Rosh Hashanah 5773/2012

On Passover 2001, Rabbi David Wolpe, a Conservative rabbi in Los Angeles, said to his congregation:  “The way the Bible describes the Exodus [from Egypt] is not the way it happened, if it happened at all…” – and set off a veritable firestorm of controversy, especially in some Orthodox quarters for whom the veracity and divinity of Biblical text is sacrosanct.  But, also, for many in Conservative and Liberal Jewish circles, such a statement – from a rabbi no less – was shocking, even scandalous.  Perhaps many of you here today are hearing such a statement for the first time and, as with so many 11 years ago, are wondering:  How could this story we read each year about the heroic Moses trumping the great Pharaoh and leading the band of runaway slaves to freedom not be true?  Is this not our history?

The fact is, there is no corroborating historical evidence – written or archaeological – for the Exodus – nor for any of the other narratives in our Torah for that matter.  Moreover, the archaeological evidence we have actually contradicts the Exodus story.  Now, there is evidence of some things in certain Biblical books after the Torah – the First Temple, and Kings such as David and Solomon, dating back to the 10th century BCE.  But whether or not the tales about David and Solomon happened as recounted in the books of Kings or Chronicles, can no more be verified than the stories of King Arthur and his Court.

The funny thing is, every rabbi knows this.  Every rabbi trained in the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist seminaries of the United States and Europe for the past 150 years knows this.  Every seminarian for the last 150 years of Jewish and most Christian denominations (except for some fundamentalist Christians and ultra-Orthodox Jews) learns the Biblical Documentary Theory, the theory that demonstrates conclusively the hands of many authors in both writing and editing Biblical text. The shock – and the scandal in my view – is not Rabbi Wolpe’s statement, but rather why it took a rabbi or anyone so long to say it.

Of course, Rabbi Wolpe was not the first to challenge the historicity of the Bible, nor the divinely-revealed nature of the text.  Even before the Documentary Theory of the 19th century, the 17th-century Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, was excommunicated by the Jewish Elders of his community for challenging the authenticity and divinity of the Bible.  Going back to the 12th century, Moses Maimonides, the physician, mathematician, astronomer, and perhaps the greatest Jewish scholar who ever lived, was endlessly frustrated when people would pester him with questions such as:  “What does God’s throne look like?” or “What were the colors in Joseph’s many-colored coat? or “Will there be food in heaven?”  Maimonides taught that our Torah – and our prayers – are instructional and metaphorical teachings about how to live an ethical and fulfilling existence.  Maimonides even went so far as to say that those who read our sacred texts literally, “… destroy the glory of the Torah and extinguish its light….”

For the Jewish Mystics whose works span hundreds of years, Torah is not just a simple collection of laws and stories. It is an esoteric code to be cracked so as to understand God’s nature and the mysteries of creation.  Even going back as far as the 1st century, the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, believed much of the Torah to be allegory, while the Ancient Rabbis living from the 1st through 6th centuries in Israel and Babylonia used their own interpretive techniques, making up stories called midrash when Biblical details were lacking, or unsatisfactory, or disturbing; and sometimes literally reversing Biblical laws when they thought they were too harsh or too rigid.

For two thousand years, then, the Jewish relationship to Torah, and to the rest of the Bible – Psalms, Job, Ruth, Isaiah, Song of Songs – all of it – has been one of interpretationnot literalism.  In fact, this is where the essence and practice of Judaism lies – not in the Bible, but in between the lines, in the centuries of commentary of the great works that followed it – from the Talmud to the Shulchan Aruch, from the Midrash to the modern Responsa of contemporary Judaism.  As Rabbi Harold Schulweis teaches: when we read the Bible as if it is the last word, stripping it of its centuries of later commentary, we rob Jewish tradition of its evolving moral dynamics, an evolution that has not left us stuck in the 12th century BCE, nor even in the 19th or 20thcentury.

Why, then, was Rabbi Wolpe’s statement, made just 11 years ago, considered by some so radical?  This is a hard question to answer.  But, when Wolpe was confronted with criticism and questions, he responded that whether or not the Exodus is literally historically true is not the point… because “it does not ultimately change our connection to each other or to God.”

I could not agree more.  It is not the point to try to find scientific explanations for the ten plagues or figure out which Pharaoh was on the throne in order to validate the importance of the Exodus story or the Torah itself.  The point is to notice that this story recounts our beginnings as a group of slaves, not conquerors – and to wonder what that might mean for us.  The point is that this story teaches that Redemption is possible, that freedom is something to fight for, for all humankind.  That we should be kind to the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.  That we should fight oppression wherever we see it – whether it’s in the United States or Syria or Israel.  That we should stand up for those less fortunate than ourselves, whether it’s the hungry in Darfur or the unemployed in Ohio.  That we should work to end modern-day slavery, whether it’s in the brothels of Bangkok or the tomato fields of Florida.  That is the point.

