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Jewish Journal

Is There Truth in Archaeology?

by Rabbi David Eliezrie

April 19, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Pack up your Passover dishes for good. The Exodus, according to some modern university scholars and liberal rabbis, never really happened. That's what the Los Angeles Times told us in great detail last week in a long article published at the end of the holiday. But the piece, while raising some important questions, skirts some of the most fundamental issues.

Archaeology is like no other science. It is far from exact. It is nothing more than a viewfinder to the past, and one of very limited scope.

Just a few years ago, the same archaeologists that doubt the Exodus told us that King David never lived. This theory was deflated when an inscription about King David was discovered in Israel. Israel's famed archaeologist Yigal Yadin writes that before the discovery of the letters of Bar Kokva, King David was no more than a myth. He became undeniable to modern scholars after that great discovery. Nor will many of these archaeologists come up with a good answer about the massive stone structure near Nablus that some scholars feel is the altar that Joshua built after entering the Land of Israel.

Most modern archaeologists are products of a secular education. They have little appreciation for the spiritual roots of Jewish life. Their lifestyle and education produce a mindset that creates a perspective predisposed against any proof of the Exodus. Only when they have absolutely no alternative will they acquiesce that something in the Torah may be true.

Part of the ancient Ipuwer Papyrus, discovered in Egypt and stored in Leiden, Holland, seems to validate the Torah's account in describing the plagues that descended on Egypt. The style was poetic, but the events, such as the river being full of blood, the pestilence, and the death of the firstborn, are explained in detail. The Turin Royal Canon Papyrus tells us about the Egyptian pharaoh who ruled some 94 years, from the age of 6 to 100. What the archaeologists do not know is that there is a midrash, the "Sefer Hayashar," and ancient rabbinic texts that tell about a pharaoh who enslaved the Jews and lived 94 years. Most archaeologists are little-schooled in classic Jewish learning and have no broad understanding of Torah.

Confronted with this evidence, most archaeologists claim that these accounts do not really mean the Exodus. Exactly what they mean, they don't know.

The story of the Exodus is the foundation of Judaism. The birth of a nation in a miraculous way is the basis of our identity. And if we were nothing but a few tribes wandering in the desert who were a bit more sophisticated than the next group and developed a set of principles, we have emasculated Judaism of its spiritual core. Beyond archaeology, we have another proof that has stood the test of time.

The Khazars, a nation in Southern Russia, decided to find a monotheistic religion 1,300 years ago. They invited representatives of Jews, Christians and Moslems to present their beliefs. In the end, they converted en masse to Judaism and had an independent Jewish state for some two centuries.

The great Spanish sage Rabbi Yehuda Halevi documents the conversation between himself and the King of the Khazars. When asked about the truth of the Torah and the Exodus, the rabbi answered, "We know it because our parents told us."

This simple statement underlines the principle of historic transmission from one generation to another. Each family enshrines that transmission of its history at the Passover Seder table.

Rabbi Wolpe's quest is riddled with land mines. His acceptance of the theories of archaeologists without questioning their secular agenda is dangerous. This undermines the most important principle of Jewish nationhood and belief and creates a more important question. If the Exodus is a lie, then the rest of Torah must also be. And if the Jews did not leave Egypt in a miraculous fashion, then why observe the holiday at all?

Here lies the dilemma for liberal Jewish leaders. They fail to understand that many young people find little interest in a brand of Judaism that rejects the core beliefs of Jewish tradition. They ask themselves, "If the Torah was not divinely given, why keep it?" And as Wolpe, however well-intentioned his quest, pushes this agenda, inspired by a vague science taught by so-called "scholars" with little appreciation for Torah, he sends a message to the next generation that Torah was a nice group of man-made ideas. If we were nothing but a group of people who formed a human value system, maybe the time has come to find a better one. For if the Torah has no special spiritual significance, then why be Jewish?

Simply put, if the event was not miraculous, why give up bagels for a week?

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