Humanistic Jews are faced with challenges at every holiday. How do we make our celebrations relevant when we know that in many cases they’re commemorating events that never happened? Or at least not the way the legends developed.
Passover celebrates an event – the Exodus from Egypt – that most certainly never occurred. That doesn’t stop me from having a seder, albeit one that was created for a Humanistic Jewish community. But even those Humanistic seders that I’ve used don’t really struggle with what modern scholarship teaches.
So for my seder, I prepared the supplemental reading below. You can even download it here formatted with pictures and such if you like.
Wishing everyone a very happy holiday!
A Modern Maggid
The great scientist Carl Sagan wrote:
Just when we’ve finally understood something [that] scientists are talking about, they tell us it isn’t any longer true. And even if it is, there’s a slew of new things – things we never heard of, things difficult to believe, things with disquieting implications – that they claim to have discovered recently. Scientists can be perceived as toying with us….
Sagan was writing about physics, but he just as well might have been referring to historical archeology. Less than 100 years ago, scholars still believed that the basics of our Exodus tale were true in most details. But then they started digging. And soon it became clear that the story we had told ourselves for millennia was not true in its details.
They made an astonishing discovery. There had been no mass Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites were natives of the Land of Israel. They were Canaanites themselves!
Our ancestors were Canaanites living in their own land. But they were not free and Egypt was not innocent. For while they might not have been slaves IN Egypt, they may have been slaves TO Egypt.
What some historians now suggest happened is as interesting in its own way as the myth of Moses and the Exodus. It is a narrative of Egyptian dominance over the Land of Israel and how the pharaohs established a crippling system of corvée labor among the peasants of the land.
It is the story of kings of Canaan who submitted to the pharaohs, forcing their own people to abandon family fields and to labor in royal lands.
From their midst arose bands of insurgents who triggered a peasant revolt. Soon Israel was freed from the yoke of the Egyptians. Archeological discoveries reveal that tribes and towns began to form, bringing together these disparate rebels. In a long, complicated and gradual process they became known as the Israelites. They did not conquer the land from abroad, but they fought fiercely to unite their brothers and sisters so that they might thrive in their homeland.
Here’s another question on a night of questions. Why did people who were native to the Land of Israel tell a story in which they were outsiders?
Passages from Egypt to Israel and back were common occurrences. The Torah’s chronicle of Jacob and his sons reflect this reality. The Nile provided a more constant source of water than Israel’s rains and this ongoing dependence was itself a kind of servitude.
Another possibility is raised by historians who believe that the Exodus story was heavily influenced by the experience of one tribe, the Levites, who may well have originated in Egypt. Many Levitical names, including Moses and Aaron, are Egyptian in origin. The Levites were the cultic experts and the only tribe with no territory. Were they the outsiders who circulated the original Exodus tale?
The details are buried in history, but history gives wings to legends and legends yield heroes like Moses.
Over hundreds of years, our story emerged with its account of one great man, dedicated to justice and to the liberation of his people. He challenged a pharaoh and led the Israelites to freedom. For millennia he has inspired many others who have been downtrodden or enslaved to bring about their own deliverance.
It is his story – now our story – that we recall tonight.