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Does Historical Accuracy of Religious Texts Matter?

This week's Sedra is Metzora, from the opening lines of the second verse: "tihyeh torat metzora" - "This shall be the teaching about the metzora."

The metzora was someone afflicted with a skin problem. Although 'metzora' has been translated as leprosy, it is clear from the symptoms described in the text that it was a variety of ailments other than Hansen's disease -- "true" leprosy. This instruction, according to the text, takes place in the wilderness, where the Israelites are camped, after leaving Mitzraim and experiencing revelation at Sinai. In fact, it is likely that this is something that was added to the text after the core of the Exodus story was recorded.

Most biblical scholars, except Jewish Orthodox and Christian Fundamentalists, have recognized for a long time that the bible is composed of multiple sources, written and edited over many centuries. The text we have was put into final form at Yavneh, late in the first century of the common era. It was long assumed that it was based on older manuscripts and oral traditions that went far back into antiquity.

After the establishment of the State of Israel, there was strong support for extensive archaeological work that was expected to confirm some of the biblical stories, such as the conquest of Canaan by Joshua and the glories of the united monarchy under David and Shlomo (David and Solomon). Indeed, some early excavations seemed to bear out these expectations. At Megiddo, diggers unearthed buildings thought to be the stables built by Shlomo, described in the Book of Kings. Other digs showed layers of destruction that seemed to fit the biblical descriptions of Joshua's conquests.

Then, as dating techniques were improved, it became clear that most of the findings were later than they would be if the biblical descriptions were correct. Other archeological work in the middle east failed to find evidence of an Exodus event or of a large body of people dwelling in the Sinai peninsula over a 40 year period. Increasingly, archaeology cast doubt on the historicity of biblical events.

Archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman have summarized these findings in their recent book, The Bible Unearthed; Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (The Free Press, New York, 2001). They assert that the archaeological evidence indicates that the core texts on which the bible is based were probably not composed until after the destruction of Israel, the northern kingdom, by the Assyrians in 724 BCE. Until then, Judah, the southern kingdom, was a poor backwater with a mostly illiterate population and Jerusalem was hardly more than a village.

The archaeological record suggests that after the Assyrian conquest there was a large influx from the north and a blossoming of Judean culture. The internal evidence of many of the biblical stories, such as those about the patriarchs, describe an environment that is more characteristic of Judah in the 8th century BCE than the time in which Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaaqov supposedly lived. The biblical stories may tell us something about the times in which they were written down, but not, apparently, about the times they describe. In short, the evidence says that not only was the torat metzora not given in the Sinai desert, but there was probably no wandering in the desert at all.

These findings pose an important question for contemporary Jewry. Today is not only Shabbat Parashat Metzora, it is also Shabbat HaGadol, the shabbat before Pesah. Pesah, according to a number of surveys, is the most commonly observed of all Jewish holidays. Pesach is, ostensibly, about a particular event, the liberation of the people of Israel from Egyptian slavery. It, along with the theophany -- the revelation -- at Sinai, is regarded as the seminal event in the creation of Israel. We tell the story; we elaborate on it. We teach it to our children as if it were history, and it is clear that for millennia, Jews and many non-Jews believed that it was history. There were questions about the details, to be sure. Attempts have been made to interpret the text as referring to a much smaller number of people and to understand the miracles -- particularly the plagues -- as either natural events or as based on ancient Egyptian traditions. The problem is that the more we know about that period the less likely it seems that it happened at all.

Well, suppose it didn't happen. What then?

A Night of Questions, the Reconstructionist Passover Haggadah, has four questions to ask before starting the seder. Two relate to this discussion.

"Is this story true?"

The answer provided is:

"We do not tell the story of the Exodus because it is historically accurate; we tell the story because it is our story and we need to recover and uncover the eternal ideas that this story conveys. We take this story seriously but not literally. Pesah is the way the Jewish people celebrate, affirm, wrestle with, and work for freedom as our human destiny."

"Why celebrate Pesah if the story isn't true?"

Our haggadah says:

"Communities live through story and ritual. The great religious traditions seek, each in its own way, to address the fundamental questions of living: Why are we here? What should we do?

"Think of religion as a conversation carried out over the centuries. Through holiday, ritual, story, and song, each religion calls together its community, generation after generation, to encounter those eternal questions."

We can go beyond the Haggadah's answers. The Pesah story is both very particularistic and very universal. It is a story about Israel's origins and about the importance of freedom. Whatever the actual history, the call for each one of us to act as if we had, ourselves, been enslaved and had been freed, is a powerful call to Jewish unity. Whatever our differences, we have a shared heritage that can bind us together. Freedom is a universal value. It is no accident that the story of the Exodus was popular among slaves in the south prior to the Civil War, nor it is an accident that some of their responses resonated with Jews. How many of us have sung "Go down Moses" at a seder? How many of us have found Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech suitable for the Pesah table? Regardless of whether there was an Exodus, the ethical truths remain valid.

At the beginning of the Maggid -- the telling -- we recite the "ha lahma" paragraph -- this is the bread of our poverty -- that ends "ha-shata avdei l'shanah ha-bah b'nai horin" -- Now we are slaves. Next year we will be free.

There are many kinds of slavery.

Are we slaves to bad habits that we wish we could break? Are we dealing with difficult relationships that we wish we could change? Are we stuck in career choices we regret? Beyond our personal lives, are our civil liberties always upheld? Is our environment free of danger?

We face challenges to freedom in every generation and the Pesah story calls on every generation to confront the challenges. If we read the haggadah for this message then the story will be as true for us as it was for our ancestors and, I hope, for our descendents.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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