Tuesday, April 15, 2014
No Exodus? No problem!
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.