Correspondence

Who's Afraid of History?

Letter From Inner Israel

LA's Conservative Rabbi David J. Wolpe chose Passover to surrender the claim that "positive-historical Judaism" (a.k.a.. Conservative Judaism) builds the Judaic religion on established facts of history. History proves the Exodus never happened, he proclaimed on Passover, with perfect unfaith and to the hurrahs of other theologians of the "eat-kosher-but-think-traif" camp of Judaism.

His faith in historical knowledge exceeds imagining, for historians and archaeologists cannot really tell us much about the remote past or even yesterday. The material culture they reconstruct attests to broad patterns of conduct, not to particular transactions or events. Without the guidance of textual evidence, much that archaeologists find remains mute. And textual evidence rarely supplies the hard facts that indicate who really said what or performed a particular deed, the facts that critical historians require to establish certainty: It happened, or it didn't happen. Still, it is much easier to say what did happen than what did not happen, as Rabbi Wolpe seems to want to do.

"Critical history"—whether based on how historians read texts or how archaeologists dig in the dirt—is hardly so secure as to challenge the factual basis of matters to which critical history has no access. Most of the important points of the Torah concern things that do not yield the kind of sticks-and-stones evidence...

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