Virtual Talmud

Several years ago, before I had even enrolled in rabbinical school, I was sitting at my parents’ table for seder when my uncle looked at me pointedly and said: “You’re the religious one. Tell me, did the Exodus really happen?” Suddenly, it got very quiet around the seder table.

The Exodus from Egypt – the miraculous delivery from slavery that marks the formation of the Jewish people – is our core narrative, so central that Jews everywhere gather yearly to retell, and ideally re-experience, the tale. For me, the power of the ritual retelling and experiential re-enactment of this central story stems not from any knowledge I might have that the story is “real,” but rather from the connection I have to the truth of Jews past, present, and future who hold the ideas and ideals encapsulated in the story.

A few years ago, Rabbi David Wolpe raised a storm in the Jewish world by airing the same question my uncle did and concluding, based on available archaeological evidence, that it had never happened.

I think that Rabbi Wolpe is right–the Exodus is not a historical event and the Torah’s depiction is not (and does not in fact seek to be) a factual account. The Torah, after all, is not a book of history, as Professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi and others have argued, the idea of ‘history’ comes much later than the Torah itself. Rather, the Torah is sacred story, a telling that forges and shapes the Jewish people. As Rabbi Richard Hirsh writes in the introduction to the Haggadah “A Night of Questions”:

Is the story true? No, not if we mean an accurate account of events that happened more or less the way they are told… We do not tell the story of the Exodus because it is historically accurate; we tell the story because it is our story and we need to recover and uncover the eternal ideas that this story conveys.

Put differently, the story of the Exodus may not be historically accurate, but it can still be true. The story is true because it speaks powerfully to us of the experience of oppression, because it embodies God’s love for and partnership with the Jewish people, and because it emphasizes God’s central commitment to justice and freedom in the world. We, at the seder, feel moved to internalize this sacred story’s message – affirming our own distinctive history and identity while committing ourselves to work on behalf of those throughout the world who still are not free. We retell the story every year because its truth teaches, sustains us, and gives us purpose as individuals and as a people.

Read the Full Debate: Does It Matter If the Exodus Happened?

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