“Historiography” is the study of how history is researched, written, and told, or in other words, the history of history. One of the great works of modern Jewish historiography was a short book called “Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory." The author, Yosef Haim Yerushalmi, who was both a rabbi and a history professor at Columbia, explored the tension between the two. Jewish memory does not depend on the historicity of the events being “remembered”, while the historian works in the area of provable facts.
The Exodus is a classic example of the difference between history and memory. If you have ever taken a history class at a college or graduate level, you know that from the perspective of a historian an event can reliably be assumed to have occurred only if there is validation from an external source. If an archaeologist digging on what is today Mastenbrook Place should discover 200 years from now my memoir of the years that I served as President of the United States, this does not prove that I was actually President of the United States. It proves only that I wrote a memoir asserting that I was. The only way for the archaeologist to prove that I was in fact the President of the United States for a period of time would be to find contemporaneous newspaper stories, government archival records, etc.
So from the perspective of academic history there is no evidence that the Exodus ever occurred. Of course, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The lack of evidence is not proof that the Exodus didn’t occur either, and we know that the Egyptian Pharaohs kept extensive records of their victories but not of their defeats, so it’s entirely possible that the Exodus did occur and yet there is no external record of it. But the earliest character in the Bible for which we have external evidence is David, so it is only from David on that we are reliably in the realm of history.
Yet the Exodus story is deeply ingrained in the “memory” of our people even if its historicity is not provable. We hold a Seder, eat matzah and maror, not because of some archaeological proof but because the story of the progress from slavery to freedom is our own story and is central to our very being.
But while it is our story it is not only our story. I'm always struck by the fact that our Torah readings at this time of year deal with our ancestors' Exodus from Egypt precisely at the time that as a country we recall a modern Moses and his struggle to lead his own people to freedom. While Martin Luther King was a Christian minister, if you listen to his speeches the biblical texts he quoted from most often were those that Jews and Christians both hold to be sacred. Like Moses, Dr. King went to the mountaintop but did not accompany his people to the Promised Land. As our own history shows, the route to the Promised Land is not easy and not quick, and there will be setbacks along the way. But we will get there some day.
For the next several Shabbat mornings we will be having kiddush after services. They will not necessarily be elaborate but they will be an opportunity for us to spend some more time together informally rather than rushing home as soon as services end. Especially on days when we do have Kiddush, it’s important that you sign up to attend via our registration form -- it helps us know how much food to have without being wasteful.
As a reminder, I am having drop-in hours on Thursday afternoon from 2 to 4 at the shul. You do not need to make an appointment -- that would negate the whole point of drop-in hours -- but I’d urge you to check and make sure I am there regardless as sometimes there are unavoidable pastoral or other emergencies which might take me away from the building.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment. I have been spending more time in the synagogue recently but if you want to speak with me it’s best to make an appointment rather than assuming I will be there when you stop by.