’s leading archaeologists, a detail Larry forgot to mention) have proposed that Qumran was built as a fortress, this proposal is rather implausible because the Jews didn’t have an army before the Romans came and took over Palestine.

Oy vaesmir, Larry, you’re the chairman of a department of Jewish studies — didn’t you ever hear of the Maccabees, and the Hasmonean kingdom they founded, which reigned supreme for over a century until the Romans came, and how the Hasmoneans sent forces into Transjordania, occupying that land and conquering, e.g., the fortress of Machaerus, over there across the Dead Sea from Qumran? Didn’t you know the Hasmonean army numbered approximately 20,000 men?

I do hope you took Jewish History 101, Larry — or didn’t they teach Jewish History at Brandeis? Oh, but I almost forgot, didn’t I read somewhere that you’ve moved into the field of early Christian studies, or am I getting you confused with someone else (this, incidentally, would be a mutual problem of ours… sometimes it’s a bit hard to see something when it’s right there in front of you). No offense meant, Larry, but please, please, try and do your homework next time. Or maybe I was hallucinating when you made that preposterous statement? Care to publish the text of your talk so we can verify your exact words and determine if I’ve gone mad?

In general, Larry did a good job in marshaling facts — but to what end? There were facts right and left in this talk, shouted out (along with a good deal of Larry’s corny humor) to an eager audience in a powerful voice that almost struck terror into my bones. What would I have done if Larry had suddenly turned on me and shouted out that I was a foul polemicist like that flea who thinks the scrolls came from the Temple (oops!), a scoundrel who should be banished from the academy, strapped to a chair, bound and gagged like Bobby Seale? I think I would have dropped dead on the spot!

[Nov. 25 postscript: Norman Golb —┬áthe guy you plagiarized, Larry —┬áhas reviewed the Jewish Museum exhibit.]

(Incidentally, for those who don’t know, Now Public has “suspended” my account, on the grounds that they received a “legal notice” according to which I am the “subject of a criminal investigation” in New York. They seemed to be deeply troubled by this thing they got in the mail. Is it even conceivable that Larry, a department chairman at New York University, would try to use the power of the law to prevent me from summarizing known information and expressing my views about some rather sordid academic goings-on? I’ve seen a lot of shilshul going around in the department, but this really sets a new record, doesn’t it? I mean, think about it — a garrulent Dead Sea Scrolls “authority” who preaches on this topic all over the world, trying to block an ordinary academic shmo like me from freely stating his opinion on an internet blog!)

As I was saying, there were a lot of facts in Larry’s talk tonight (along with some bizarre novelties like the claimed lack of a Jewish army, mentioned above). But behind all these facts, it was kind of difficult… well, to see just what Larry was trying to say. The term “idiot savant” comes to mind (or perhaps “second-rate scholar”). A lot of meandering around and impressive shouting of facts, but behind it all… an elusive emptiness.

Sure, Larry gave us the usual spiel about the Sadducees, but he seemed to spend most of his energy being careful not to take a stand — and, indeed, evading most of the key issues. No discussion, to cite just one of many examples, of the Jerusalem theory of scroll origins. Come on, Larry, we were hoping you would have something a bit more substantive to say about the Copper Scroll — who wrote it, who hid it, and why should it be treated as unrelated to the hiding of the other scrolls it was found with?

Larry was very clever at rehashing some of the old arguments, like when he pointed out that there were inkwells at Qumran. But he sneaked away from addressing the opposing evidence. No names were mentioned; as far as the audience knew, Magen and Peleg don’t even exist — and certainly never said the scrolls came from the Jerusalem region. Is it surprising that soldiers and pottery manufacturers had inkwells for their correspondence?

Congratulations, Larry, on your entertaining performance tonight. But doesn’t it give you any sense of shame at all to know that you misinformed all those people about the military might of the Hasmoneans? And when will you give us some more “facts” on how you came up with some of those arguments you presented as your own fifteen years ago? Have your own ideas evolved since then? I certainly hope so — I wouldn’t want to imagine you think you wrote the Bible! God only knows what one of those Israeli journalists would do with that…

Peter Kaufman

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