With Passover here, it is a propitious time to address the central issue of the holiday: the Exodus. Specifically, did the Exodus happen?
My friend Rabbi David Wolpe announced some years ago that it didn’t matter whether the Exodus occurred. In his words, writing three years later: “Three years ago on Passover, I explained to my congregation that according to archeologists, there was no reliable evidence that the Exodus took place — and that it almost certainly did not take place the way the Bible recounts it. Finally, I emphasized: It didn’t matter.”
“The Torah,” he continued, “is not a book we turn to for historical accuracy, but rather for truth. The story of the Exodus lives in us.”
I cite Rabbi Wolpe because of my respect for his intellectual honesty, for his Jewish seriousness, and because what he says represents the thinking of many modern Jews.
I do, however, differ. I think it does matter if the Jews were slaves in Egypt and whether the Exodus took place.
First, the Jewish people would not have survived, let alone died for their faith, if they had not believed that the Exodus really happened. It takes much more than metaphors for a small, dispersed and horribly persecuted people to survive for thousands of years. And this will be equally true in the future. If Jews come to believe that one of the Torah’s two most important stories (the other, as I will explain, is the Creation) never happened, it is hard to imagine that they will devote their lives to Judaism — no matter how much “truth” a myth may contain. The ancient Greek stories, as, for example, those of Homer, also contained “truth.” But they didn’t perpetuate Greek culture, which was wholly taken over by Christianity. And few, if any, Greeks outside of Greece have ever retained a strong Greek identity thanks to Homer’s stories.
Second, as noted, the Exodus is one of the two essential stories not only of the Torah, but of Judaism and Jewish history. Our prayer book regularly contains the phrases zecher l’ma’asei bereshit and zecher litziyat mitzrayim — “to commemorate the acts of Creation” and “to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt.” Just as Christianity is founded on two events — the atoning death and the Resurrection of Jesus, so Judaism is predicated on two events: Creation and Exodus. The Shabbat Kiddush consists of two paragraphs. The first recounts Creation; the second, the Exodus.
Apparently God (or, if you prefer, whoever gave the Ten Commandments) thought the Exodus significant enough to open the Ten Commandments with reference to one event — the Exodus: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt.” Even one who doesn’t believe that God gave the Ten Commandments would have to explain why reference to something that never happened would so move the ancient Israelites. In addition, the two versions of the Ten Commandments — the one from God in Exodus and the one from Moses in Deuteronomy — differ with regard to the reason for Shabbat. The first version’s reason is the Creation (by keeping the Shabbat, we reaffirm weekly that God created the world); the second version’s reason is the Exodus (“You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt” — and only free people can have a day of rest each week).
Third, if the Exodus never happened, what biblical story did? Did Abraham live? Did Moses? Was there a revelation at Mount Sinai? Did the Jews enter the Promised Land? Did King David live? According to scholars such as Niels Peter Lemche, an internationally recognized biblical scholar at the University of Copenhagen, “The David of the Bible, David the king, is not a historical figure.”
Are they all fables? If so, it’s really hard to make the case for taking the Bible particularly seriously, let alone base one’s identity and values on it.
Fourth, that we cannot prove that the Jews were in Egypt means little to me. Many biblical stories that were once dismissed as fables were later shown to have a historical basis. Therefore, my belief in the Exodus story does not depend on archaeologists telling me whether they have concluded that Jews were enslaved in and later left Egypt. In any event, what archaeological evidence can one expect to find? The Egyptians didn’t record defeats. And the Jews were in the desert/wilderness with temporary dwellings that would hardly leave traces after 3,000 years.
Logic, however, does strongly argue for the historicity of the Exodus story. What people ever made up as ignoble a past as the Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Bible relate about the Jews? Every other people in the world made up a grand and powerful history for themselves. They were all mighty and courageous. We Jews, on the other hand, were slaves, idol worshippers, rebels and ingrates. Why make that up? And why make up that so many non-Jews were heroes — such as the daughter of Pharaoh, the Egyptian midwives and the pagan priest Jethro? Why make up that Moses was raised an Egyptian? Why credit God for the Exodus rather than bold Israelites?
At the Passover seder, you have good reason to believe avadim hayeenu b’eretz mitzrayim, “we were slaves in the land of Egypt.” Recite it with conviction.
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).