It’s not the point to postulate the existence of a bush with bright red berries in the Sinai desert that somehow could have been construed by a Moses or other passerby as a burning bush.  The point is what does it take to discern God’s presence even in a lowly bush?  To be called upon by some Force Unknown to go forth and fight for freedom?  It’s not the point to search for evidence of the destroyed cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to prove that the Bible is something worth studying.  The point is that our ancestors tell a story that a man named Abraham had the chutzpah to question God’s judgment to destroy the innocent along with the guilty.  That sometimes questioning authority, that questioning God, can be a heroic thing to do – even a moral obligation.

Does saying that God did not literally stay the hand of Abraham when he was about to kill his son make our Torah less holy? Less worthy of reverence?  Absolutely not.  Because it is the Jewish enterprise of studying and struggling with text, of attempting to make meaning, of putting our Jewish values into action for the betterment of the world that makes a text holy and sacred.  The fact that Jews in every generation have done this makes it holy.  The fact that we have died for our Torah and our beliefs makes it holy.

Now, why have I made this the topic of my Rosh Hashanah sermon?  In the last five years since I have been here at CKS, as well in my years in previous positions, I have been confronted by far too many instances of Jewish teens and twenty-somethings – and Jews of all ages, who reject Judaism because somehow they’ve come to believe that the Bible is meant to be taken literally… and they just don’t believe that Noah really built an ark, or Methusaleh lived for 900 years, or that Elijah ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot.  I have been confronted by too many raised eyebrows and surprised “You don’t’s?” when I’ve told people that I don’t take the words of the Bible literally.  And this shocks me.  And it frightens me that such a belief has become so common.  I do not know if this phenomenon has occurred because the loudest and most dominant religious voices of the past 30 years have been those who do take Biblical text literally.  But I am standing up here today on Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, to say that no, I do not believe this is really the birthday of the world, I do not believe the universe was created in six days 5773 years ago, nor that God dictated the Torah or anything else to Moses on the top of Mt. Sinai.  I do not think the Bible has all the answers, or that it represents the one true path to God or to the best spiritual life.  I read the Bible because it contains some of the greatest ethical teachings ever written, some of the most profound thoughts, some of the greatest poetry.  I study it in the hope that sometimes it will bring me spiritual satisfaction.  I read it because it’s intellectually stimulating and a brilliant, one-of-a-kind piece of literature.  I do not read the Bible as a history book, and I certainly do not read it as a science book.

So, it is time to say loudly and clearly, “No” to the people here in our country that would use the Bible as a justification for denying Gays and Lesbians their civil rights.  It is time to say “No” to those who would use the Bible to turn back the clocks on the issue of abortion – which by the way is not illegal under Jewish law – on the issue of contraception, and even attitudes on rape.  It is time to say “No” to those who would like to replace in our science textbooks the teaching of Evolution with some fanciful idea based on the opening chapters of Genesis.  It is time to say “No” to those who use the Bible to oppress others; who would throw us back to a time before the Enlightenment, before Science and Reason, to the detriment of the education of our youth and the advancement of this nation.

As Jews, too, it is time to say “No” to those Extremist Orthodox rabbis in Israel who use Biblical quotes to incite violence against Palestinians, burning their mosques and olive groves; who force women to sit in the back of public buses or prevent them from praying as men do at the Western Wall; who would, if they could, change the very definition of “Who is a Jew” – affecting so many of us right here in this room.   As Anat Hoffman, the Executive Director of the Israel Reform Action Center tells us:  We all must care deeply about Israel – its safety, its security, and its democracy.

All around the world over the last decade, and just over the past two weeks with the attacks on our embassies, have we not seen enough of what religious extremism – of any stripe – can do?  It is time to say “No”.  It is time to say, “Enough”.  Today, we all need to be prophets and cry out: “Enough”.

But, it is also time to say “Yes”.  I am proud to be a Reconstructionist rabbi whose movement paved the way for Jewish support of Gay and Lesbian rights.  I am proud that, for decades, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements have fully supported a woman’s right to make her own reproductive healthcare decisions.  I am proud that we support the Separation of Church and State, that we are welcoming to interfaith families, and that we stand fast with Israel while at the same time challenging its government to stand by the best of Jewish values in the fair treatment of all the people in its territory.  And, I am proud that at this crucial time in our history, I will be part of a growing group of rabbis and lay people who are going to bat for our nation’s poor, to make sure that essential services to them are not cut off.

This fall, I will be taking the “Food Stamp Challenge” sponsored by Mazon, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements, in which I will attempt to live on the average Food Stamp budget for one week.  Today, nearly 1 in 6 Americans struggle with hunger – 1 in 6!  So, I hope you will log onto the website describing this challenge and consider joining or supporting me, to save the Food Stamp program that can mean the difference for so many between food and care and hunger and deprivation.

Our Bible teaches us that we must clothe the naked and feed the hungry and break the shackles of oppression.  And that is the point.  Today, we all need to be prophets and cry out, “Enough”.  And today, we all need to say “Yes” – to a more just and merciful world.

Keyn yehi ratzon.  May it be so.  LeShana tova tikateyvu.  May you all be inscribed for a life of goodness.

Published in Rabbi Susan's Sermons on October 3, 2012