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Time to Rewrite the Script: A Passover Haggadah for Secular Jews

Do you change your mind in response to new evidence? “Of course,” you say. But what if the new evidence contradicts your most deeply-held convictions? And what if these convictions are embedded in a set of beliefs shared with like-minded others in a social network that provides a sense of family and community? In other words, if the evidence threatens the warm fuzzy glow of group identity, does the evidence have a chance? Let’s find out.

If you’re Jewish (as I am), would you stop celebrating Passover if you were presented with evidence that there was no Exodus? Maybe you would hedge, and instead of giving it up entirely you would reinvent the traditional Haggadah and convert it into an instrument of education. Maybe you would convey a sense of Jewish peoplehood to your children by sparking their interest in the historical and archaeological evidence that addresses how this story came to be. Perhaps you would discuss the whole idea of triumphal tales of group origins with your children.

It is in this spirit of openness and evidentialism that I present the following Passover Haggadah for Secular Jews. Participants sitting around the table can take turns reading aloud one paragraph at a time. Readers are invited, of course, to edit to their taste, and blend the ritual (or not-so-ritual) meal with the readings in whatever way the participants find mutually agreeable. Total reading time is approximately fifteen minutes.

Passover Haggadah for Secular Jews

Tonight millions of Jews all over the world are sitting down to celebrate the first night of Pesach. Passover is by far the most popular of Jewish holidays, observed by even more Jews than the High Holy Days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Why is this? “Tradition!” resoundingly replies Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof. We were taught the sacredness of Pesach by our parents, who were so taught by their parents, ad infinitum. But if the story isn’t true to begin with, handing it down from generation to generation doesn’t make it any truer. We believe the story because it was told to us by people we considered important and authoritative, mainly our parents and religious teachers. In addition, we were surrounded by people who believed the same story. Is the Passover story true? As Wordsworth said, “to be mistaught is worse than to be untaught.”

Let’s start with the prequel to the Exodus, the story of Joseph and his family. Excavations in the eastern delta of the Nile have revealed a gradual increase in Canaanite pottery, architecture, and tombs, beginning about 1800 B.C. As explained by Donald Redford, professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of Toronto, in his book Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times, these findings are broadly consistent with the tale of Joseph, the visits of his family to Egypt, and their eventual settlement there.[1] Archaeologists have identified the site of Avaris, the Egyptian city of that period that was the capital of a people known as the Hyskos, a name which translates from the Egyptian as “rulers of foreign land.” Inscriptions and seals bearing the names of Hyskos kings indicate that they were Canaanites. Although the Egyptian historian Manetho, writing in about 300 B.C. from an Egyptian perspective, asserts that Egypt was brutally invaded by the Hyskos, archaeologists believe the takeover was peaceful. However, the forceful expulsion of the Hyskos as described by Manetho is supported by other archaeological and historical sources. The most reliable evidence, according to Redford, suggests that Pharaoh Ahmose and his forces attacked and defeated the Hyskos in Avaris, and chased them out of Egypt into southern Canaan in 1570 B.C.[2]

The Roman-Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, citing Manetho, equates the expulsion of the Hyskos from Egypt with the Exodus. As Abba Eban points out, “this is plainly impossible,”[3] in the context of the Biblical chronology. The Book of Exodus states that Hebrew slaves built the city of Pi Ramses (“House of Ramses”). According to Egyptian sources, the city was built during the reign of Ramses II, who ruled 1279-1213 B.C. In other words, the Biblical Exodus would have had to have taken place 300 years after the expulsion of the Hyskos. Of course there is also no evidence that the Hyskos were ever enslaved–or even Hebrews. Again quoting Abba Eban, “few modern scholars would go so far as to assert that the Hebrews and the Hyskos were the same people.”[4] If the Hyskos were not the Hebrews, what then, is the earliest non-Biblical reference to this people?

About a century ago, archaeologists found 350 tablets covered with cuneiform writing in the Akkadian language in the Egyptian village of El Amarna. These tablets, dating to the 14th century B.C., contain numerous references to a people whose name is Habiru (or alternatively Hapiru or Apiru) in the Akkadian language. The obvious phonetic similarity to “Hebrew” suggested to early scholars that the Habiru of the Amarna tablets and the Hebrews were the same people. However, subsequent archaeological findings as described by Niels Lemche, professor of Old Testament studies at the University of Copenhagen, in his book Prelude to Israel’s Past, indicated widespread use of this term throughout the near east over many centuries during the mid-second millennium B.C. The context of this usage makes clear that ‘Habiru’ “should not be understood as an ethnic group, but as some kind of social segment.” There is no reference to the religious beliefs of the Habiru. The totality of ancient documents discovered, reviewed in detail by Lemche, suggests ‘Habiru’ is best translated, depending on the context, as ‘bandit,’ ‘outlaw,’ ‘highwayman,’ ‘refugee,’ ‘fugitive,’ or ‘immigrant,’ without any suggestion of ethnicity.[5] Thus, despite the phonetic similarity, the Habiru of the Amarna tablets are not the Hebrews of ancient Israel.

The earliest known non-Biblical reference to Israel is on the 27th line of inscription on a 7.5 foot high granite slab found in Thebes, Egypt, and dating to 1207 B.C.[6] This commemorative stone monument was commissioned by the son of Ramses II, Pharaoh Merneptah, to commemorate his military victories in Canaan, and is known as the Merneptah Stella. Israel is listed as one of eight “border enemies” vanquished by Egypt. The literal translation of the relevant line of Egyptian hieroglyphics is “Israel is stripped bare, wholly lacking seed.” Although this claim is obviously an exaggeration, it is evidence that a group of people named Israel was living in Canaan during the reigns of Merneptah and presumably his father, Ramses II. What is most important, though, is the point emphasized by Israel Finkelstein, director of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, and his colleague Neal Silberman, in their book The Bible Unearthed: “We have no clue, not even a single word, about early Israelites in Egypt: Neither in monumental inscriptions on walls of temples, nor in tomb inscriptions, nor in papyri.”[7] Similarly, William Dever, professor of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona, states in Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?: “no Egyptian text ever found contains a single reference to ‘Hebrews’ or ‘Israelites’ in Egypt, much less to an ‘Exodus.'”[8] The ancient Egyptians were such compulsive chroniclers, albeit biased, that it is inconceivable that they would not record any version of an event as momentous as the Biblical Exodus. We should at least expect some self-serving or biased accounts of this extraordinary event, but there is absolutely no reference to any exodus of Hebrew slaves in the voluminous Egyptian writings.

In addition, archaeological excavati