Pesach: Putting the Exodus on Trial

Lawyers will tell you that cases are often won or lost depending on which evidentiary standard, or “burden of proof,” applies.   

In American criminal trials, the prosecutor must prove the accused guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  Some civil cases require “clear and convincing” proof.  Most, though, are decided on the “preponderance of the evidence.” This simply means whichever side’s evidence seems stronger...even if only by a little bit, as with scales that tip slightly.

Which standard – one of these, or some other -- should we apply in evaluating what seems to be a “fifth” Passover question: Did the Exodus really happen

As the “no” argument is usually presented, the archeological “evidence” (or, more accurately, the absence thereof) against the Exodus is “clear and convincing.”  The “facts” offered to support this side usually prominently include these: (1) The Sinai desert couldn’t possibly sustain two million people marching through or living in it for forty years, (2) Nothing (no pottery shards, ruins of habitations, or other evidence) has been found to support such a claimed migration, and (3) the Egyptians, who kept meticulous records from even earlier periods, did not mention the plagues nor any mass migration of slaves.  Some archeologists, and even some prominent rabbis, such as Los Angeles Temple Sinai’s David Wolpe, have gone so far as to assert that these factors prove their case – that the Exodus is a myth -- “beyond a reasonable doubt.” (They do not, however, claim that this myth is either unimportant or devoid of value). 

But in an interview printed in the current issue of Reform Judaism magazine (“The Exodus is Not Fiction”), Archeologist Dr. Richard Elliott Friedman argues otherwise.  (Article accessible at: http://www.reformjudaism.org/exodus-not-fiction)  In sum, Friedman (perhaps best known for the bestseller Who Wrote the Bible?) contends that there is powerful evidence that at least a group of Jews (whom he identifies as Levites) were indeed in Egypt, along with many other Semitic/Western Asiatic peoples.  

These Levites left Egypt (particular circumstances unknown) and made their way to Canaan. For reasons he discusses in the article, they greatly influenced the Israelites already there. Friedman concludes that these immigrants are not merely responsible for the Exodus experience/story becoming an essential part of the overall Jewish narrative.  They also account for circumcision (an Egyptian practice), the Torah’s emphasis upon ethical treatment of foreigners, and even Yahweh worship all becoming central to Judaism.  In short, he argues, an Exodus of Jews from Egypt (however it happened) was indeed a seminal, if not the seminal, event in Jewish history ... just as our ancient tradition has it, even if not in the way our tradition narrates it.  

At my seder Monday night, we discussed the “evidence” for and against the historicity of the Exodus, as well as “whether it matters.”  But the comment that struck me most forcibly was one that I didn’t expect.  A non-Jewish guest exclaimed:  “It’s all a matter of faith. Christians have faith in Jesus; Jews have faith that the Exodus happened.”  

I know that a segment of the Jewish people subscribes to the philosophy “G-d (or, the Torah, Scripture, our sages, etc.) said it, I believe it, and that settles it!”  But I regard them as a very small minority, especially in Israel and the U.S., the two largest Jewish populations.  Most Jews, even those who are ritually observant and certainly the majority of those who believe in G-d (in some form, which I regard as the majority of Jews), would reject a “faith” standard as their “burden of proof” in deciding whether the Exodus occurred.  

My guest misunderstands Judaism.  Judaism encourages and even requires Jews to ask probing questions in the search to understand G-d and the meaning of our existence (i.e., what does G-d want of us?).   Both Abraham and Job famously and assertively challenged G-d without ever doubting G-d’s existence – and our tradition certainly does not criticize them for this.  Rebecca “inquired” of G-d (Genesis 25:22), as did the Israelites during the Exodus itself (Exodus 18:15).  Certainly, Moses often did so.  Maimonides was perhaps Judaism’s most famous rationalist.  

I’m inclined to believe that the Exodus is not entirely a myth.  But regardless of what I or most other Jews believe about it or why, it’s not mainly a matter of faith for us, if faith enters into it at all. 

It’s in challenging accepted “wisdom” and in asking hard questions that we discover new “truths” and reaffirm old ones.  Perhaps this is what has kept us alive all these generations. Alive … and Jewish.  

Mo’adim l’simchah … chag sameach … Shabbat shalom! 

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3