When I was studying for my Certificate In Jewish Educational Technology from JTS a few years ago, my elective was Teaching Jewish History. The main textbook for the course was Zachor by Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi. It deals with the question of “memory” vs. “history.”
This is a tricky topic when discussing Biblical stories and especially midrashim because people will ask questions that assume the historicity of the text. For example, “how old was Isaac at the time Abraham sought to sacrifice him”? There are a lot of reasons that this question can’t be answered; among them is that Conservative Judaism does not assume and certainly does not require belief in the assertion that the events contained in the earlier portions of the Bible actually occurred in the way that the Bible describes them.
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 confirmation from an external source. If an archeologist 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 archeologist to prove that I was in fact 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 it’s 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.
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. Although I am working primarily from home, I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian