BY RACHEL LAVICTOIRE / AJT //
Academia and religion have been feuding for centuries, and still I find them difficult to reconcile. Obviously, the conflict is not so violent as it was in the past; we don’t punish people for studying science or for discovering realities that diverge from religious beliefs, but many people still struggle with it.
How can I believe in G-d’s creation of the earth when there are fossils to support evolution? How do I even imagine a man living inside the belly of a whale and surviving? I would feel ignorant for blindly believing in these events, but at the same time disloyal for writing them off as mere stories.
I’m taking my second religion class this semester – it’s called “The Introduction to Jewish Civilization.” As it has no prerequisite of being Jewish, we are instructed not to use “I” or “we,” nor to get emotionally invested in academic debate. I find that detachment to be quite difficult and concealed an eye-roll at the sight of the first slide: “The Hebrew Bible.”
I understand the purpose of using the secular names like “Hebrew Bible” and Pentateuch during class time, but it also creates somewhat of an internal conflict for me.
I grew up with a Reform Jewish education. Mitzvah was interchangeable with “good deed,” and tzedakah with “charity.” I was told – year after year, class after class – that Hashem gave the Torah to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, and as a result, I feel emotionally connected with those words specifically.
A book called “Pentateuch” seems as foreign and secular to me as “Catcher in the Rye” does.
I can talk about the Pentateuch academically – its authorship, historical context and various interpretations – but when I step back and remember that it is Torah, I immediately feel the need to retract prior comments about its validity. Maybe it’s the definitions (“Pentateuch” simply means “five books,” while Torah means “law”).
Just a change in title shifts entirely the weight of this ancient text, but what about everything else?
Who wrote it? When was it written? Was it meant literally? Who can be trusted to interpret it? Who can be trusted to translate it? The questions are endless.
On that first day of class, my professor, Martin Jacobs, did ask if we thought the authorship of “The Hebrew Bible” affected its meaning. I raised my hand and answered:
“I don’t think it does. The reality is that some people find meaning in the Torah, and others don’t. Those who do have faith in it and therefore will always find a way to rationalize factual evidence. If one day it’s proven that the Torah is just a combination of different sources, then Jews will find a way to fit that into their belief system.”
I don’t know if that’s logical, right or even very Jewish of me to say, but it’s how I’m getting by right now.
I say all of this because this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, includes a defining moment in Judaism: the crossing of the Red Sea. It’s a story – for lack of a better word – that all Jews know and in which all Jews can find meaning, but it is also one that only a few Jews truly believe happened.
In the previous parshah, G-d sends down the 10th plague, Pharaoh allows the Israelites to leave and thus begins Beshalach:
“It came to pass when Pharaoh let the people go, that G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines for it was near, because G-d said, Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt (Exodus 13:17).”
G-d led the Israelites with a cloud during the day and with a pillar of fire by night. Then, after instructing Moses to set up camp by the sea, G-d said:
“I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue [the Israelites], and I will be glorified through Pharaoh and through his entire force, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord and they did so (Exodus 14:4).”
And so the story follows that Pharaoh regretted freeing his slaves and chased after them. When the Egyptians drew near, the Israelites became frightened and Moses cried out to them, “Don’t be afraid! Stand firm and see the Lord’s salvation that He will wreak for you today (Exodus 14:13).”
Then, following G-d’s instructions, Moses raised his staff and parted the sea. The chase continued through the aisle in the water, but G-d sent the sea crashing down on the Egyptians and drowned them.
The next two lines read:
“On that day, the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dying on the seashore. And Israel saw the great hand, which the Lord had used upon the Egyptians, and the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in Moses, His servant (Exodus 14:30-31).”
Thus, it’s written that on that day G-d played a direct role in the lives of the Israelites, and it was because of this miracle, this defiance of all things rational and reasonable, that they “feared the Lord and they believed in the Lord.”
Herein lays the academic and religious conflict. Academia says the Red Sea did not part – in fact, a storm of controversy arose 10 years ago when the Los Angeles Times printed an article about Rabbi David Wolpe, who told 2,200 Conservative congregants:
“The truth is that virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.”
Rationally, I agree with the archeologists; a man cannot raise a stick and part water. However, something within me finds it impossible to say with certainty that Hashem did not part the Red Sea, save the Israelites and promise to watch over them and all their future generations.
But I guess that’s what faith is.
Rachel LaVictoire (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a graduate of the Davis Academy and Westminster High School, recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University of St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta.