“ACCESSORIES OF HOLINESS”: DEFINING JEWISH SACRED OBJECTS
Readers are cautioned that this is a discussion paper and that I have not provided a comprehensive set of rules for the treatment of all Jewish ritual objects, only guidelines that should enable a conservator to distinguish between pieces that may be treated as ordinary, “nonsacred” material, and those objects that should not normally be subject to conservation treatment. This paper also represents primarily a Conservative point of view, with a traditional bias. Orthodox practice may be even stricter in some cases; Reform practice may be more lenient or simply different. Specific questions should be directed to an experienced curator or conservator of Judaica and/or to a rabbi with specific expertise in this area.
The difficulties posed by broad definitions of sacred objects should be obvious. However valid the new congressional definition as a basis for a discussion of the repatriation of Native American material, it tells us nothing about the way in which such objects, or similar material from other cultures, should be handled in a museum. For conservators to observe appropriate ethical standards in the handling of sacred material, systems of classification together with guidelines for practical application will have to be developed for each cultural, religious, or tribal group, with the assistance (wherever possible) of a member of that group.
I would like to thank Dr. Saul Wachs, of Gratz College, and Cantor Mark Kushner, of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, in Philadelphia, for information and advice; Rabbi Ira Stone, of Beth Zion-Beth Israel, for translating a passage from the Shulchan Arukh; the synagogue Sisterhood for permission to photograph objects from its gift shop; and Jerry Silverman, a mensch for all seasons, who lent me (at the very last minute, without a single question) some of the slides that I used at the AIC meeting in Albuquerque.