|‘Seder without history’ (The Torah.com)|
In what can best be described as an Open Orthodox forum called ‘TheTorah.com’ A sincere but troubled Jew asked the following question:
I have always loved studying Torah. But over the years, as I have added the study of history and philosophy in depth, I find it more and more difficult to believe in the traditional version of the Exodus. I simply can’t accept a story with plagues and miracles, splitting of seas and manna falling from heaven as historical.
I still feel connected to God, as well as to Torah and the mitzvot (I am observant) and I would like to have a spiritual Seder Night. How can I recite the haggada and talk about a story that I don’t believe actually happened, in a meaningful way? (As my kids get older, this will become an even more pressing question.)
Unfortunately for this Jew and any Jew, the correct answer is you can’t. If you don’t believe the historicity of the Exodus narrative then you are an Apikores. That many sincere Jews reach that conclusion honestly based on modern scholarship is a sad reality. But a reality nonetheless.
Biblical criticism is not a just a function of our time. It wasn’t born yesterday. It has been around since at least the 19th century era of biblical scholar, Julius Wellhausen. There were plenty of bright and sincere people that accepted Wellhasuen’s documentary hypothesis. Which contradicted Orthodox Judaism’s notions about the Torah’s Author and the era in which it was written.
Rav Chaim Soloveichk was once asked how to deal with someone like that. His answer was not to condemn him. He said, ‘Nebech’. R’ Chaim felt badly that a sincere and well intentioned Jew fell victim to the academic disciplines of his day. But he added, ‘Nebech an Apikores is still an Apkores!’ You simply cannot get away from that.
The question asked of these rabbis is a good one that many educated people grapple with. The questions are not frivolous and insincere. Modern scholarship has raised some serious questions about who wrote the Torah and when it was written. There is also the lack of physical evidence about the events recorded in the Torah. One would for example expect to find some physical evidence of over a million people leaving Egypt together and crossing a desert for 40 years.
Yet there has never been any trace of any such evidence found. Surely archaeologists would have found something by now. But - nothing. Not a single piece of debris.
These are indeed among the serious questions that deserve answers. I can easily understand how someone can reject the historicity of the Torah based on all of that.
And yet, even with all of these questions, the ‘deduction’ that the Exodus never happened is not the only possible conclusion. It may sound like the most likely one to the scientific mind. But there are other explanations that are just as possible no matter how unlikely them may seem to the rational mind.
For those who insist on believing it did not happen based on their academic studies, I don’t see how they can lead their lives based on a myth.What kind of god lies to us in order to get us to believe in him? Does this make sense to anyone?
One must believe in the Torah narrative even if the historical fact of it is not the main message. A message based on a lie isn’t much of a message, no matter what the intent of the author is.
One must be honest about that even if it means someone losing his faith. What is kind of faith is based on something you know to be a lie? How can that be the foundation of your belief system? The questioner should have been told that his lack of belief that the Exodus happened makes it impossible to recite the Haggadah – in which the Exodus story is treated as history… a truthful history from which we learn.
Three of the respondents answered him honestly but skirted the issue. And two of them answered in ways that are close to being – if they are not actually – Apikorsus. In fact one of them is clearly Apikorsus.
The flagship institution of Open Orthodoxy, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) has clearly stated that one of their theological requirements is the belief that the events at Sinai actually happened. Anyone that denies it is an Apikores. These were the words uttered by Rabbi Y’soscher Katz, YCT’s Talmud Chair during a broadcast interview last year. I wish these respondents would have been as clear.
But instead of being clear Rabbis Herzl Hefter, David Bigman, and Yuval Cherlow, skirted the question by emphasizing that one should not focus on the historicity of the Torah but on its message. Which is what is really important.
This is true. In doing so, they did not deny the historicity of the Exodus. But I don’t see how it helps the questioner. He does not believe it happened. These answers don’t help. The Haggadah treats the Exodus as though they actually happened. How he can recite the Haggadah in any meaningful way if he doesn’t believe what he is saying?
The only answers that might be satisfying to the questioner are the 2 answers given by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen and Professor Tamar Ross. Rabbi Rosen’s answers borders on - if not actually being - Apikurus:
Each religion, each culture has its own traditions and narratives that are often not factually true or at least not strictly so, but underpin and reinforce its value system. Does their significance lie in their historicity or accuracy? Is it important to try and “prove” them to be “true”? I don’t think so. I accept the Torah as my way of life, of God communicating with me. Do I know exactly how or even when it was transmitted? Not in any scientific sense, no.
Now he doesn’t actually say it didn’t happen. But he comes pretty darn close. If he would have added that ‘Even though it can’t be proven scientifically – that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen’ that would be one thing. But that he left it hanging like this leaves the questioner with the impression that one need not believe it at all.
Here is what Professor Ross said:
I’ve come to terms with the notion that we may never know how factually reliable the story of the escape from Egypt actually is. In fact, I’m not even sure whether the biblical account of the exodus was ever intended as a bona fide attempt at reporting history. It may well be that the original account already reflects the influence of prevailing conventions as to how tales of origin should be written, or perhaps the lack of a clear distinction between myth and systematic history in ancient times.
This is pure unadulterated Apikursus of the type condemned by one of Open Orthodoxy’s leading lights. And called unacceptable by YCT's dean, Rabbi Asher Lopatin. Yet this website hosted her response without comment. I don’t see how anyone associated with a forum that hosts an Apikores as a legitimate voice of Orthodoxy - can themselves be considered Orthodox.