April 19, 2001
So thousands of people in the Los Angeles Jewish community learned last week after Rabbi David Wolpe got up on his pulpit, opened his mouth and unleashed a storm.
Wolpe, spiritual leader at the Conservative Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles, delivered a series of sermons that stressed the importance of faith in the face of doubt. To illustrate that doubt, he reiterated the findings of the vast majority of biblical archaeologists who dispute the historical accuracy of the Bible stories, including the Exodus.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe used Wolpe's sermons as a jumping-off point for examining the current academic debate in the field of biblical archaeology. The lead quote came from one of Wolpe's sermons: "The truth is," Wolpe reportedly said, "that virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all."
The story ran on Friday, during the Passover holiday, page one, column one, under the headline, "Doubting the Story of Exodus."
"Everybody was in shock," reported Elazar Muskin, rabbi at the Orthodox congregation Young Israel of Century City. Muskin, a contributing writer to The Journal, set aside his prepared sermon and instead addressed the issues Wolpe raised. At synagogues throughout the area, many had similar reactions. "Everybody was talking about it," said a congregant at Stephen S. Wise Temple. "Many people were upset."
Even at progressive shuls on Saturday morning, congregants were asking, "Did he have to do it during Passover?"
Radio talk show host Dennis Prager spent almost two hours fielding calls from across the region, and let callers know of his own strong disagreement with Wolpe (see page 11).
By Monday morning, Wolpe found himself, in the words of one admirer, "in the eye of the hurricane." Many congregants expressed their support for the nationally renowned rabbi and author, whom they credit with invigorating synagogue life through new programming and eloquent sermonizing. Others took him to task for raising such doubts in the first place, and on Passover, and in the LA Times. Temple Sinai needed to add an additional phone line at the rabbi's study to handle the number of incoming calls.
At the Times, writer Watanabe herself caught the edge of the storm. The article came about, she said, after her meeting several weeks ago with visiting Israeli archaeologist Dan Bahat (The Journal profiled Bahat on March 16). Watanabe, who is a non-practicing Christian, was fascinated by Bahat's assertion that archaeology casts serious doubt on the Exodus. She began preparing an article on the subject, and contacted area rabbis to interview them. Wolpe said he was delivering a series of sermons which examined faith in light of cutting edge archaeological research, and Watanabe showed up to hear them. "There have been people who were shocked or angered or hurt [by the article]," she told me. "I in no way tried to undermine anyone's faith. I really am sorry if I hurt anyone."
The controversy, then, came as a cold slap to all parties.
Wolpe confronted those who believe in the literal veracity of a beloved Bible story with the reality that there is no archaeological proof that it occurred.
In turn, he was confronted by the reality that a great many of his fellow Jews of all stripes disagree with him vehemently.
And those of us who, like Wolpe, believe that historical facts can be confronted as a way to deepen and enrich our faith, faced the reality that the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements must do a better job of explaining themselves, even to some of their members. Why should learned Jews be shocked that a Conservative rabbi would espouse opinions which are well within the mainstream of his movement?
In his sermons, Wolpe was practicing a wonderfully Jewish tradition of critical inquiry into faith that dates back at least to Baruch Spinoza, who in 17th century Holland challenged the sacred authorship of the Torah. Wolpe may be feeling alone these days, but he's in good company.
Modern archaeology is not infallible, but it's not some anti-religious hoax, either. The fact that the vast majority of serious archaeological scholars doubt Exodus happened as it is described means that it is at the very least legitimate to pose the questions Wolpe did. "Five-hundred years ago we believed the world was flat. Now we know it's round," Jerome Berman, executive director of the California Museum of Ancient Art, told me. "Could we be wrong about that? Yeah, but not about the fact that it's not flat."
I would urge those whose faith is strong enough to confront these issues to attend "The Archaeology of Ancient Israel," a series of four lectures Berman's museum is offering beginning May 14 and featuring some of the world's top Biblical archaeologists. (Call the museum at 818-762-5500 for details.)
Those who think Wolpe weakens the faith by raising these issues need only look at the tremendous success he has had in drawing a new generation of Jews to his synagogue. Discoveries in genetics, cloning, artificial intelligence and, yes, archaeology, will require rabbis who are willing to reconcile what we know with what we believe.
Wolpe knows what he is doing, and Jewish life in this city is the richer for it. Bring on the hurricane.