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Did the Exodus Story Really Happen?

Dear Cyber-Rav,

I heard a rabbi said that the Exodus story did not actually happen. It seems to me that if it didn't happen, then everything else about Passover and the seder is built on a lie. Did the Exodus really happen or not?

Changing All Those Dishes - For What!

The Cyber Rav Answers:

Don't throw out your Pesah dishes yet. Yes - there has been a controversy emanating from California over the words of a rabbi about the historical truth of the Exodus itself. I have yet to see the rabbi's lecture, but your question about whether the Exodus actually happened or not is a legitimate question independent of the rabbis' words. So let's forget about the rabbi and deal with your question.

When you ask about whether the Exodus really happened, I assume that you are asking me a question about history. History is not so much the study of what happened in the past, but it is a study of how we know what happened in the past actually happened. The Civil War, when told from the perspective of a Confederate soldier, does not sound the same as the same war told from the perspective of a Northerner. Reconciling the accounts, or examining why the accounts are different, is history.

When we deal with the Exodus, we basically have one account-the Torah's. Egyptian texts and archaeology do not yield much about the Hebrews or their (our) slavery and exodus. Then again, why would the Egyptians expand upon a failure in their social system? When it comes to the historical analysis of the Exodus, we have only one account, and asserting the historical validity of an event that took place 3500 years ago on the basis of a single account does not put you on very solid historical footing. But . . .

The Exodus is not about history; it is about faith. If we could "prove" it, we would not need to have faith in it. And yet, it is precisely faith that we must have when it comes to the Exodus. We have faith in a tale that addresses our suspicion of slavery, our embrace of freedom, our dependence on God, our affirmation of divine law in our lives, and the belief that those who persecute will themselves be punished. Those who demand the Exodus be historically true, are missing the point.

None of us were there. No one can demand that something happened. That's not faith-that's silliness. Did the Exodus really happen? No one knows nor should they presume to answer. But I can tell you that the tale is a sacred tale, that it lies at the foundation of Jewish life, and that it guides us in our faith in God, justice, freedom, and the special relationship between God and the Jewish people. I believe in the Exodus-and that is a statement of faith, not history.

The CyberRav


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