Tuesday, April 15, 2014

No Exodus? No problem!

How can we continue with Judaism if there’s no historical Exodus? Isn’t that living a lie? Well, that all depends on how we view Judaism. For me, Judaism is not about what “is” or what “was” – it’s about the kind of people we seek to be, the kind of society we wish to build.

And if the reason we haven’t found any substantive physical evidence for the Exodus is that it simply never happened (at least not in any manner resembling the Torah narratives), then that makes the above point even stronger. Because the legend was obviously told that way, carefully crafted and highly embellished, to convey a teaching, and to build up the story so as to give that teaching weight, to help it “stick”. Torah after all means “instruction”, and the main point of that instruction (many of the unsavory details notwithstanding) is to get us to enter into a covenant – with ourselves – to be a “holy nation”, i.e. to create a moral, elevated society. And that is a national calling I believe we can all relate to, even today.

Now of course, most religious Jews would maintain that the way to create a moral, elevated society is to follow what the Torah says to a “T” (especially the Oral Law) – because it’s Hashem’s will. To that, I say:

1) The idea that the Torah (written or oral) is "the word of God" is nothing less than pure fantasy, and it’s time we face up to that like mature adults.

2) Religious observance (even filtered through a more “modern” Talmud) is hopelessly inadequate for the purposes of creating a moral, elevated society – to today’s standards, at any rate.

Well then, if producing a moral, elevated society is the goal, what’s the point of religious observance, the whole tradition, or being “Jewish” for that matter? Why not just be ethical humanists? Why maintain the “Jewish” label altogether?

Because, at least for many of us, we want to continue to “be” as a people. Simple as that. And there’s no shame in wanting to survive, in wanting to maintain self-identity as a group. It’s human to identify with a distinct culture, to have a set of traditions and rituals you call “home”. It’s stimulating to have such a vast and rich intellectual tradition to relate to. And as long as we get to choose how – and to what extent – we relate to that tradition, as long as it remains meaningful and enjoyable and doesn’t become a burden, as long as the “particularist” aspect doesn’t hinder our “universalist” aspirations (to the contrary, it can and should be used to inspire such aspirations), then our “Jewishness” can be affirming, positive and vitalizing – useful as both a means to an end, as well as an end unto itself.

So... No, it doesn’t look like the Exodus story has much historical veracity – not even the non-supernatural parts. But for me, that’s irrelevant. The Exodus is a part of our national “story”, and for that reason alone it’s something we’ll always come back to. We may be inspired by parts of it. We may object to parts of it and actively disavow those parts. But it’s a win-win proposition – either way, we can use those feelings, those reactions to our tradition, to help chart our way forward, to continue deciding who and what we’re about.

And that, to me, is a very “authentic” Judaism – because it’s the story we create for ourselves.


  1. Wow, talk about apropos to a discussion I had with my wife just a couple of hours ago. I told her the difficulty I have with much of the hagaddah text, including stuff that I find offensive (even while understanding why it was included) such as "Shfoch Chamascha" or parts that I simply don't believe (most of Hallel & bentching). This is compounded by frequent eye rolling commentary made by esteemed rabbis which shows that very smart people can say idiotic things.

    She then asked why even have a seder at all if the story wasn't "true".

    My take is that the story IS true, even if specific facts are not.

    The seder is about connecting with our history, and with those countless generations of ancestors telling the story of our subjugation and oppression over the past couple millenia (indeed, most of them being able to directly identify with such oppression.) If our history wasn't important to me, I would feel the same connection with the shoah as the Armenian genocide, especially as my ancestors were not directly affected by the former.

    My struggle at this point is how to keep the hagaddah meaningful & relevant. What to recite, what not to recite, and what new stories to tell.

    1. Hi zdub,

      very smart people can say idiotic things

      I fully agree. But regarding the sages of the Talmud, I'd say they are very smart people who said things which in their time/context/mindset made perfect sense, but some of which we can no longer accept for intellectual and/or moral reasons.

      My struggle at this point is how to keep the hagaddah meaningful & relevant.

      It's a good question. For me (at least at this point), I don't omit sections even when I disagree with them. If I disagree for religious belief reasons, it's just part of the tradition, and I can make peace with that. And if I disagree for moral reasons, I say something about it. But if I omit for philosophical reasons, it's like I'm deciding to no longer relate to the material, and I feel strange about that. Adding new material is something I'm open to, as long as it's not "canonized" - the Hagaddah is already long enough, IMO!

  2. My wish for the Jewish world: more people appreciate the power of story without feeling threatened by what happened or did not.

    Want true freedom?

    How about freeing yourself from the burden of exposition that any of this happened and that you have true bechira to be a part of this for whatever reason you choose with no apologetics. Open yourself to alternately observe, absorb, and contribute to the tapestry of beautiful/offensive/inspiring/parochial/broad/thought-provoking ways that people related to our individual, familial and tribal identities!

    1. (*Like*) Right, that's exactly how I live 95% of the time - I'm not concerned with the burden of exposition or apologetics. I'm just involved in Judaism and Torah on an experiential level. But... Because there's so much emphasis in the frum world on having to believe in the "historical truth" of it, I feel a sense of obligation to relate to that and present another option.