Many of us are familiar with the so-called Kuzari proof, the idea that, because millions of Jews participated in the Exodus from Egypt and saw the Revelation from Mount Sinai with their own eyes, and then passed these stories down to their children and grandchildren throughout the generations, therefore the Exodus happened as written in the Torah and the Revelation at Mount Sinai is true.
This has bothered me for quite some time, largely because (despite the claims made by my friend Simcha Jacobovici) archaeological and other historical and scientific evidence does not support an Exodus of more than a few thousand people at best, and no evidence for the revelation on Mount Sinai has yet been found. That, combined with the impossibility of the Joshua account of the "conquering" of the Land of Israel and the growing body of evidence showing that Judea was a hick backwater rather than a large kingdom, leads me to believe much of the 'truth' we have been taught is not really true after all.
But how could this be? The Kuzari proof after all means that the Torah's account must be true, right? Wrong. And now I'll show you why.
First, we know from later biblical books that the returning exiles knew nothing about dwelling in succas on Succot and they also knew nothing about matralineal descent or any ban on intermarriage. In other words, we know the so-called "unbroken chain of tradition," the mesorah, was really broken after all. Another bit of evidence to prove this is the sudden "discovery" of the book of Deutoronomy, Devarim, previously unknown in that entire generation to anyone.
But if this is true, if the mesorah was clearly broken or non-existent, why would Jews venerate a group of stories that are clearly false? The answer, I think, is that Jews did not view those stories, what we call today Genesis, Exodus, Joshua and some other biblical books, as history – they viewed them as myth.
What is myth? Myth was a means by which non-literate societies passed on important information. Structured as stories that were easy to remember and recite, myths taught lessons. The stories told were not necessarily true in the historical sense, but they were true in the mythological sense. This is clearly how Jews viewed much of the early parts of the Torah until the Second Temple period.
Ezra is known to have "fixed," i.e., standardized, the text of the Torah. There are Rishonim who hold that "fixing" included moving psalms attributed to Moses from the Torah to the Book of Psalms, the adding of verses throughout the Torah to add clarity, and lots of other "tweakings." He also taught this remodeled text to the masses, who clearly knew little, if anything, about it before he started teaching it
At the end of the Secomd Temple period, it was the rabbis' need to derive laws from the text of the Torah that intensified, I think, the process that turned these myths into "history." If law was to be derived from the text, then the text must be unalterable to ensure uniformity of the law. It must also be not just sacred, but divine. This added a new layer of rigidity in how that text was viewed.
What happened is paradigm shift. Ezra took disparate myths and unified them, in the process moving these stories from myth to something almost akin to history. The shift in this direction continued until Rabbinic Judaism added further layers of both law and dogma.
The point is, the Kuzari Proof does not hold up. So, was there an Exodus from Egypt? Perhaps. If there was, it was much smaller than the one described in the Torah.
Then why celebrate Passover if the story as we now have it is corrupted and there may never have been an Exodus at all? What if, as now seems to be the case, the three pilgrim festivals (Pesach, Shavuot and Succot) were celebrated as agricultural festivals during the First Temple period with the freedom/exodus/giving of the Torah components a back story or even no story? Why do this? Why sit around a table for hours, uncomfortably stuffing ourselves with huge quantities of undressed lettuce, raw horseradish and nearly inedible giant crackers (often burned beyond any hope of palatability), while reciting an early Rabbinic text praising an event that never happened?
(And how screwed up is it that the best ritual food of the seder – meant to symbolize the mortar used by the Jews to hold together the mud bricks and form massive state building for Pharoh – is supposed to shaken off the food that was dipped into it? You want to eat three ounces of freshly ground horseradish root while you scream in pain and tears and mucus cover your face? That's perfectly fine. But eat 1/4 teaspoon of the charoset? Sheygetz! How screwed up is this? But I digress.)
So why celebrate Passover? I don't know if there is a good answer to that question. However, I'll celebrate it anyway. I won't eat hametz (although I may eat some kitniyot). I'll make seders. I'll read the Haggadah. And as I do so I'll keep wondering what really happened 3300 years ago (give or take a few hundred either way). Will we ever really know the truth? Rationally, I don't think so. But I still hope that one day we will.
For more on classical myth from many different cultures including our own, see When They Severed Earth From Sky: How The Human Mind Shapes Myth.