Welcome to Passover, a.k.a. that annual exercise in the suspension of historical disbelief. It’s a time when otherwise rational, science-bred people try to make sense of the crazy, mixed up stories that most people either a) don’t believe but humor Zayde and pretend to, or b) feel they aren’t allowed to question, so they force themselves to suspend their inner skeptic. Sadly, both of these options are precisely NOT what the seder was designed to accomplish. The Passover experience depends on questioning – the Seder effectively begins with questions, after all – and any suppression of inquisitiveness flies completely counter to the spirit of this holiday.
For many decades, American Jews fell victim to the mentality of “let’s read around the table in a monotonous drone so we can get to the meal,” assisted by their partner in crime, the mass produced, cheap and vacuous Maxwell House Haggadah. Contemporary haggadahs have tried to bring back some of that probing spontaneity, encouraging us to personalize our own experiences of “Egypt,” and confront our own inner Pharoahs. But with few exceptions, most new haggadahs have steered sharply away from the elephant in the room:
Did this thing really happen?
Just after the turn of the millennium, Rabbi David Wolpe asked that very question in a memorable Passover sermon and it exploded into such a major to-do among Jews that you might have thought he had banned gefilte fish. This severe overreaction was evidence of the disconnect between many progressive rabbis (like me) and their laity. Our seminary education was replete with modern biblical criticism; in our classes we routinely questioned the historical veracity of the Exodus, and just about any biblical account where we don’t have archeological or literary verification (meaning everything before King David), but somehow we failed to communicate that to our congregants.
At the time Wolpe gave his controversial sermon, most Conservative synagogues still used the old Hertz bible, whose commentary was virtually devoid of historical criticism. For generations, our sermons had relied much more on Rashi than Von Rad, Nachmanides over Noth, and nary a mention of Kaufman or Wellhausen. We chose to avoid the archaeological discoveries of Yadin and paid little attention to the revelations of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Partly, we were reacting defensively to the increasing sway of literalist ultra-Orthodoxy on the right and the ahistorical spirituality of the havurah and renewal movements on the left. Most American Jews came to regard explorations of the Bible’s historicity as either irrefutable or irrelevant, but never as a stepping stone to deeper religious meaning.
Among those Americans closely connected to Israel (and in particular, Evangelicals and Mainline Protestants), there was a heightened interest in archaeology propelled by early Zionism and hypercharged by the Six Day War. But not so much among American Jews. So when it came around to discussing the history of the Exodus, since no one could prove that it really happened, it was a topic that even armchair archaeologists tended to avoid.
I think it’s time to reconsider that stance. It’s not that I don’t see value in how the Exodus story has been allegorized and spiritualized. I love all that. I own dozens of haggadahs, including those celebrating the liberation of everything from Soviet Jews to Holocaust survivors, embracing victims of modern slavery, hunger and addiction, extolling our connection to the land of Israel, seeking love of the Other, even protecting the paschal lamb itself (the Vegetarian Haggadah, one of my favorites). But it’s time for us to explore again at what really happened some 33 centuries ago, and whether the Torah’s version is historical.
So it probably isn’t.
But that should not terrify us.
We don’t need to demonstrate that the Ten Plagues really happened as described (although there have been some interesting and even plausible attempts), but we can learn much from speculating how and why this story germinated and grew, and how it helped to shape the growth of the Jewish people in its infancy.
PBS recently rebroadcast a landmark NOVA documentary called “The Bible’s Buried Secrets.” Unlike those ridiculous quasi-historic biblical docudramas that pepper the airwaves at this time of year, this program neatly summarizes the past three centuries of modern biblical criticism and archaeological discovery without sugar coating it to “confirm” biblical assertions. Yet at the same time it leaves the viewer amazed at how the Jewish people and the Jewish message somehow coalesced into something both strange yet strangely familiar. As current theorists surmise, long before there were Seders, there was a people that found meaning in a liberation story that few of their ancestors ever experienced. They came together because of that story. The Exodus, more than anything measurable by DNA or geography, was what defined them. It was the story that propelled Judaism into a world religion and thrust the Jewish deity onto history’s front pages. And that story’s potency has not diminished to this day.
Watch the program online, or read the transcript. My rabbinic contemporaries will recognize the “who’s who” of biblical scholarship that appears. They won’t be surprised to hear that the preponderance of evidence now points toward there having been no mass migration from Egypt during the time when the Exodus would most likely have occurred.
The earliest Israelites were quite possibly renegade Canaanites, seeking a simpler life, having left prosperous city states 3,000 years ago to forge new communities in the hills of central Canaan. They eschewed grand palaces and extravagant pottery and begin to center their worship on the idea of a different, single divinity, though monotheism as we know it did not appear until later. As biblical scholar Carol Meyers explains, “They spread the word to the highlanders, who themselves, perhaps, had escaped from the tyranny of the Canaanite city-states. They spread the idea of a god who represented freedom, freedom for people to keep the fruits of their own labor. This was a message that was so powerful that it brought people together and gave them a new kind of identity.”
It’s hard even for an ardent secularist not to see a Greater Plan unfolding in this history, even if its unfolding is so gradual that it would never attract the interest of Cecil B. DeMille.
I’ve never understood why biblical criticism has been regarded with such scorn by so many of my liberal rabbinic contemporaries. Yes, it is true that the field was once replete with Protestant biases (even anti-Semitism), and equally true that 19th century Jewish scholarship (Wissenschaft des Judentums) was too dismissing of Kabbalah and drained Judaism of its spiritual pulp at the expense of pure science. But the archaeological research has a deep spiritual resonance of its own. It is the potency of this deep historical connection that anchors Israeli settlers to places that for centuries were buried ruins and dusty hilltops. A less politically virulent strain exists as well – at least in me – and it is no less spiritual than the many non historical visions of the Exodus that fly across the Seder table and no less dangerous than the literalist question-suppressing ones. It’s noteworthy that even in some Orthodox circles, biblical criticism is making a comeback.
In broaching this topic over a decade ago, I think Rabbi Wolpe did not give sufficient credit to the spiritual power of modern archaeology and biblical criticism, thereby allowing progressive Judaism to become an easy target for the fundamentalists. To those who would not even allow the wise child to question the historicity of the Exodus, I would reply: “You’ve got Rashi and so have I. But I’ve got Yadin too. And Buber and Rosenzweig. And Spinoza. And J, E, P and D. Oh yes, and I’ve got my own vision too.”
There is nothing about the Exodus story that I can’t question and there is no limit to the ways it can be interpreted. And somewhere in those questions, as well as the historical analysis, one might possibly just discover a new path to God. Or not. At a time when we are discussing religious freedom, including some current abuses of a noble idea, Passover reminds us that greatest religious freedom of all is the liberation of the inquisitive mind.