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Why a Chabad Rabbi Got Involved in a Movie

A new documentary that screened on January 19th in more than 600 cinemas across America grapples with controversial questions about the search for archaeological evidence for the exodus of the Jews from ancient Egypt as recorded in the Torah.

Patterns of Evidence: The Exodusprovides a platform for several different voices, which express competing opinions and theories rather than a monolithic archaeological viewpoint. But filmmaker Tim Mahoney clearly favors the contentious “new chronology” espoused by British Egyptologist David Rohl, which better coheres with the chronology of the Torah and the Tanach and offers a new interpretation of the archeological record. One of the most prominent voices in the documentary is that of Rabbi Manis Friedman, who tells the story of the Exodus as it is recorded in the Torah.

Chabad.org spoke with Rabbi Friedman about his role in Patterns of Evidence, and about the broader issues of how Torah and traditional Jewish beliefs relate to archaeology and the scientific method.

Before we discuss this documentary specifically, I’d like to step back a bit and ask you a more general question: As a religious Jew and a rabbi, how relevant is archaeological research to traditional Jewish belief?

MF: Physical evidence is the ultimate goal of tikun olam, when the earth itself “speaks” and says the same truths that come from heaven. Then we know we are making some progress. The Torah tells us what happened as a message from heaven, and the physical evidence coming from the earth means that the world itself is finally reflecting back the same truth. The Alter Rebbe said you will know that Moshiach is here when the papers write about it, and he meant the secular papers.

Could you elaborate a little on the archaeological debate surrounding the Exodus? Who are the main players? And why is this is such a controversial issue in the academic community?

MF: One of the professors interviewed in the film acknowledges that even the experts have their biases, and that he too has his biases. In the modern world, the secular biases are accepted as truth, while all religious biases are dismissed as unscientific. It is nice, he says, to have a film that balances the information and allows you to think objectively.

When did you first hear about filmmaker Tim Mahoney’s project? How did you initially react? And why did you decide to get involved?

MF: I heard about it eight years ago when they asked me to be a part of the story-telling while they were finding evidence and speaking to archaeologists, Egyptologists and historians. They needed someone to present the story in its original, authentic form, and who better than a rabbi? I was immediately impressed by their sincerity and felt that this film would do more for Judaism than Schindler’s List.

Is this purely about the Exodus, or do you think there is a more general takeaway from this documentary? How might it help us to reexamine the broader conflict between religious tradition and scientific methodology?

MF: The real takeaway is bigger than the Exodus. It’s more about the unique relationship between G‑d and the Jewish people. Patterns of Evidence shows that G‑d

works in the world through the Jewish people from the beginning of history to its conclusion. If you see a prophecy coming true, that’s impressive. Two prophecies, more impressive. But when you have a series of prophecies, and they all come true in that precise order, this is something you can’t ignore.

The prophecies were: your children will be enslaved; they will go free; they will receive the Torah; they will inherit the land; they will be exiled from the land; they will be scattered all over the world and persecuted; and they will return to the land in the end of days. That’s a pattern, and the evidence for that is clear.

Mahoney openly acknowledges that, personally, a lot was at stake when he began his investigation, saying that he experienced “a crisis of faith” before discovering a new way of interpreting the archaeological record. Do you think he was right to stake so much on his search? What would you say if there really was no evidence for the Exodus?

MF: When I first met Tim Mahoney, the plan for the film was very simple, and it was to tell a true story that changed the world once and can change it again. He wasn’t really looking for validation or proof. As production of the movie progressed and the aim became more ambitious, it was rewritten to appeal to the skeptics.The skeptic will ask: Is there evidence? The believer asks: Where is the evidence? Because if you haven’t found the evidence, you’re obviously not looking very hard, or in the right places.

When a religious scientist in the 1960s asked the Rebbe whether we believe in life on other planets, the Rebbe said, “It’s not a matter of belief. You are a scientist, go take a look.” So if we didn’t find the evidence yet, would that weaken our belief? No, it would just mean that we haven’t looked in the right places or with the right attitude.

5 Comments

  • 1. non-gender wrote:

    Any information on how we can see this movie and where and so forth of it???

