(Kosher) Food For Thought

Musings from NU Hillel's Campus Rabbi

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

How to read the Bible

A few years ago, Rabbi David Wolpe got into a heap of trouble after he gave a sermon on Passover. I honestly don't remember whether the question that got him in trouble was, "Did the Exodus happen?" or "Does it matter if the Exodus happened?" I'd be more inclined to ask the latter than the former. Regardless, the reaction of many was fierce and swift: "Off with his head."

The thing is, Wolpe is right to ask the question. And now that we find ourselves in an historical moment with the notions of faith and history, belief and science, are at odds; when the idea of faith itself is subject to all sorts of understandings; and when the clash-of-civilizations-that-doesn't-exist (ahem) is consuming lives and resources--it is a prescient question, an important and central question as we prepare to observe Passover.

Let's cut to the chase: It doesn't matter whether there is archaeological evidence to support the Biblical account of the Exodus, just as it frankly doesn't matter if there is cosmic evidence to support the Biblical account of Creation. I'm with Leon Wieseltier and the many others who less pugnaciously say that to subject faith to science cheapens both faith and science. The point of the Exodus is less whether or not it happened than the fact that the Jewish people has made the story of its enslavement and liberation the central story of its existence. Yosef Yerushalmi wrote a whole book on this subject, the difference between history and memory (Zakhor, which if you haven't read, you should immediately). It is memory, the stories we choose to tell ourselves, that motivates faith and the world of the spirit, not its confirmation in the world of fact.

This review of Garry Wills's latests book, What Jesus Meant, eloquently makes the point: 'To read the Gospels in teh pirit with which they were written, it is not enough to ask what Jesus did or said,' Wills writes, 'We must ask what Jesus meant by his strange words and deeds... Trying to find a construct, like the historical Jesus, is... mixing categories, or rather wholly different worlds of discourse. The only Jesus we have is the Jesus of faith. If you reject the faith, there is no reason to trust anything the Gospels say.'

Okay, so replace 'Jesus' with 'Moses' and 'Gospels' with 'Torah.' The point remains: It's all well and good to study the history of the Exodus or the Israelites. In fact, it's important, and it informs our reading of the Bible. But, that's not the stuff that motivates faith. It is not the stuff you put at the core of religious experience, as the Conservative movement has all to painfully learned over the last generation. As one of my teachers used to say, "It's religion--it's supposed to be spooky." Or as another said, "At the center of religion must be religious experience." It's about God, it's about the spirit; it's about the complex stuff that lies beyond language, beyond numbers, beyond facts.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I agree that we do not look to archaeological evidence to support the Biblical account of the Exodus, I do not think that is the same thing as saying that it does not matter if Exodus happened. Sure, we could get a lot out of the story of Exodus, even if it is just a story, leaving slavery is a humbling, unifying, etc. experience and we should see ourselves as if we came out of Egypt (bechol dor va dor…) even though you and I were not alive back then. However, our tradition is largely based on the Exodus, leaving Egypt and getting the Torah at Sinai. I believe that there are certain things one must believe to practice Judaism, and that Moses received the Torah at Har Sinai is one of them. What’s the point of the religion if they are just metaphorical books? Sure we can learn from stories, but then why isn’t Aesop’s Fables a religious text? Saying that we don’t need to believe they happened, if you take that to its logical conclusion is the same thing as saying that we don’t need to believe God exists. I don’t think anyone would say that is part of this religion.

Just my thought,

10:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Karen has a good point. Why believe that anything in the Torah happened? The prophets? Rabbi Wolpe got into Hot water because even Conservative Jews believe in a God of history that is actively invovled in Jewish life.

4:41 PM  
Anonymous Just Asking said...


So, you're saying that the Torah commandments done "in remembrance of Yitziat Mitzrayim" are "in remembrance" of something that never actually occurred, something that very well might be nothing more than myth?

Are you saying that God commanded us to commemorate a myth? Or, is it that God never really commanded these things -- and our belief that he commanded us is myth as well?

8:28 PM  
Blogger Rabbi Josh Feigelson said...

Hello "Just Asking"--

"Nothing more than myth"--now that's an interesting expression! "Nothing less than myth" would perhaps be more apt. I would refer you to the works of Joseph Campbell to start to unravel the assumptions behind your phrase. It assumes that faith is based on history; that is, it seems, that if someone could prove to you that the Exodus didn't happen, you would no longer believe in the Exodus. My point is that that very idea--that history is the basis of our belief--is itself a Western idea that has crept into religious life. If we were to return to a more authentic faith, the whole historical question is really beside the point. Do I believe the Exodus happened? Absolutely. Does it matter to me if someone digs up archaeological evidence to the contrary? No, because even if the story did not happen just as it is related in the Torah, we have observed the mitzvah to tell the story and make it our own for generation upon generation. And that story tells a much larger truth about what it means to be human than the small question of whether or not the Exodus "really" happened.

11:48 AM  

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