Life was interesting for Rabbi David Wolpe in 2001.
It’s not every year that a man has an ad taken out against him in The Jewish Journal by six well-respected rabbis, accusing him of "threaten[ing] our spiritual continuity by attempting to diminish our faith and sever the roots that bind us to it," and also gets named by The Forward as one of the Top 50 most influential people in the Jewish community.
During the past year, Wolpe, the spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, has been both vilified and lauded for his Passover sermon in which he questioned the truth of the Book of Exodus, as most of his congregants, indeed most of the Jewish world, had come to know it. His statements were recorded by Los Angeles Times reporter Teresa Watanabe, who quoted Wolpe as saying, "Virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all."
To say such declarations did not sit well with the rabbi’s Orthodox brethren is an understatement. The controversy evoked by the Los Angeles Times article about the sermon crossed not only interdenominational boundaries locally, but drew strong responses from across the United States and in Israel.
Many congregational rabbis were actually grateful. Instead of the usual, "We were taken out of Egypt and therefore must help the poor, homeless, suffering world Jewry…" sermons they try to make compelling year in and year out, suddenly there was a topic to dive into with gusto.
If indeed, the Exodus did not happen as stated in the Torah, what does that mean for the Passover seder, for the veracity of the Torah, for Israel and Judaism?
The debate raged among everyday congregants and world-renowned scholars. It spilled onto the pages of Moment magazine, in which Wolpe responded to an attack by Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeological Review, who in turn rebutted Wolpe as follows:
"…The only aspect of the Biblical account that Rabbi Wolpe legitimately questioned on archeological grounds was the claim that 600,000 Israelite men (plus women and children, for a total of 2 or 3 million) crossed the desert. This is a gross exaggeration, I agree. But if Rabbi Wolpe had simply said this straight out-and-out, his sermon would not have garnered the publicity it did."
Even as recently as a few weeks ago, New York Times reporter Michael Massing made a point in his article about the Conservative movement’s new chumash, Etz Hayim, to bring up Wolpe’s "litany of disillusion" about the Torah.
In truth, Wolpe said that he was only stating what Orthodox Jews had always claimed Conservative Jews believed.
"Part of the outrage was artificial, because the Orthodox have said for years that Conservative Jews treat the Torah as a human document," Wolpe said. "We do, and I said it, and they said, how dare you say such a thing? So that was part of it."
Wolpe said his primary motivation in writing the sermon, was that he wanted to avoid the tendency of many rabbis to hide their knowledge and opinions from their congregants, believing that they would not be able to handle the information.
"A nationally important rabbi with whom I spoke after the sermon said to me, ‘Why did you do this?’ And I said, ‘Because I don’t wish to treat my congregation as children.’ To which he said, ‘But they are children,’" Wolpe recalled, shaking his head.
"I think that is how a lot of rabbis think of their congregants," he continued. "I have had many rabbis say to me, I won’t bring you to my congregation to discuss this because it would undermine my religious position. That to me is a species of intellectual timidity that is unfortunate and even destructive."
Following the sermon and subsequent press, Wolpe said he got a call from a woman in Palm Beach, Fla., who told him that a couple of years ago she went to Israel on an archeological dig, and the archeologist said to her the same things that Wolpe said in his sermon.
"She said, ‘I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. But now it’s two years later, and my faith has deepened, so stick with it,’" the rabbi reported.
"I didn’t want my congregants to hear about this first at UCLA and to come back to me and say, ‘Rabbi, either you’re ignorant or you’re hiding. Why didn’t you tell us about this?’ I wanted them to know you can know this and still be a faithful Jew," Wolpe said.
Although the rabbi’s intentions were good, his characterization of belief in the divine origin of the Torah as blind faith angered some colleagues, particularly those in the Orthodox rabbinate. Rabbi Elazar Muskin, leader of Young Israel of Century City, said after listening to the tape of Wolpe’s sermon that he felt compelled to confront the rabbi.
"I told him I took umbrage with the implication that Orthodox belief is blind belief; that it is an infantile stance, while those who believe in biblical criticism are the intellectuals, the enlightened ones," Muskin said. "To say that the Orthodox belief is that of the Dark Ages is just fallacious.
"We have been dealing with the same questions [as Bible scholars] for centuries, from the writing of the Talmud to the present day," said Muskin, who was part of a panel discussing biblical criticism March 20 at Valley Beth Shalom.
Over time, the controversy has died down somewhat. Muskin said he did not believe the incident created any lasting rift between Conservative and Orthodox Jews in Los Angeles.
Wolpe noted that "all the dire predictions about what this would do to my synagogue were wrong. We still get over 1,000 people every Shabbos morning, and to my knowledge, not a single family resigned over this issue. I think that’s because even though many were challenged, they know that we don’t keep our children Jewish by keeping them in the dark."
Even congregants who dispute Wolpe’s point of view said that for the most part, the congregation stood by the rabbi.
"There are those who disagreed and those who stopped coming, but I don’t know anyone who has left the synagogue," said Sean Nass, a Sinai Temple member.
Nass was present for the initial sermon and said it was "jolting, to say the least." He said he was brought up in Iran to see the Torah as the link between God and humans.
"Then here you are all of a sudden with a prominent rabbi saying the link is deeper than the Torah, that you have to have deeper faith," he said. "It was very unsettling."
Nass, who is enrolled in Wolpe’s class, "Beyond Exodus," that expands on the ideas raised by last year’s sermon, said he believed that the rabbi’s only mistake was in his approach to the material.
"Rabbi Wolpe fell into a trap," he said. "His problem is he is brilliant, and sometimes when brilliant people talk to the masses, what they say could go over the masses’ heads. I think if he had built up to [these ideas] over five or six sermons, he wouldn’t have met with such a strong reaction."
Wolpe concluded that on a personal level, standing up and stating his beliefs has been a powerful experience.
"Churchill said, after the Boer War, ‘There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.’ I sort of feel the same way, that it was very bracing to see that all this could happen, and when it was over, I was still here," he said. "If it happens again, I’m not afraid of it."