  • 2. Chana Finman wrote:

    I saw the film in Michigan. Really cool. I’ve been interested in this topic. I’m a traveler. I like the British Museum’s book that guides you biblically through the museum. I his film needs to be seen. But, it needs a follow up where more questions are asked by Jewish scholars. We have precise dates from Jewish sources. I’d enjoy more deep discussion, more visual bits, that are 100% Torah. A sequel.

  • 3. Archeology=Kfira wrote:

    1. Actually in many of his letters the Rebbe has written how in Judaism, belief is based primarily on handed-down tradition, and NOT based on archeological findings.

    Zevin asked for the Rebbe’s advice regarding publishing a Tanach series with a commentary gathering from archeology. The Rebbe told him that in Judaism we value the writings of the Rishonim, not archaeologists. Although the rebbe did seek out interesting findings from all kinds of sources, he explained to Zevin that an emphasis on archeology would actually cause the reader to dismiss the importance of the writings of his ancestors. Zevin didn’t publish it, but Mosad Rav Kook published the Da’aat Mikra Series.

    2. I know many people who keep proclaiming how wonderful it is that even histories have found “evidence” of the splitting of the red sea (there was a tzunami, there was an earthquake, there was turnado, etc) but I always find that these are filtered down claims, and that when one seeks further he finds that in fact that many of our traditions actually never happened:

    Archeologists have zero evidence that The Baal Shem Tov existed. They atrubute his stories to a poeple’s folklore and what they call “hagiography.”
    Even when hasidim rushed to answer that there was a great “discovery” of “proof”, when they unearthed the Herson Geniza, they made a mockery of themselves in the eyes of evidence-based historians.

    Archeologists have zero evidence that the story of Purim ever happened. They barely have eveidence that there existed a Shushan, let alone a Mordichai, an Ester, and a Haman.

    Archeologists have zero evidence that there existed a Moses. His grave was never found (Sigmund Freud somehow thinks Moses was an Egyptian. Theories are endless).

    Archeologists have zero evidence that God split a sea. At best, conflicted christians who are torn between beleif and science do their best to reconstruct all sorts of natrual disasters. No honest sceintist would ever be convinced that water would part for someone (unless their science isn’t based on evidence).

    Archeologists have zero evidence that there existed an Abraham. from the point of view of evidence, various religions have similar folk-tales, each claiming that the other took it from them.

    Archeologists have zero evidence of 6 days of creation. Some wanna-be scientists rack their brains in search of solutions to compromise between the six-day account vs six billion evidence, with all sorts of theories (each day was an entire age, etc).

    So if you prefer archeology, you might as well already trash the yarmulka.

    If you seek the “truth”, you might as well ditch all of our stories of tzadikim, all the programming you were taught based on religious texts, and go to “college,” pick up a US History textbook, and find the truth.

    For all these reasons, I value the biblical commentaries studied by my own ancestors (had I been searching for the “truth,” I would be studying history, not the bible).

    You study your archeology – I’L stick with my ancestors traditions.

    • 4. Well put wrote:

      I would like to add: don’t you find it dubious that historical narratives are accepted as truth/fact when we can’t even agree on a description of current events? For example, a history book will have no problem describing a leader from four thousand years ago with adjectives like beloved/fanatical etc yet today we have polarizing views on leaders like Putin, Obama, Castro.

      Moreover, only a generation after a mass extermination of the Jewish People, many want to deny it ever occurred. Perhaps that should be a lesson for the so called lack historical evidence for other parts of Jewish history. Ultimately, as mentioned, it comes down to belief. Do you believe the Archaeologists or do you believe your handed down tradition?

    • 5. Ezra wrote:

      Meanwhile, back in the real world:

      1. Who ever said that the point here is for belief to be _based on_ archeological findings (rather than understanding the latter in light of what we already know)? Congratulations on knocking down that strawman.

      2. Archeologists most certainly do have evidence that the Baal Shem Tov existed. See Moshe Rosman’s Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov, where he cites contemporary documents from the Czartoryski archives (the Polish counts whose domain included Mezhibuzh). Your information, then, is badly out of date.

      Likewise, “they barely have evidence that there existed a Shushan”? What on earth do you think the ancient Persian capital of Susa – whose ruins have been pretty extensively excavated – was?

      You can continue sticking your head in the sand and pretending that you are Avraham Avinu standing against the entire world. The rest of us would rather take the Baal Shem Tov’s view that we are to work with the חמור\חומריות of the world rather than dismissing it as an irredeemable שונאך.

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