"The story of the Exodus did not happen the way the Bible depicts it, if it happened at all," said Rabbi David Wolpe, senior rabbi at Los Angeles' Sinai Temple.
Rabbi Wolpe, a native Philadelphian and University of Pennsylvania graduate, kicked up a storm last year when he gave several sermons and classes at Passover focusing on research that casts doubt on the Exodus as a historical event. In doing so, he revealed information many rabbis and scholars have known for years - and shoved the discussion from the libraries out to the pews.
Reaction was swift. Front-page articles followed. Traditionalist rabbis took out newspaper ads decrying his words. He received hundreds of e-mails, letters and calls. Many were positive, some vitriolic. Most merely asked questions.
Rabbi Wolpe, author of a number of popular books on Jewish spirituality, was pointing out that a century of archaeology and scholarship has simply not corroborated the story.
"I thought that it was foolish to assume that rabbis could handle this information and our congregants couldn't," Rabbi Wolpe said in a recent interview. "So we explored this together."
More important than whether five or five million Jews may have come out of Egypt is the meaning of the text, he said. The story is about the quest for freedom and how serving God ultimately makes one free.
"Archaeology and biblical history have demonstrated that the Bible is not intended to be taken as literal history," Rabbi Wolpe said. "It is a spiritual history, and that is the way modern Jews ought to relate to the biblical text."
But for many people, questioning the escape of enslaved Israelites who followed Moses through the parted waters of the Red Sea to freedom is like chopping down a pillar on which Judaism stands.
"If somebody feels that it didn't happen, then in our view they are denying the whole foundation that we have as God's nation," said Rabbi Dov Brisman, senior rabbi of Young Israel of Elkins Park and head of the Orthodox rabbinical court of Philadelphia.
Theologian and author Chaim Potok of Merion Station agrees.
"I am for the side that says it did happen," said Potok, author of best-selling books including The Chosen. "We can't know yes [that the Exodus happened] and we can't know no. So we speak about yes because a no means that's the end of it."
Potok is a co-editor of Etz Hayim, a new Torah and commentary published by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents 1.5 million Conservative Jews. The book includes new commentaries that consider advances in archaeology, history and linguistics - several of which question the historical veracity of biblical events including the Exodus.
"We think we have a book that is not only reflective of the theology but helps to challenge people," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
"I don't want to say to someone that the Exodus did or didn't happen," the rabbi said. "I want to raise questions for that individual."
Jeffrey Tigay, the Ellis professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages and literatures at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied those questions.
While he said that there was no contemporaneous evidence that proved that the Exodus occurred, there is "a lot of evidence" that makes a belief in the Exodus a plausible one.
There is evidence of people with the same ethno-linguistic background as the Israelites working in Egypt as slaves and on royal building projects at the same time the Israelites would have been there, Tigay said.
Also, he said, the story so permeates the Bible as the basis for values and morality that it is hard to believe it is made up. And it is unlikely, he said, that a nation would have made up an unflattering origin such as slavery.
Still, Tigay said the Bible does contain hyperbole. For instance, he said, it was unlikely that 600,000 men of military age came out of Egypt, as the Bible says. Such a number would translate into several million if they were accompanied by wives, children and parents.
"Could the Sinai Peninsula have supported that many?" Tigay asked. "That's the way tradition is - events get magnified as they get retold."
At the height of the controversy, some rabbis publicly disagreed with Rabbi Wolpe and privately told him they shared his views, said Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, David Wolpe's father and the rabbi emeritus of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley.
"I guess it's being politically correct to do what they did. I thought it was somewhat hypocritical," said the elder rabbi, who is director of the Jewish Theological Seminary's bioethics center and a senior fellow at a similar center at the University of Pennsylvania.
"In Judaism," he said, we "have something called midrash, which means you are allowed interpretation. This fundamentalism, that each word of the Bible must be accepted the way it is written, is unwarranted."
Rabbi David Wolpe said earlier this month that he was not sure what he would discuss in this year's Passover sermons. Though the controversy was at times hurtful, he said it has taught him to watch what he says. Even so, he said he would change little about last year's Passover sermons.
"I remember what my wife said when the outcry first took off," he said. "She said this is what happens when sunlight hits people's eyes. But they'll adjust."
Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 215-854-2791 or email@example.com.
The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.
A Story Built on Sand?
The immortal Exodus narrative, the biblical drama Jews celebrate during Passover, may be a historical fiction. Here is why:
Nearly 100 years of excavations have yielded no conclusive evidence that the Israelites were ever slaves, lived in Egypt, or wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.
Archaeologists have found no proof that the Israelites conquered Canaan with Joshua as their leader.
Most scholars now believe Israel arose indigenously out of Canaan, land that today is Lebanon, southern Syria, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Under the prevailing theory, the early Canaanites took on a new identity as Israelites and might have been joined or led by a band of Semites from Egypt, perhaps explaining the Exodus story, scholars say.