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Bible Bashing 101

Rabbi Avi Shafran

More than 2000 congregants of a Los Angeles Jewish house of worship were treated to an unusual sermon this Passover. Those attending Sinai Temple "learned" that the Torah's account of the Jewish exodus from Egypt - the event the holiday commemorates - likely never happened.

The Los Angeles Times correspondent who covered the sermon was clearly gratified, noting that the rabbi had merely shared with his flock "what scholars have known for years."

Not "what they have theorized" or even "what they have believed." Rather, "what they have known."

With all due respect to both rabbi and reporter, "know" is not a word one should use lightly.

Not all "-ologies" are equal. There are "hard" sciences and "soft" ones. Physics and pharmacology land in the former category, relying as they do on measurements and observations, and theories which can be measured and tested, proven or disproven by experiment. Psychology and sociology, on the other hand, are part of the latter, relying on subjective opinions and dealing with ultimate unknowables.

The particular science invoked, archaeology, may involve a good deal of digging and hauling, but that still doesn't make it hard science. It relies exclusively and inherently on speculative interpretations of evidence, upon theoretical reconstructions whose veracity can never be conclusively confirmed. A chemical compound can be placed under an electron microscope and its molecular structure, to a considerable degree, perceived. Its effects on an organism can be observed and measured, and the experiment can be repeated without limit. A collection of shards, bones and papyri from thousands of years ago, on the other hand, can certainly suggest things, at times even convincingly, but it can never prove anything conclusively. And, in no discipline, "hard" or "soft," can a lack of evidence constitute a disproof.

Yet that is precisely what some archeologists - like those the rabbi trustingly quoted - maintain in the case of the Torah's account of the exodus from Egypt and conquest of the Promised Land. They insist that there is a paucity of corroborative archaeological evidence for the events -- and, therefore, they could not have transpired.

As it happens, scholars such as the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, Hershel Shanks, have concluded that there are indeed indications in the archaeological record of those events. Welcome to the world of "soft" science scholarship.

But there is something else, entirely outside the realm of archaeology, that argues, loudly and powerfully, for the historicity of the Torah's account. Its Hebrew name is mesorah.

The word translates as "heritage" or "oral tradition" but the concept is more complex - and it constitutes nothing less than the essential component of Jewish history and the Jewish faith.

When masses of people experience or witness something, and entrust the next generation with the knowledge of what happened, that is called history. We know that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, that there was a Revolutionary War and that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, all by virtue of a simple fact: the events were witnessed by large numbers of people. Individuals can fabricate things, but masses cannot. For when some folks claim that something happened to, or in front of, the multitude, if in truth it did not, others will stand up and heartily dispute the contention.

The historical tradition of the exodus from Egypt is no different. It could not have been fabricated, suddenly "made up" one day, as some scholars imagine, because it involved hundreds of thousands of people whose children were solemnly entrusted with the account and sworn to entrust it in turn to their own children, and theirs to theirs... down to our own generation. That perpetuation of the Jewish historical tradition is what transpires most notably as the story of the exodus is recounted - indeed re-experienced - at the Passover seder, which the congregants presumably conducted despite this most unusual sermon.

The historical event's distance from us in time does not weaken its historicity but, on the contrary, empowers it. So powerful was the memory of the exodus from Egypt (and the subsequent receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai), so important to the people who received the account, that they preserved it through thick and thin, through exile and massacre, through displacement and pogrom.

How sadly ironic that after 3000 years of uninterrupted mesorah, the Jewish collective memory should have come to be assailed in a country where Jews are more free and secure than at any time since the Holy Temple's destruction.

And how much sadder that its assailants include a Rabbi.


Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.



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