There are few moments in my education that stand out more than the time when I asked a professor in rabbinical school about whether and how we should teach biblical criticism. After all, we’d been learning about the approach of archeologists and other academics for a long time. It was one of the backbones of our education.
Yet I did not understand what I was supposed to do with the material. In my student rabbinical jobs I would teach Torah in the usual way but sometimes I would bring it up. Usually, I found my students an eager audience, but I struggled with how to mine the text for wisdom while simultaneously pointing out that so much of its content was simply wrong.
So when I raised the question, I had some practical considerations in mind. His advice to me was to ignore archeology and biblical criticism when teaching Torah. Apparently, this is the answer they had been giving rabbinical students since the time when Kaufman Kohler first brought critical study of the texts to HUC.
Today I’m a little embarrassed about how I solved the dilemma. I began to talk about the Torah as if it were something other than the very human document that I knew it to be. I spouted some real doozies like, “Well, the Torah is not true in the sense that it’s historically accurate. It’s True with a capital ‘T’ because it preserves timeless truths.” I sort of glossed over the fact that among these timeless truths were instructions to kill homosexuals, forcibly marry off rape victims and execute adulterers.
So imagine my surprise when I opened up the latest issue of “Reform Judaism” magazine and turned to a section called “Focus: Greatest Jewish Myths” asking the key seasonal question: “Were the Jews Slaves in Egypt?”
In an excerpt from his excellent book, “The Original Torah,” HUC’s S. David Sperling, reveals, “The biblical tradition of slavery in Egypt and the Israelite conquest of Canaan appear to be fictitious.” And that’s just the article’s subtitle!
What’s with all of this newfound honesty?
This seems to be part of a new trend in liberal Judaism. I guess they’ve just decided to put all of their cards on the table and confirm what anyone who’s ever taken a university Intro to Bible class already knows.
Back in 2001, (Conservative) Rabbi David Wolpe was publicly castigated for pointing out the non-occurrence of the Exodus. Being that he’s liberal Judaism’s go-to “God Guy,” he’s made an entire career out of explaining how a book so full of stuff that’s not, you know, true, is nevertheless TRUE. When I did that, I just got a stomachache. But when you have faith, you can say all kinds of stupid things and if you phrase them elegantly enough, then you will sound profound.“Reform Judaism” magazine puts Wolpe to good use in a sidebar about how it doesn’t really matter that the Torah isn’t historically accurate. The piece is an adaptation from a beliefnet.com article that he wrote in 2004:
The Torah is not a book we turn to for historical accuracy, but rather for truth. The story of the Exodus lives in us. Standing at the Passover Seder, I see in my mind’s eye the Israelites marching out of Egypt, the miracles at the sea, and the pillar of fire leading them through the fearful night. I feel an enormous gratitude to God. For although we cannot know exactly how God has saved our people, we have been saved. Despite unimaginable odds and opposition, the Jewish people have seen nation after nation buried under the debris of history while our nation lives. Here is where archeology, history, scholarship and scripture meet: Am Yisrael Chai, the nation of Israel remains alive.
In the new article, he altered the first sentence to say “larger truth.” Because obviously bigger is better.
Here’s how I read Wolpe: It doesn’t matter that the story didn’t happen. Because I believe in God. And Jews exist. So obviously God saved them. And now I shall wrap it all up by placing scripture in a list of things that we can all agree are reliable sources of accurate information (i.e., truth) like archeology, history and scholarship. Because if they’re all in the same sentence then that must mean that they’re all equally reliable. And in conclusion, Yay Jews.
One of the nicest things about being Humanistic Jew is that I can learn about real Jewish history without disturbing my core convictions. One of my teachers is Rabbi Adam Chalom. Here he is speaking about Rabbi Sherwin Wine’s book (that he edited), “A Provocative People: A Secular History of the Jews.”