When I was editor of the Jewish VOICE, I wrote a reflections article on my problems with Passover. As Passover approaches, I thought it would be good to share.
By Shoshana Kohn, Editor
I spent a long time staring at a blank page. Why? Because as a part of a greater Jewish community, I realize that we are hold our own beliefs and these beliefs mean everything to us. However, I think most of us struggle with something in Judaism, and if we don’t talk about it, and share it, we may never get over that struggle. So, let me start by saying, while you, dear reader, may not agree, I, Shoshana Kohn, am a Biblical skeptic. Therefore, as I grow older, I find myself more and more troubled with Passover.
When it comes to historical fact and the bible, the academic world is very complicated. We know King Solomon was real. We know there was a Kingdom of Israel and a Kingdom of Judah. Clearly, we know there was a Babylonian exile. However, other stories are historically murky. The Exodus is one of the best examples of historical murkiness. According to Prof. Israel Finkelstein in his book The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts:
There is no evidence that the Israelites were in Egypt, not the slightest, not the least bit of evidence. There are no clues, either archaeological or historical; to prove that the Israelites built monuments in Egypt, even though the biblical description of the famine in the Land of Israel may be accurate. We know from archaeology that there was a migration of Canaanites to Egypt in the first half of the second millennium BCE, that these migrants built communities in the area of the Nile Delta, and that the Egyptians afterward expelled them from there. Perhaps that is the ancient memory, I don't know.
Many other archaeologists would agree that there is no physical evidence in the Sinai: no bones, no food refuge, no trash, and no tools— nothing that proves a people wandered through the desert. More so, the Egyptians didn’t speak of us in their stories. So, archeologically speaking, it didn’t happen.
Of course, this begs the question: just because we aren’t aware of the evidence, does it mean that it doesn’t exist? I would argue that the scope and breath of the investigation is so great that the archeologists are pretty spot on. Think of slaves in America: the books, the sales receipts, the physical remnants of slave labor throughout the south; the evidence goes on and on. While yes, the story of the Hebrew slaves happened thousands of years ago, however, we know the kinds of records the Egyptians kept: the elaborate burials, the pyramids, and yet, the Israelites aren’t part of their narrative. Someone might argue that they wanted erase the narrative, but we possess too much information about the history of Egypt to assume something has gone missing.
Frankly, to me the greatest wonder of the Torah is that an intricate, complicated piece of literature has sustained itself all these years. Its power is in its stories. Its humanity, its characters, its life lessons. It is not simply a roadmap to how to live our lives, but a mythology that speaks to the very essence of what it means to be human. We grapple with those tales together. We analyze these characters we argue their words, their actions, their motivations. It is a millennial long conversation that keeps going.
And yet, at Passover, I take pause because through the recitation of the liberation from slavery, these stories morph from myth into historical fact. We recite so that we never forget what it meant to be slaves. However, in my mind, I fear we have created a liberation theology without liberation.
This stops me dead in my tracks. How dare we call ourselves slaves when we live among the grandchildren of slaves? How dare we call ourselves slaves when women and children are sold into modern slavery?
But then- where did many slaves gain courage liberate themselves? The Exodus from Egypt. It is our story that we cultivated over time, our stories that we told and retold over thousands of years, that we, the People of the Book, upheld, carried, passed down over generation after generation. It is our stories that even with the creation of a new religion among other nations, was kept alive.
Why? Because it struck them just as it struck us: as worthy, as life giving, as strength.
No, we weren't slaves in Egypt, but we've been captives and wanderers, we've been tortured and broken- only to rise up again and again. We use our book to build community. We use our book to build a great democratic nation-whose own strengths and weaknesses are a reflection of the stories that have come before.
When Harriett Tubman led slaves through the Underground Railroad, they called her Moses. When slaves secretly learned how to read, they read the Bible, and in it they saw a people, not only yearning to be free, but a people who found their way to liberation.
Our stories are a light to the nations not because they are fact, but because it doesn't matter if they are fact. They are power.
As we sit down at the Passover table, we are giving our children the power of these stories. And maybe, just maybe, we can keep using our stories to bring about liberation until no one else needs to be freed.