Exodus is myth, not fact
Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer”s evidence of the Exodus reminds me of the story of the boy whose arrows were dead center in every chalked circle: first he shot the arrows and then he drew the circles. (“The Exodus: It happened and it matters,” April 15)
Contrary to Rabbi Engelmayer’s claims, the Exodus is our foundational myth but not historical truth.
Six hundred thousand men (and countless women and children) did not spend 40 years in the wilderness existing on manna and a flock of quail. Moses, our revered leader, did not go 40 days without food or water — twice. God did not say “Remember” and “Observe” Shabbat simultaneously. The earth did not swallow up Korach and his followers. And B’nai Yisrael did not wander for 40 years because of the spies’ negative report.
Rationalizing our millennia-old myth, however poignant, disparages the high ethical basis of our tradition, which continues to evolve even after these beliefs were recorded. Rabbi Engelmayer denigrates our vibrancy as a people when he calls our ethics “the whims of anonymous authors.” Rabbinic Judaism is the heir to biblical Judaism but not its undisputed destiny.
The Exodus is our birth story
I generally enjoy the opinions of Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer. However, I disagree with his Exodus column (April 15) in which he posits that the Exodus “really happened.” I certainly agree that the Exodus story is the central organizing narrative of the Jewish people. But that does not mean that it is a true historical event. Based on my research, biblical scholars maintain that the Hebrews did migrate to Egypt, were enslaved for several generations, and did manage to escape to freedom and return to Canaan. However, this escape was not one event but several escapes over time. It is likely that Moses was a leader of one such escape.
Later, when the editors of the Torah completed the final “edition” of the Torah, they wanted to present a narrative which unified the Jewish people. Accordingly, the Torah presents the Exodus as all of the Hebrews (600,000!) escaping under Moses’ leadership with “signs and wonders.” Yes, there are interesting coincidences which lend credence to a historical narrative. But coincidences are not facts.
For me, the Torah’s Exodus story does not have to be factual. It is our birth story which captures the essence of Judaism and the Jewish people.
Peter I. Herbst