LA’s Conservative Rabbi David J. Wolpe chose Passover to surrender the claim that “positive-historical Judaism” (a.k.a.. Conservative Judaism) builds the Judaic religion on established facts of history. History proves the Exodus never happened, he proclaimed on Passover, with perfect unfaith and to the hurrahs of other theologians of the “eat-kosher-but-think-traif” camp of Judaism.

His faith in historical knowledge exceeds imagining, for historians and archaeologists cannot really tell us much about the remote past or even yesterday. The material culture they reconstruct attests to broad patterns of conduct, not to particular transactions or events. Without the guidance of textual evidence, much that archaeologists find remains mute. And textual evidence rarely supplies the hard facts that indicate who really said what or performed a particular deed, the facts that critical historians require to establish certainty: It happened, or it didn’t happen. Still, it is much easier to say what did happen than what did not happen, as Rabbi Wolpe seems to want to do.

“Critical history”—whether based on how historians read texts or how archaeologists dig in the dirt—is hardly so secure as to challenge the factual basis of matters to which critical history has no access. Most of the important points of the Torah concern things that do not yield the kind of sticks-and-stones evidence that critical history requires. Therefore, statements of what did or did not happen represent an act of arrogance joined to an excess of credulity in the claims of “science.”

Arguments from silence rarely enjoy the enthusiasm that Rabbi Wolpe brings to them; after all, you cannot prove a negative. Rabbi Wolpe was careful not to specify the evidence that would prove the principal propositions of the Exodus—for example, proof that God instructed Moses to do such and so, archeological evidence that the Red Sea parted before fleeing Israel, and the like.

The Torah camp, challenged by historical and archaeological pronouncements contrary to the narrative of the sacred text, reasonably responds: “They don’t believe; we do believe.” And the Torah camp builds on a solid basis: There is no more compelling evidence against the veracity of the Torah than there is for it. But the Torah’s reliability rests on its origin in God’s self-manifestation.

That simple statement captures what is at stake. Archeology thinks it can prove or disprove that to which its methods and inquiries do not pertain. And that is most of what Scripture is about. No Exodus? Who declares what will count as evidence? Next they will tell us Adam never lived, as though they could show that he did. How do they know they are right, and what evidence would serve to prove them wrong? These are standard questions of criticism. Those of us who work in the past answer them every day.

What material evidence would serve to disprove the Torah’s account of Moses’s encounter with Pharaoh, or Israel at the sea? Where are the records of Pharaoh’s conversations, the stenographic reports, the tape recordings, the videotapes from his entire reign from which Moses is missing? Was CNN’s camera on the shores of the sea on the 15th and 16th of Nisan so long ago? If so, we might be able to pronounce the Torah’s record false.

Absent such reliable records of what happened, how are we to know what did not happen? Much that archeology says about the written account represents a massive argument from silence. The Torah camp responds out of the Talmud: “Lo raiti, lo zu raiyah” (“‘I saw nothing’ is no proof”). Why would a rabbi disrupt the social order of Los Angeles Judaism at Passover on the basis of such a feeble grasp of how history and archeology conduct their inquiry? What can come as the encore for the New Year?

Perhaps we may now anticipate a pronouncement that archeology cannot find the altar on which Abraham bound Isaac, and thus Rosh Hashanah, when Genesis 21-22 is read in the synagogue, must be cancelled.

One last point: What made the message so urgent as to require Rabbi Wolpe’s solemn pronouncement, on the morning after the Passover Seder was celebrated in the homes of Israelites all over the world, that the Exodus commemorated the previous night never happened? I listened to a tape of the original sermon, which scandalized the Jewish world, and found his stentorian tones, revealing long-hidden secrets of fraud in Scripture, remarkably pretentious. Time and again, he announced that “truth” trumps “false faith.” The tape also conveyed, in the questions of the congregants, the shock and hurt that the sermon imparted. The only justification I could imagine for raising the issue on that day in that way would be Rabbi Wolpe’s intention to resign from the rabbinate of that synagogue, and from the rabbinate altogether, on grounds of a massive change of heart and mind on the truth of the Torah that he had hitherto espoused. But that is not what happened.

What happened was just the passing of another day. What else is new beyond the boundaries of the Torah camp of Judaism today?