Passover begins Monday night. Most Jews—including many who maintain no other religious practice—will attend a Seder to hear and help tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Some Seder participants will view the Exodus story as historic truth. Others will dismiss the story as fantasy yet engage in the meal and companionship. Still others at Seders will value the story but understand the Exodus in a different way.
I mention this because inevitably at this season, some Jews question whether the Exodus ever took place. We have no archaeological evidence. If proof existed that the Exodus story is a hoax, they wonder, would Judaism collapse?
For those to whom religion claims legitimacy only if the Hebrew Bible—or by extension the Christian Bible or Qu’ran—is literally true, the answer is self-evident. Prove the Exodus bogus and Judaism, even if practiced minimally, must be abandoned. Without facts, religion must sink beneath spiritual quicksand.
These folks exist on the cusp between the pre-critical and critical stages of religious belief, using the terminology of the late Rabbi Michael Signer. They might like to believe the literal truth of the Torah but maintain serious doubts. Some almost seem eager to call Judaism’s bluff and make their exit.
Signer, however, points to a third stage of belief—post-critical. Literal belief no longer carries much weight. Religion isn’t about facts—whether God spoke to Moses at a burning bush, struck Egypt with ten plagues or parted the waters of the Reed Sea. Post-critical Jews seek Truth with a capital “T.” Facts become irrelevant, although no one can prove that the Exodus did not take place. (Richard Elliot Friedman offers textual proof of the Exodus by a single, small group of Egyptians in the current Reform Judaism magazine. His thesis varies from the biblical account.)
Bearing a capital “T,” Truth reveals enduring insights about human nature rather than historical events. Biblical stories and all the commandments serve as springboards for discussion and speculation. The study of Torah, which includes Talmud and all other Jewish texts—note, interestingly, the “T” words—has involved questioning and, yes, arguing for 2,000 years. Jewish tradition has never promoted easy answers.
Granted, if the Exodus could be proved to never have happened, many Jews—and perhaps of necessity, Christians and Muslims, too—might be faced with difficult choices. But I suspect that most Jews who undertake religious practice would not be deterred from studying and worshipping as they do. The Truths presented by the Hebrew Bible bear our attention regardless of their historicity. As the late Rabbi Robert Gordis wrote in his commentary on Job, the Torah represents the mythos of the Jewish people. As such, it teaches us a great deal about the human condition, and is worth our study and reverence.
So if you are celebrating Passover, may the concluding words of the Seder, “Next year in Jerusalem,” inspire you as you need to be inspired—to make aliyah to Israel, to visit, or just as important, to experience the figurative coming home of the soul as you draw nearer to Truths that remain eternal.
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