The question of the historical authenticity of the Exodus story gets into far larger questions, namely, does history matter and if so what are the claims it can make on us? Personally I have gone back and forth on the issue. People care about historical records and for good reason. They want to know if their parents and ancestors were slave owners, anti-Semites, liars–or social heroes feeding the poor when no one was looking. People invest a great deal in knowing their origins. Whether or not people are ever able to get a clear picture of how they really came to be who they are and who they can trace their lineage to, the search and struggle animates many. If you don’t believe me, go down to YIVO in New York City and look at all the people who spend hours of their free time tracing their genealogy. Yet, I would agree with Rabbi Waxman that the historical authenticity of the Exodus is not nearly as important as its enduring messages.
I would go even further than Rabbi Waxman and suggest that the whole nature of the Haggadah is not to narrate the course of historical events. Rather, the historical events are there only to illuminate specific core ideas. For example, in the Passover Haggadah, a text complied over a 1,700-year period, the name Moses never once appears. What could be a greater distortion of the actual story of the Exodus than leaving out the man who freed them from Egyptian bondage? The reason Moses does not appear is because ultimately what is most critical is not the historical event or the specific human actors, but the eternal message of faith, redemption, and collective responsibility.
Read the Full Debate: Does It Matter If the Exodus Happened?
- Rabbi Grossman: Kernels of History Add Flavor to Exodus Story
- Rabbi Waxman: The History Trap
- Rabbi Grossman: Exodus–Lack of Evidence Is Not Evidence
- Rabbi Waxman: The Truth of the Exodus
Explore Beliefnet’s Complete Passover Features: