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Recently, someone who presents himself as a religious member of Jewish society told me that he feels it doesn't matter if the story of the Exodus actually happened, and can be viewed as a nice meaningful story meant to teach a lesson, not a fact. His exact words were this story is 'Meaningful, Serious, and Significant, but who cares if it actually happened'.

When I disagreed, he stated my opinion was based on a lack of knowledge of opinions concerning what is fundamental to believe in this religion. He dismissed my own literal opinion as an oness due to laziness of finding those said opinions, and told me not to worry about it. This is a seemingly intelligent person who when making a claim of sources, I cannot simply dismiss. However, the weight that our Torah put on the factual nature of this event and the duty incumbent upon us to Hashem based on this event makes it incomprehensible in my eyes to claim this event never took place.

I cannot defend his opinion and I don't intend to, I am just trying to find out if I am missing something. The only leeway might be is turning the story into a non-literal read the way many have done with the first chapter(s) in Bereishis. Both these accounts are tied to Mitzvos of zechira. Both these accounts are fundamentally connected to Shabbos and holidays. Yet only the creation account gets the imaginative treatment in society.

So, are there any mainstream Jewish opinions* stating the Exodus can be viewed as a 'meaningful story'?

*By this I mean a traditionally accepted as a Jewish opinion. I am not posting this to hear biblical criticism, whether or not the critic is Jewish.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Jan 26 '16 at 20:39
  • So, are there any mainstream Jewish opinions* stating the Exodus can be viewed as a 'meaningful story'? *By this I mean a traditionally accepted as a Jewish opinion. I am not posting this to hear biblical criticism, whether or not the critic is Jewish. Isn't this merely a tautology? – mevaqesh Aug 3 '16 at 3:27
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    @mevaqesh many people who believe in the actuality of the Torah believe some if not many passages are not to be taken literally. In fact many may not be taken literally. Whereas many passages must be taken literally. Where does this account fall? That has nothing to do with biblical criticism. – user6591 Aug 3 '16 at 3:40
  • What would you consider a valid answer in the negative? – Alex Aug 10 '20 at 23:19
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    @Harel13 It might depend, but in general obscure is fine. I don't mean the 'not part of our mesora' gibberish. But if it's someone nobody has ever heard of, like people who point to Moshe Taku as the official corporealists of Judaism, doesn't interest me because almost nobody has ever even heard of M.T. aside from that one (possibly misinterpreted) comment. Finding something in the Cairo geniza also wouldn't interest me. But obscure as in one of the many commentators people don't usually read is fine. Btw, you can present your source here and see what the other users say. It's not all about me – user6591 Dec 9 '20 at 20:33
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In K'tav Hitnatzlut, an apologetic letter Yeda'ayah Ha'pnini wrote as a reply to a cherem from the Rashbah on his philosophical views, he only makes a passing mention of Yetziat Mitzrayim, but it is included in his list of miracles that one should, on one hand, accept that they happenened, but on the other hand, should not understand every detail of the story as p'shat, but rather as an allegory (to use the Rashabah's angry words "and some of them say that all there is from the beginning of the Torah until the giving of the Torah at Sinai is an allegory and a riddle") (section 7):

"ולפי זאת החלוקה אשר עשינוה ננהג כל מה שנמצאהו מפשוטי הכתובים בספרי הנבואה. וזה כי כל מה שיתלה בחוק המין הראשון מהעניינים היוצאים ממנהג הטבעי והרוח, נשאירם כולם על גלויים, מפני שהם אפשריים בחוק יכלת האל, והכרחיים עוד בחיזוק האמונה: כעניין המבול ודור הפלגה. והצלחת האבות ופקידת האמהות ומופתי מצרים כולם...כל אלו והדומה להם ממה שלא הזדמן זכרונו מחייב כל אשר בשם זרע יעקב יכונה, שלא יחסר מפשוטיהם בשום פנים כחוט השערה. מפני התקבץ בהם שני העניינים הנזכרים שהם יסודות כל מופת. ועם היותם הכרחיים אצלנו בתורתנו עם היותם אפשריים בחוק יכלת ה'. ואמנם כל עת שנמצא בפשוטי הכתובים מה שיחסר ממנו החזק שבשני אלו, הוא שכלל במין השני מהנמנעות אז בודאי נפרשהו בדרך שיסכים אל האמת. וזה בכל מה שבא בספרי הנביאים, מזכור על האל אברים, ושיעור, ושכון במקום, והראתו לעיני בני אדם, ועלייתו וירידתו, והדומה לזה מכל מה שיחשב עליו הגשמה או שינוי בעצמו. וכן כל מה שבא עליו מהתארים המביא לחשוב עליו שום ריבוי או הדמות לברואיו...הכל יפורש בדרכים מועילים גם כן באמונה מוציאים הפשוטים ההם אל האמת אשר לא נאמרו בודאי אלא לשבר את האזן. כמאומרם הכללי הנכבד בזה העניין דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם. ובזה תצאנה האמונות נבררות, רצויות מן האל, מקרבות אותנו לאהבתו."

"And according to this division which we did, we shall divide all that we find in the simple portions of the texts in the books of prophecy. And this is all that will be considered of the first type, from the things that stand out from the natural course and of the spiritual, we shall leave them revealed, for they are possible in the rule of God's capabilities, and are needed in order to strengthen the faith: Such as with the generation of the flood and the generation of the splitting. And the deliverance of the fathers and the answering of the mothers and all the miracles of Egypt...all of these and those that are similar from what we did not recall, is incumbent upon all of the seed of Yaakov, that they shall not remove one bit of the simple understanding of these. For these things are the basis of the evidence. And with that they are needed by our Torah and with that they are possible in the capabilities of Hashem. However, all that appears in the simple form of the texts that is missing the strong part of these two, is part of the second type of impossibilities, at which we shall agree to interpret it through the way of truth. And this is all that comes from the books of the prophets, that mentions for God limbs, and measurement, and residence in a place, and his appearing to humans, and His ascendance and descendance, and all that is similar to this from all that will be considered thinking upon Him a multiplicity or His similarity to His creations...everything shall be interpreted in wonderous ways also through faith, taking out the simple things which truthfully were surely only said in a way to make our ears understand. As they said the Torah spoke in the tongue of men. And from here the beliefs will come out clarified, wished upon from God, bringing us closer to His love."

At first, it seems that Yeda'ayah is merely rejecting the beliefs that Hashem is a physical entity, with "דברה תורה בלשון בני אדם", but he actually says more than that: When the Torah uses such terms, we must immediately seek out the deeper, allegorical meaning. In our case of Yetziat Mitzrayim, I believe that would include understanding the "ויד ה' הויה" - and the hand of Hashem struck", the angel of Hashem that killed the first-born, Hashem hearing the cries of Bnei Yisrael, and possibly also how Hashem spoke to Moshe (and other prophets).

Rabbi Nissim ben Moshe in "Ma'aseh Nissim" wrote on Sefer Shemot:

"ועניין הסנה שאיננו אוכל והוא בוער באש, וראית מלאך ה' בסנה - כל זה מהמין קראתיו "אות". והסנה משל לעם ישראל הבוער תמיד באש השעבוד ובשלהבת הצרות ובעבודת פרך..."

"And what happened with the bush that it wasn't consumed and it is burning with fire, and the seeing of the angel of Hashem in the bush - all of this is of the type of a "sign". And the bush is a parable to the Nation of Yisrael who are constantly burning in the fire of the slavery and in the flame of the troubles and the hard work..."

According to the footnotes, an "אות" or a "sign", as explained earlier in the book, is an imaginary occurrence, either in the mind or during a dream of the prophet and is not materially real.

"ואלה האותות השלשה שנעשו בין השם ית' למשה - כבר כתבנו שסובל היותם מהמין קראתיו "אות", או מהמין קראתיו בשם "נס".

"And these are the signs three that were between Hashem and Moshe - we already said that it can endure their being of the type of "sign", or from the type of "miracle".

According to the footnote and further explaining in the book, the signs, when shown to Moshe, were only prophetic and didn't happen. When he showed them to Am Yisrael, they did actually happen.

"ואמנם עניין צפורה, ואמרו (שמות ד' כד): ויהי בדרך במלון ויפגשהו ה' ויבקש המיתו" - יש מי שפירש שבא חולי ורעדה ותמהון לבב למשה בהיותו נבוך בעניניו ואמר: אם אמול הבן בדרך, יסתבכן. ואם לא אמול אותו עד הגיענו למצרים ואחר המנוחה מעמל הדרך, יאמרו ישראל עלי: ראו זה בא להזהירנו על מצות השם...והוא בלתי נזהר...ועל זה נשאר משה טרוד המחשבות, נבהל הרעיונים, עד שהתעוררה צפורה למול הבן במלון ושילך משה יחידי למלאת שליחות השם ית'...אם כן, יהיה זה מהמין השני מהחלק השני.

"And that which happened with Tzipporah, and it is said (Shemot 4:24): "At a night encampment on the way, the LORD encountered him and sought to kill him" - there are those that explained that a sickness and a shiver and confusion of the heart befell Moshe from his nervousness in his dealings and saying: "If I circumcise the child on the road, I will endanger him. And If I don't circumcise him until we reach Egypt and after we rest from the trip, Yisrael will say about me: See whom has come to warn us about the commandments of Hashem...and he isn't careful...and for this Moshe was troubled by his thoughts, until Tzipporah rose to circumcise their son at the encampment and that Moshe should go by himself to fulfill the mission of Hashem...and if so, this shall be from the second type of the second part." [Which is a strange occurrence that shouldn't be understood as pshat, i.e., not as a miracle]

"ואמרו..."ולכל בני ישראל לא יחרץ כלב לשונו..."...יש מי שפירש שרמז לכלב השמימיי, שממנו קטב מרירי...והנכון בעיני, שנאמר זה על בני האדם הרעים ובעלי לשון הרע...כי מרוב פחדם ויראתם בצאת בני ישראל ממצרים לא ימצא איש מצרי רשע רע שיקללם..."

"And that which is said..."but not a dog shall snarl at any of the Israelites..."...there are those who explained that it is a hint to the heavenly dog, from which came the Ketev Meriri...and the correct explanation in my eyes, that it was said all those evil men and those who had an evil tongue...for out of great fear at the leaving of Bnei Yisrael from Egypt there could not be found an evil Egyptian man who would curse them..."

Later, he brings a few different explanations for what happened at Yam Suf and tells the reader to choose whichever he likes best - but to be aware that these all fall under the category of "מופת" - uncommon things in nature with the wonderous part being the prophet's ability to predict these events.

