November 22, 2018

Pharoah said ‘no.’ You won’t believe what God did next.

Once, at our seder, our friend Ira gave a running commentary on the haggadah, offering a scientific explanation for every miracle and wonder in the Exodus story.    


I honor the impulse to rationalize the Passover story, to find a lens through which it looks like history. But I think it may actually be better if the whole thing really were made up.

I can see why Wolpe got a big pushback. Ingenious alternatives were offered for the truth of the text. Richard Elliott Friedman, for example, a distinguished scholar, built an elegant case that the Exodus did indeed occur, but just for one fierce tribe, the Levites. When they joined the other tribes, the Levites became the Israelites’ priesthood. The task of teaching Torah fell to them, and their own experience became the official version.

“And that is how a historical event that happened to the Levite minority became everybody’s celebration — how we all came to say that we were slaves in Egypt, although that was not the experience even of most Israelites of the period. It’s not so different from practicing, say, the American cultural tradition of Thanksgiving, which most Americans do, even though most U.S. citizens are not descended from Pilgrims or Native Americans.” 

I honor the impulse to rationalize the Passover story, to find a lens through which it looks like history. But I think it actually may be better if the whole thing really were made up.

Wolpe is a bit elegiac when he tells us that the Exodus may not have happened, the way parents in another religious tradition admit there is no Santa Claus. He lets us down easy and guides us to the holiday’s enduring lesson. But I think there’s a huge upside to appreciating it as a fiction, a masterwork of the human imagination, a brilliant narrative, an origin myth whose aesthetic truth leaves me awestruck by its moral truth.

Yes, Passover is about the bitterness of bondage and the righteousness of freedom. But it’s also about — to me, even more about — our telling the story of bondage and freedom.  When we do that, we not only obey a biblical injunction to teach our children where we came from, we communally experience how literally spellbinding a story can be.  

We Jews didn’t just give monotheism to the world. We also gave the story of monotheism to the world. If monotheism had been merely a creed or ideology, the world might have paid attention for a bit and then moved on. But because it’s a story, a breathtaking drama, it has held the world in its grip ever since.  

martyk@jewishjournal.com.