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April 8, 2013

I just returned from Big Y where most of us doesn’t usually search for much more than good bananas or the particular milk we like best.

Today was different.

I met a congregant who had read the article in the recent issue of Reform Judaism Magazine that said our ancestors were never slaves in Egypt. Was it true, she asked. Were the Jews slaves in Egypt or was it a fable?

Two comments –

First, we did study the article at Torah Study several weeks ago because I thought the article raised a good question. We took an hour to explore the author’s claims and to read some of the biblical texts he cites.

Second, it’s complicated. The article does not present groundbreaking material. Scholars have been exploring what may or may not have shaped early Jewish history for almost 200 years!

Over time two schools of thought have emerged.

The first is the maximalist position. Here you find students of the Bible who basically accept the claim that the Jewish people were slaves in Egypt and escaped that slavery as a group. Maximalists find proof in a number of ways.

The second position is the minimalist position. The RJ article represented that viewpoint which suggests that almost no Jews ever expereicned Egyptian slavery. The “story” was made into a Jewish story for a number of political reasons later in Jewish history.

Which position is "true?"

Were we enslaved in Egypt?

Like many students of the Bible, I favor a middle position. I believe that, although all of our ancestors were not in Egypt, a significant number did experience slavery and freedom. They ultimately came to Canaann where they met Jewish cousins and where the story of the Exodus leading to freedom became the central way of understanding Jewish origins and purpose.

Were we in Egypt?

It's the same as asking whether you and I (mostly descendants of East European immigrants) were at the Pilgrim's Thanksgiving or whether you and I honor the Gettysburg Address as a part of who we are.

The same holds true for Jewish experience.

We don't literally have to have been in Egypt. We donít have to have stood next to Moses when the commandments were given. If we are Jewish, those events are ours. If we are Jewish, the values and morals behind those events are what we believe.

It's true: as surely as I believe in freedom and fairness and justice, my ancestors were in Egypt. And so were yours!


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