  • +1 for the mention of Yeda'yah and the Rashba, but I don't see how Philo's and Rabbi Melamed's comments are relevant at all. They seem to believe that there are lessons to learn from the Exodus story (who doesn't believe that?) without even addressing whether its literal truth is necessary to believe in (but rather assuming its literal truth). (Also, why quote Philo in your own English translation of a very non-literal Hebrew translation of a Latin translation of the Greek instead of one of the multiple public domain translations into English directly from Greek?) – b a Dec 10 '20 at 1:39
  • @ba Truthfully, I finished it quite late at night, or in other words, I was writing it late at night, so the realization that there are likely free English translations of Philo somewhere online only struck me right before I went to sleep. B"H I'll be revising during the day. I'm surprised you thought Yeda'ayah (and the Rashbah) were more relevant. I thought Philo's approach was the most relevant and Yeda'ayah for being so nuanced, in my opinion, the least. Philo's approach, in my understanding, is that there is always a layer of allegorical meaning, parallel to p'shat – Harel13 Dec 10 '20 at 4:39
  • As for Rabbi Melamed, I put him in mostly for good measure. His idea seemed at least somewhat relevant, though I wasn't entirely certain. Perhaps I'll take him out during revisions. Anyway, I understood both Philo and R' Melamed to be relevant per my prior asking request of clarification on the question in the comment section, with @user6591 stating that an approach that presents both options - p'shat and allegory - is also relevant. – Harel13 Dec 10 '20 at 4:48
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    I thought Yeda'yah was more relevant because he's writing specifically in the context of a disagreement about whether it's acceptable to believe in the Exodus as an allegory. I don't see any such thing in the passages from Philo. I don't really see any allegory in the passages quoted (he has more in Genesis). If allegory is saying one thing but meaning another, then it could be "Meaningful, Serious, and Significant, but who cares if it actually happened"; but if it's deriving lessons from the text or seeing symbolism in the commandments, is there any commentator at all who isn't an allegorist? – b a Dec 10 '20 at 11:39
  • @ba You seem much more knowledgeable on this than I. From what I've gathered, Philo's view is that though all the events in the Torah happened as they are written (pshat), at the same time, the way everything came to be, every small detail, happened as it was as an allegory for something else. From what I understood, this means that pshat doesn't actually stand on its own - it must always go hand in hand with an allegorical meaning. I don't think every commentator holds this. I think commentators generally have a clearer distinction between pshat and drash/remez/sod. What do you think? – Harel13 Dec 10 '20 at 20:26
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There is absolutely no source that I am aware of. There is a mitzvah to remember leaving Mitzrayim every day, and to reenact leaving Mitzrayim at the seder. The Haggadah (and the Mishnah in Pesachim) say every person is obligated to feel that he left Mitzrayim himself. This is brought in Poskim too. It says if Hashem did not take us out of Mitzrayim, we would have never left. No commentary to the Gemarah, Halacha, or Haggadah I have ever seen remotely suggests that this is not literal.

It is noticeable that the person in the story just said "There are opinions" and made it your job to find them. If there really was such an opinion, I am pretty sure he would remember it.

  • You seem to be confusing opinions that is is literal with opinions that it must be literal. There are certainly opinions that lots if not all stories in Tanakh are literal, but most of them would agree that other opinions can exist without being heretical. Even if you could show that no recorded Jew before the nth century thought a particular story wasn't meant literally, that wouldn't itself answer the question. – Double AA Aug 10 '20 at 12:30
  • There is a requirement to remember and reenact the Exodus. All the sources refer to it as a historical event. If you do not treat it as such, how are you remembering it? Also, I did not say the claim is heretical, although it sounds pretty close to saying you can reinterpret things however you want. The Chazon Ish wrote that people who say the Jews in biblical times did not worship Avodah Zarah are close to heretical because it contradicts many pesukim and Chazal. If I remember correctly, it is letter 319 – N.T. Aug 10 '20 at 19:33
  • You'd remember and reenact the story and the lessons learned from it, etc. Just like you can remember how God rested on the seventh day, even if you think the days of creation aren't 24 hour periods etc. – Double AA Aug 10 '20 at 19:36
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – N.T. Aug 10 '20 at 19:45
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So, are there any religious opinions stating the Exodus can be viewed as a 'meaningful story'?

Proverbs 6:16-19 These six things doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.

Deuteronomy 19:16-19 If a false witness rise up against any man to testify against him that which is wrong; Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days; And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you.

I would think that any religious opinion that implied doubt of the word of the Lord should be considered a “false witness” and treated accordingly. Even those who “damn with faint praise” such as being willing to acknowledge that the “story” has some residual teaching value.

  • While your opinions are [somewhat] interesting, we don't know you that we should trust your opinions at all. – Double AA Jan 25 '16 at 21:09
  • I do not see how this actually answers the question. – sabbahillel Jan 25 '16 at 23:30
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Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe is a possible source. Wolpe said:

“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.”

According to Wolpe the story did not literally happen but is still true in a sense.

On the flip side, Rabbi Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron has demonstrated that the Exodus really did occur as the Bible describes it. See his proofs here.

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