More that 2000 congregants of a Los Angeles Jewish house of worship were treated to an unusual sermon this Passover. Rabbi David Wolpe told his audience at Sinai Temple that the Torah’s account of the Jewish exodus from Egypt – the event the holiday commemorates – likely never happened.
The Los Angeles Times correspondent who covered the sermon was clearly gratified, noting that the rabbi had merely shared with his flock "what scholars have known for years."
Not "what they have theorized" and not even "what they have believed." What they have known.
With all due respect to both rabbi and reporter, though, "know" is not a word one should use lightly.
Not all "-ologies" are equal. There are "hard" sciences and "soft" ones. Biology and pharmacology land in the former category; psychology and sociology in the latter, relying heavily as they do on subjective opinions and dealing heavily as they do with ultimate unknowables. The particular science invoked by Rabbi Wolpe, archaeology, may involve a good deal of digging and hauling, but that still doesn’t make it hard science.
Biology and chemistry and physics rely on measurements and observations; and theories in those disciplines and others like them can be conclusively proven by experiment. Archaeology, by vivid contrast, relies exclusively and inherently on speculative interpretations of evidence and on theoretical reconstructions whose veracity can never be conclusively confirmed. A chemical compound can be placed under an electron microscope and its molecular structure, to a considerable degree, perceived; its effects on an organism can be observed and measured, and the experiment can be repeated without limit. A collection of shards, bones and papyri from thousands of years ago can certainly suggest things, at times even convincingly; but it can never prove anything. And, in no discipline, "hard" or "soft", can a dearth of evidence constitute a disproof.
Yet that is precisely what some archeologists – like those Rabbi Wolpe trustingly quoted – maintain in the case of the Torah’s account of the exodus from Egypt and conquest of the Promised Land. They insist that there is a paucity of corroborative archaeological evidence for the events and therefore they could not have transpired.
As it happens, other scholars, including Biblical Archaeology Review editor Hershel Shanks, have concluded that there are indeed indications in the archaeological record of those events. Welcome to the world of "soft" science scholarship.
But there is something else, entirely outside the realm of archaeology, that argues, loudly and powerfully, for the historicity of the Torah’s account. Its Hebrew name is mesorah.
The word translates as "heritage" or "oral tradition" but the concept is more complex – and it constitutes nothing less than the essential component of Jewish history and the Jewish faith.
When masses of people experience or witness something, and entrust the next generation with the knowledge of what happened, that is called history. We know that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, that there was a Revolutionary War and that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, all by virtue of a simple fact: the events were witnessed by large numbers of people. Individuals can fabricate things, but masses cannot. For when some folks claim that something happened to, or in front of, the multitude, if in truth it did not, others will stand up and heartily dispute the contention.
The historical tradition of the exodus from Egypt is no different. It could not have been fabricated, suddenly "made up" one day, as some scholars imagine, because it involved hundreds of thousands of people whose children were solemnly entrusted with the account and sworn to entrust it in turn to their own children, and theirs to theirs… down to our own generation. That perpetuation of the Jewish historical tradition is what transpires most notably as the story of the exodus is recounted – indeed re-experienced – at the Passover seder, which Rabbi Wolpe’s congregants presumably conducted despite his sermon.
The historical event’s distance from us in time does not weaken its historicity but, on the contrary, empowers it. So powerful was the memory of the exodus from Egypt (and the subsequent receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai), so important to the people who received the account, that they preserved it through thick and thin, through exile and massacre, through displacement and pogrom.
How sadly ironic that after 3000 years of uninterrupted mesorah, the Jewish collective memory should have come to be assailed in a country where Jews are more free and secure than at any time since the Holy Temple’s destruction.
And how much sadder that its assailants include a rabbi.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]