Defending a rabbi in the 21 century for saying the Exodus story isn’t factual is like defending him for saying the earth isn’t flat. It’s neither new nor shocking to most of us that the earth is round or that the Torah isn’t a history book dictated to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. Spinoza questioned the Divine authorship of Torah 350 years ago. For 150 years or more, Reform rabbis, and more recently Conservative rabbis, have decided to call it like we (and every non-Orthodox Jewish scholar I am aware of) see it when it comes to the veracity of Torah. True, most Reform rabbis have rejected a literal understanding of Torah out loud and most Conservative rabbis have done it in a whisper; but believe me, you could fit every non-Orthodox rabbi in the world who believes the Torah is entirely factual on the head of a pin and still have plenty of room left over.
Not long ago, in the midst of a rainstorm snuggled beneath the comforter at bedtime, I told the story of Noah and the flood to my red-haired, blue-eyed, freckle-faced daughter Hannah. Toward the end, she looked at me said; “You don’t think Noah really got all those animals on a boat do you Daddy?” At that moment I had a choice to either be an apologist for the text or to help Hannah understand the distinction between facts and truths.
“Hannah, there are things called facts and things called truths and they are not the same. I don’t believe the facts of the story about Noah or the facts in most of the other stories in the Torah, but that’s not what Torah is about. Torah is about truths. Is it a fact that Noah got all those animals on the ark? Of course not. But it’s true that we are responsible for the creatures on this planet — the destiny of creation is in our hands. That’s what the story is about — a truth, not a set of facts.”
I could have simply told Hannah “Of course Noah got all those animals on the ark. If it’s in the Torah it’s a fact?” It might even have worked, for a while. But a literal interpretation of Torah would set her up sooner or later for a terrible fall. Sooner or later Hannah would learn that the Torah says slavery is acceptable, rebellious children and homosexuals should be stoned to death, the sick shunned and placed outside the camp, concubinage embraced and more. Without the latitude to understand these things metaphorically or at least as human conceptions in and of a certain time, Hannah would be morally bound to reject Torah and therefore Judaism. Worse still, Hannah would be justified in asking me if the God of the Torah is good and powerful enough to split the sea and rescue our ancestors why didn’t God save her best friend’s mommy from cancer? Were I a fundamentalist Jew sticking to the facts of suffering as Torah portrays them I would have to tell Hannah that yes, God is good, but her friend’s mommy must have sinned and therefore deserves what’s coming to her and so does everyone else to whom sorrow comes.
Sure, subjectivity, myth and interpretation are dangerous because they open the door to putting all of Torah and all of Judaism up for grabs. But a fundamentalist reading of Torah is even more dangerous for if fundamentalism is the only way it is a way most Jews will rightfully reject.
To those who say, “How dare we question the veracity of the Exodus story, especially on Passover?” I say, how dare we not question it, especially on a holiday devoted to questions? How dare we not search for meaning that runs deeper than the mere facts of how many crossed over what to get to where? It is the truths of the Exodus story, not its facts, which are essential to Passover and it is the truths in Torah, not its facts, which are essential to being a Jew.
There’s a story about a man who was on his hands and knees searching beneath a street lamp for his car keys. “Where do you last remember having them?” asks a passerby, hoping to help.
“Back there in the alley,”
“So why are you looking under the street lamp?” the bystander wants to know.
“Because the light’s better here,” answered the searcher.
Truth is rarely discovered where it’s easiest to find. I admire any rabbi willing to leads us in the right direction.
A Message From David Wolpe
It’s a well-known fact that millions of Jews have doubts about the literal veracity of Bible stories.
On April 8, 9 and 15, I gave a series of sermons that emphasized the following point: faith is independent of doubt. I wanted the millions of doubting Jews to know that they can still be faithful Jews and live a life of meaning and mitzvahs.
If scholarly books are written that question the literal veracity of the Bible stories, it does not help our credibility to pretend that they don’t exist. By discussing these books we maintain the Jewish tradition of sustaining faith by seeking truth.
Ignoring the books, on the other hand, conveys a message of fear: we are afraid that science will shake our faith. I don’t believe it should, and that is why I spoke out.
This has always been the official position of the Conservative movement, and I believe it is an important message that can help millions of doubting Jews stay connected to their faith. If you would like cassette tapes of my talks, please contact my office at (310) 481-3318.