The Exodus and Einstein

| Pesah By :  Marc Wolf JTS Alum (Rabbinical School) Posted On Apr 7, 2012 / 5772 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

In September, a group of physicists conducted an experiment during which they seemed to prove that subatomic particles known as neutrinos had traveled faster than the speed of light. For those of us not tuned in to the wonders of science, that sounds impressive, but for those versed in the laws of physics, the outcome of this experiment was utterly mind blowing. Albert Einstein’s mind, to be precise. As the New York Times article featuring the potentially debunking results wrote,

After all, Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which proclaimed the speed of light as the cosmic speed limit, is the foundation of modern science and has been shown to work to exquisite precision zillions of times. Knock it down and you potentially open the door to all kinds of things, like the ability to go back in time and kill your grandfather. (“The Trouble with Data that Outpaces a Theory,” 3/26/12)

If their findings were verifiable, then much of what we believe to be true about the world—and have been proving for some time now with experiment after experiment—would crumble, and we would be forced to create a new understanding of our natural world. But Einstein can breathe easy. Shortly after the first experiment seemed to turn much of modern science on its head, another group using the same facility proved that the neutrinos actually did move at their expected speed of light. 

It was not only the second group’s results that put Einstein back up on his throne. After all, Einstein’s theory of relativity is a theory. Prove it wrong once, and it should topple like a house of cards. However, the real chink in the armor of the debunking experiment was that it had no theory to back it up. As the article continues, “If a ‘fact’ cannot be understood, fitted into a conceptual framework that we have reason to believe in, or confirmed independently some other way, it risks becoming what journalists like to call a ‘permanent exclusive’—wrong.” 

As we gather to celebrate Passover this week, the attempts of all those who seek to prove or disprove the Children of Israel’s exodus from Egypt seem to surface anew. Applying the rigors of science to religion is no new endeavor for Judaism. In each generation—a theme these days—there are those who have attempted to reconcile Truths. How could the Torah’s version of history agree with the Truth that we know from philosophy or science? To answer, we search for proof, scientific facts, or historic records that will undisputedly confirm that the Children of Israel were in fact slaves and were freed in a mass exodus, and that God inflicted plagues upon the Egyptians. 

However, with the recent printing of Jonathan Safran Foer’s New American Haggadah, we actually seem to get our proof. At the top of each page of Foer’s work is a timeline that follows us through the evening as we turn each beautifully designed, exquisitely illuminated, and captivatingly commented page. The timeline begins with referencing the Exodus itself. “The telling begins sometime between 1250 and 1200 BCE, when a document known to archeologists as ‘Papyrus Anastasi V’ reports that slaves have escaped from a palace at Pi-Ramesses into the Sinai . . . ” (6).

Wow! Disbelievers of the world watch out; that seems to confirm the Exodus. If that were not enough to turn some heads, the next piece is what got my attention: “Tonight, Ramesses’ mummy is in the Cairo Museum, and the papyrus document reporting the escape of the slaves is in the archives of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City” (7). 

I’ve spent a little time around The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary, and have to assume that at one point or another, I would have come across the document that proves the Exodus from Egypt—but not being the librarian of JTS, I thought I’d check with him. Dr. David Kraemer, in addition to being a professor of Talmud and Rabbinics and the Joseph J. and Dora Abbell Librarian of JTS, knows quite a bit about Passover, having just released The Haggadah, a digital app for the iPad. Dr. Kraemer explained that the text that the New American Haggadah is referencing can be seen on a teaching website cosponsored by JTS with digitized images of rare documents about Passover, but that that particular document is not part of the JTS collection. Does it nonetheless prove that the Exodus occurred? That, too, is questionable. While there are those who read proof of the Exodus into this text, scholars generally believe that the Ipuwer Papyrus does not support the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt. 

So where does that leave us? Absent textual proof aside from the Bible, does our celebration of Passover mean anything less to us? Do we need neutrinos we can time to believe in the story of the Children of Israel? Without hard evidence, is the impact of the Exodus any less on humanity? 

This past week, JTS was fortunate enough to host Jonathan Safran Foer for a live webcast in which he spoke about the New American Haggadah, as well as his personal thoughts on the story of the Exodus and Passover. What was clear from his presentation was that, as for many of us gathered around our seder tables, the ripple effects of the Passover narrative are felt in every generation. The eternally renewing relevance of the story has more to do with the underlying message of the narrative than any facts or proof of it. In his remarks, Foer put it beautifully.

The wonderful thing about the story of the Exodus is that no one has ever lived anywhere where it didn’t apply—very personally, very specifically, and deeply. I know of no more resonate story than this . . . You can’t go down the street and find somebody who doesn’t know what the 10 plagues are. And it is not because they’re so bright and dramatic; it is because they continue to speak to us.

No subatomic particles needed.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.