It’s easy to be confused by the word “conservative” in the title Conservative Judaism. It simply means that-at least in the past-the “Conservative” Jews have preferred to retain some traditions that Reform Jews reject, while avoiding the “extreme” literalism of Orthodox Jews. This middle course has given lip-service to the “divine origin” of the Torah, while embracing modern claims that the “human element” in the Bible entails errors.1
Reflecting “the latest findings in archaeology,” a new commentary on the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) was released last fall by the US-based United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Called Etz Hayim (“Tree of Life”), it is the first commentary on the Torah to be published by Conservative Jews since 1936. A report in the New York Times (9 March 2002) shows just how far Conservative Jewish scholars have gone in their rejection of God’s inspired account of human origins and early history.
The New York Times article, titled “As Rabbis Face Facts, Bible Tales Are Wilting,” opens:
“Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.
“Such startling propositions-the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years-have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity-until now.”
One contributor to Etz Hayim, rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles, says that the rejection of the Bible as literally true “is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis.” In the back of the new commentary are 41 essays-some quite radical. In one essay on “Ancient Near Eastern Mythology,” Robert Wexler, president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, says that modern scholarship links the Genesis account of origins and the Flood to Mesopotamian myths, e.g. Gilgamesh (but see Was Genesis copied from pagan mythology?). In another essay on “Biblical Archaeology," Lee I. Levine, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, questions the Biblical account of Jericho, arguing that the town was apparently empty and unprotected when the Hebrew people settled the area.
There are a few voices of mild dissent among Conservative Jews. “I think the basic historicity of the text is valid and verifiable,” says rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom Congregation (Columbia, Maryland, USA), a co-editor of Etz Hayim. She recognizes the most obvious fallacy in the attacks on the Torah-the argument from the “silence” of the archaeological record. As Grossman says about the story in Genesis: “There’s no evidence that it didn’t happen. Most of the ‘evidence’ is evidence from silence.” In other words, the debate is not really about historical facts that conflict with the Biblical record-the issue is whether an absence of confirming facts proves that the events never took place. Of course, this is untrue.
Consider the example of Jericho
The problem is not with the evidence, but with the assumptions of archaeologists.
This news story is just further evidence that our thinking must begin with God’s Word. The problem is not with the evidence, but with the assumptions of archaeologists, who accept on faith that the world is billions of years old and that ancient civilizations evolved over millennia (see Q&A pages on Archaeology, Radiometric Dating and Young Earth). Extending naturally from this, they have assumed that, where there is a conflict between the Bible and certain secular chronologies, the Bible must be wrong. One example is Egyptian chronology, which has been shown to have a number of “soft spots" (see Searching for Moses). Furthermore, they assume that the Hebrew nation was no different from the other myth-makers of the ancient world.
If the scholars were truly interested in unearthing the truth, they would see that evidence abounds to uphold the Scriptural account. Consider the example of Jericho.
Far from being absent, the evidence for the conquest of the walled city of Jericho-at the time and in the same way the Bible says it happened-is astonishing. The main reason skeptics reject the Biblical account is the work of British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon, who excavated the area in the 1950s. She found evidence of a large, heavily fortified city destroyed by fire, but she concluded, based on the pottery she found, that the destruction occurred around 1550 BC (not the time of Joshua, around 1400 BC). However, once you examine the assumptions she made to arrive at her dates, it is easy to see why she made the wrong conclusion about dates. In essence, she said she could not find a fancy type of pottery from Cyprus that was popular in prosperous cities and on the coast. What she neglected to consider was the source of the pottery-lower-class hovels outside the safety of the city’s main walls.
Archaeologist Dr Bryant Wood has made a thorough study of all the other archaeological digs done at Jericho over the course of the last century. The original writings and reports point to astonishing parallels between the archaeological evidence and the Biblical account-including a layer of ashes from the firing of the city, jars filled with grain (in keeping with the harvest time mentioned in the Bible, the short siege of seven days and God’s command not to plunder), crumbled walls, and even a portion of the northern wall that remained intact (where Rahab’s family could have been saved). You can read more about Dr Wood’s findings in The Walls of Jericho.
By rejecting the historical accuracy of God’s revelation, these Jewish scholars have chosen to build their beliefs on the shifting sands of human opinion and false assumptions. Thus they undermine the only logical basis for the distinctiveness of the Jewish people. (For more information on the origin and purpose of the Jewish people, see Genesis correctly predicts Y-Chromosome pattern: Jews and Arabs shown to be descendants of one man!) Further, if we can’t believe what God says about Creation, the Exodus, and the Conquest, how can we believe what He promises about the Messiah (the ultimate reason God chose the Messianic People2) and eternal life?