Testing the Torah’s Stories

Testing the Torah’s Stories By Haley Sandlow - Photo by Molly Voit

I was in eighth grade when I began to consider whether the Torah was made-up.

Allow me to explain. I was sitting in the overly-air-conditioned, tiny classroom in my temple’s education wing, consisting of a few rooms crowded with uncomfortable chairs, decorated with a whiteboard and the Hebrew alphabet. At our Reform synagogue, our Jewish education had started with learning the stories and traditions of Judaism as well as the prayers, progressing over the years into discussions of Judaism through a modern, social lens. Out of the 15 people on the roster, about five showed up to class every Sunday morning. That day was no exception; there were only a few kids there, and the atmosphere just seemed kind of droopy.

But then we began discussing Passover, the10 plagues, and the parting of the Red Sea. And our teacher started to talk about how they’re fictional.

It is very possible that the events described in the Torah had been based in reality, he said, but that the reality had warped and morphed over time as it was passed along from generation to generation. One theory argues a nearby volcano had erupted during the time, bringing locusts and hailstorms, lice and bugs, that spread disease to livestock and plague to human beings, and a thick layer of ash that blanketed the sky, blocking out the daylight. He said a part of the Red Sea may have already dried up due to drought or as another effect of the volcanic eruption, allowing the Israelites to cross. He said that as time passed, the phenomenons, which were attributed to God, changed a bit every time they were told until they were written down as the stories we know today. It seemed he wholly believed in this explanation.

I went home and searched “Passover scientific explanation” on the computer and, sure enough, was greeted with dozens of articles deflating my perception of these events as God’s doing. It seemed that God didn’t cause these miracles, science did. And for some reason, I was crushed.

I’m not a very religious person, and I don’t believe in God. But I could not believe the nerve of my teacher. I felt he had absolutely no right to tell us that the stories written in the Torah were simply embellished versions of what had actually happened. He had no right to tell us there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for each one, beyond that of God.

And yet, what he said resonated with me. I was puzzled as to why I hadn’t thought of it before, for someone who places so much importance on logic and reason. But it bothered me: what about those who do believe in God? Does explaining the science behind the story undermine their belief? Does it undermine the religion as a whole?

I felt, slightly, as if I had been lied to my whole life. Ever since I was little I was taught that God caused these events, God brought the 10 plagues upon the Egyptians, and God freed the Israelites. I guess I had accepted it as an accurate event in our Jewish history, so being told there was a reasonable, scientific explanation made me question Judaism as a whole.

But I think the real issue was not the fact that my teacher had given us this explanation, but that he left it at that. There was no discussion about belief, how the strength of our beliefs has changed over time, or why the story of Passover is still important, even if it may not be the realistic description of our history.

Stories are a significant part of any religion or culture. Regardless of how true those stories are, the philosophies and lessons that come with them help to shape future generations. My favorite part of our Passover Seder remains the telling of the Passover story, no matter how many times I hear it. Themes of freedom, hope, and family bleed through those stories. And we continue to teach them, year after year.

I don’t believe in God. I don’t think I believe in the events described in the Torah, not really. But I do believe in the traditions and stories of Judaism, and I want to continue them both. Science and research exist to challenge those stories told in the Torah. But the very fact that we still teach them, that we still tell our children that God freed the Israelites gives me hope. Those stories are an integral part of Judaism, even if they are just stories. Despite any disagreement about their accuracy, as long as they are taught, our people will share a common history and a common background, united as one community.

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Haley Sandlow
Haley Sandlow is a senior at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Illinois. She is the opinions editor at her school newspaper, a member of her school's gymnastics and track teams, and a participant in her school's theater program. She loves journalistic and creative writing, drinking coffee, and watching The Office.
Accompanying photo by Molly Voit