Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
08 March 2013 • Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei
When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.
This scene from our week's parshah describes one of many miracles God wrought for the Israelites, along with the redemption itself, the plagues, and the parting of the sea -- which we’re all diligently preparing to retell in a few weeks at our Pesach seders.
As we think again about the Exodus, the Spring 2013 issue of Reform Judaism magazine raises a provocative question about it, among other issues (which are all worth reading):
- Were the Jews Moneylenders Out of Necessity?
- Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Passover Seder?
- Was Reform Judaism the Price of Political Acceptance?
- And finally, our topic for this Shabbat: Were the Jews Slaves in Egypt?
Answer: Well, you see where this is going...
The author of this article is Rabbi Dr. David Sperling, professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-New York, and my teacher. In our 2nd-year bible class, when he told us that the Exodus didn’t really happen, he made several of my classmates cry. I hope that isn’t the outcome of my d’var torah tonight... and I give you full permission to reject everything I say here (not that that differs from any other week, but I'm making it explicit this week!).
Let me break down Sperling's argument for you: There’s no archaeological record of millions of Israelites ever being slaves in Egypt, or marching through the desert to Canaan. Period. It probably didn’t happen, at least not as described in the Torah.
I have a feeling that’s not terribly shocking for most of us, who probably don’t take the Bible as literal history, but instead as a human document -- divinely inspired, though couched in the context of its authors’ times and places.
So why is that story there? Why would a people keep telling a myth about ourselves as former slaves, and as immigrants and foreigners in our land?
Before I answer that, let’s get help from another voice.
Jonathan Zimmerman wrote in this week’s Tablet Magazine about being a Jewish atheist, and searching for a synagogue suitable for him intellectually. (Based on unofficial polling a few weeks ago, during my sermon on what Americans believe, I know that some significant number of Jewish atheists call this synagogue their spiritual home. And this is good...)
Zimmerman talks about growing up very involved in Conservative Judaism, from Hebrew school, to services and holidays, to Camp Ramah. And he even went on to Brandeis. He reflects that, during his childhood, no one ever imposed on him a singular concept or image of God, and he was able to jump in his imagination between various possibilities (including the old man in the cloud, the booming voice in the Ten Commandments, and, amusingly, Ariel’s father Triton in The Little Mermaid!).
When he grew to be a teenager, he began to think of God as a “fictitious character full of symbolic importance.” He had begun to study literature and placed God among the great characters of Western culture. He always felt, I think rightly, that Judaism is “a remarkably easy religion to engage with skeptically.”
But then something happened, especially when he found himself among many non-Jews, who have a different relationship to God belief, God language, and doubt. He realized he needed to resolve this unresolved issue from childhood. So he started studying it more, reading the so-called “new atheists" (e.g. Hitchens and Dawkins), and thereby fully realized his atheism. He never rejected Judaism, though, as he still found it valuable. But he searched in vain for a Jewish institution that felt like an intellectual home.
Finally, when he moved to NYC, he decided to explore the humanistic Judaism that he had read about, and so he attended a service at the City Congregation for Jewish Humanism, which meets at the Lower East Side Y.
But something unexpected happened. When they got to the Shema, this is what the prayer book and the congregation sang (to the usual melody): Shema Yisrael, echad ameinu, adam echad. “Hear O Israel, Our People is One, Humanity is One.” And here is Zimmerman describing his reaction: “Hearing God replaced by 'humanity' in this version of the Shema ... felt something akin to hearing Christian heavy-metal: The words and the music were so incongruous, it was impossible not to giggle.”
He went on to reflect that, here, finally, he had found the one prayer book, maybe in the world, where he could agree with every word. And yet, "the prayers rang false." He concluded,
Who really wants to pray from a book that has nothing disagreeable in it? Who wants to follow only rituals that make intellectual sense? It seemed so shortsighted to me. If I hadn’t been given a God to wrestle with growing up, I wouldn’t be half the cynical, pestering, relentlessly questioning nudnik I am today. In other words, I wouldn’t be Jewish. [!]
And that brings us back to Dr. Sperling and his tearing down of the traditional belief in the Exodus as described in the Torah and Haggadah. Just because it’s not literally or historically true doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain truth.
Sperling teaches that the Exodus story is an allegory for what the Israelites were facing in their political and social reality. It was “invented deliberately to obscure the fact that the Israelites were native to Canaan.” Since in fact they had many values and teachings in common with the neighboring tribes, they had to work hard to assert their distinctiveness. This, they hoped, would ensure solidarity among the people, and enhance their commitment to the Torah’s calls to be wary of the practices of their neighbors, the Canaanites, Egyptians, and others.
But why a slavery story, of all things? Why Egyptian bondage? Again, it's allegory: Egypt had an ancient empire that stretched past Israel into what we now know as Syria. The Egyptian overlords controlled much of the economy of those areas, often forcing the local populations to harvest their imperial fields rather than the inhabitants’ own land. So the Israelites had been subjected to forced labor at the hands of Egyptian taskmasters, just not in Egypt -- in their native land!
The story seems invented, again, to shore up the exclusive worship of God. After all, if God could free a people from slavery, with miracles such as that story, then surely He is worthy of exclusive, special worship -- instead of the various gods of neighboring tribes.
After we tear down and reconstruct this narrative, we learn: distinctiveness and independence, along with loyalty to God, are elevated as supreme values.
This leads Rabbi David Wolpe to say that the myth, if you want to call it that, of the Exodus makes him feel enormous gratitude: for freedom, for security, for Jewish continuity. He writes, “Despite unimaginable opposition, the Jewish people have seen nation after nation buried under the debris of history while our nation lives. Truth should not frighten one whose faith is firm. And faith ought not to rest on splitting seas.”
Zimmerman reaches a related conclusion after his Jewish atheist searching:
I needed my experience with Humanistic Judaism to relearn what I intuitively understood from a young age: There is inherent value in saying words I do not mean, praying to a God I do not believe in, and kissing a Torah I do not believe was written by him. There is a poetic richness as a non-believer participating in this tradition, in being an “Israelite” named for a mythological story about wrestling with a fictional deity that birthed a very real people.
Although I am still unsure how, I know at least that I will continue to act out this fiction. And if that associates me with a God and superstitions I do not believe in, I accept that, because I know that within the fiction of Judaism lie more profound truths than could ever be attained outside of it.
And we reached a related conclusion yesterday in my adult ed class. We are studying Modern Jewish Thought, and this week's topic was Post-Holocaust Theology.
If the Enlightenment led us to reject the traditional God of Israel, it also taught us to put in His place -- on God’s throne -- humanity, instead. With reason as our guide, we were supposed to advance social and political progress for the good of all humankind, a real messianic age, at our fingertips, made by man for man.
But the Holocaust unseated us from that throne. After that horror, how could we ever put humanity on a pedestal again? Our collective faith, not in God, but in the human species, was shattered.
So we had given up traditional faith in God, and now we had lost classical faith in man. So the question is: what replaces them?
This is a question that can be answered adequately only with a lifetime of lived experience. But this much I know: the answer involves moments of holiness, glimpses of the transcendent, even amidst our deeply secular lives; it invites a sense of the miraculous, even against our rational brains; it demands a humble belief in our ability -- and indeed, responsibility -- to do some good, while understanding our limitations and leaving room for the existence of something greater than ourselves (call it God or something else, but don't let that debate distract from doing something).
Underneath it all, it involves a fundamental affirmation of the value of community and relationship, and that, though we may spend our whole lives searching, our lives have meaning and purpose; we matter to someone, not only here and now, but even when we’ve left this mystery for the next one.