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On America Online, there is a popular feature called "Judaism Today: Where Do I Fit?" People anonymously send in email letters to the author of the feature, Gil Mann, and he selects one letter for a public response in his Jewish EMail column. This column is now syndicated in Jewish papers across the US & Canada. Here is an edited email and Gil's response.
Last spring, the front page of The Los Angeles Times carried a story titled "Doubting the Story of Exodus." The article reports about Rabbi David Wolpe, of Sinai Temple, Westwood, California, who said, "The truth is that virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of Exodus agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all."
He goes on to say that he wants his religion to be free of myth and physically dubious events like the Red Sea parting and water gushing from a rock. His viewpoint is so radical it seems to make the rabbi's religious role invalid. If he's right, the synagogue ought to be closed!
Is his a generally held belief? Does Judaism condone such rejection of its foundation? One would have to conclude that if Exodus didn't happen, the Passover didn't either and the whole scenario falls apart.
With Passover around the corner, I have chosen your email because the subject would make a good discussion piece around seder tables...I hope people will clip this.
The hoopla surrounding Rabbi Wolpe's comments surprised me because his thoughts are not new or unique. In fact, not long ago Time Magazine did a cover story that asked if Moses even existed and essentially said what Wolpe said: no archeological proof has been found that can prove the Exodus story happened.
Ah, but that is Time Magazine... and Wolpe is a rabbi! How dare he utter such a thing. This very fact motivated Moment Magazine to devote articles in two issues taking him to task. He's certainly not the first rabbi to make such a statement. Is this a generally held belief you ask? Depends what you mean by "generally held." Within the Orthodox world, most would probably reject Rabbi Wolpe's comments. On the other hand, if you were to do a poll "on the street" of Jews, I suspect you would find many Jews who agree with Rabbi Wolpe. I have heard from many Jews over the years (via email and in person) who find the Bible unbelievable.
If one has trouble accepting the Bible's narrative, does not the entire foundation of Judaism fall apart, you also ask? I don't think so. The Jewish way of life is based on the values that our people have derived from the narrative over thousands of years. These values have not only stood the test of time for us, they have been adopted by much of the planet... regardless of whether or not we can prove the Exodus story.
I am talking about values that spring from the core Jewish value that there is one God and that all humans are children of that one God. Therefore, we have values that every person is precious and deserves dignity, justice, and compassion. I could add many other values. My point being: We have adopted these values that are directly linked to the Exodus story. Even if one asserts that the "myth" never happened, these values now have a worthy life of their own.
You could draw something of a parallel to the narrative of the American Revolution. The story includes the myths of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree and the midnight ride of Paul Revere. Did they happen? At this point, it does not matter because from these stories Americans have learned that honesty, bravery, and freedom are honored values.
Yehuda Bauer, perhaps the leading Holocaust scholar in the world and an atheist, was recently quoted as saying that though he does not believe in God, "I do believe in Jews who believe in God." I interpret his comment to mean that even though he does not embrace the Exodus narrative, he does have faith in the Jewish set of values that were inspired by belief in God.
Personally, I think that dismissing the narrative of the Bible is a mistake because every word in the Torah adds context that help us understand our values. At the same time, I think believing every word literally in the Bible is also a mistake as we cannot understand what is meant by many things said in the Bible.
And this is why we are told to study the Torah all our lives... a fundamental value that I am confident Rabbi Wolpe endorses. If the Bible is to help us to become better people, then we will need to continue to dissect the words and the narrative--helped by commentaries from ancient and modern readers. This requires thoughtful and honest critique. With this in mind, I respect Wolpe's questioning... just as I respect your questions of him and to me. Thanks for writing!