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.