"G‑d said to Moses, 'Why are you crying out to me? Speak to the Israelites and let them start moving. Raise your staff and extend your hand over the sea. You will split the sea, and the Israelites will be able to cross over on dry land.'" (Exodus 14: 15, 16)
Surely one of the most unforgettable dramas in the entire Bible, the crossing of the Red Sea by our forbearers was a colossal, supernatural event that shall forever remain a touchstone in Jewish belief in G‑d. Many of my generation may have "experienced" this captivating example of G‑d's power, his Dominion over creation itself, in a more contemporary fashion. Cecil B. De Mille's timeless "The Ten Commandments" filled the great screens of our once majestic movie houses with a panorama of color and drama, of pomp and pageantry of such massive proportions that even today De Mille's film remains one of the greatest epics ever produced. I remember sitting in the Radio City Music Hall watching as the huge curtains began to rise. Noble Moses, Charlton Heston, powerful Ramsees, Yul Brenner, and a cast of some of the greatest actors and actresses of the day kept us all sitting spell-bound on the edge of our seats as we watched the unfolding story of the Exodus from Egypt. As Moses raised his staff, we watched in astonishment as the Red Sea seemingly opened before our very eyes only minutes later to come crashing down upon the chariots of Pharaoh.
While there was criticism of the film for its taking some liberty with the Biblical narrative, it nevertheless was the talk of the day. Today, decades after its debut, Charlton Heston is still known for his portrayal of our greatest of Prophets - Moses - the Prince of Egypt.
Did I say "The Prince of Egypt?" One of the box office smashes playing today, "The Prince of Egypt" is a film recently released depicting the same event in Jewish history.far from a grand epic like De Mille's production, "The Prince of Egypt" is a Disney production - a cartoon. Perhaps, in a somewhat cryptic fashion these two films speak to a reality in contemporary Jewish life not often considered. Do contemporary Jews believe that the Five Books of Moses, the Torah, was authored by G‑d and thus its historical record to be true?
Michael A. Meyer, a Professor of Jewish History at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion writes in a paper printed in "Jewish Identities in Post-Rabin Israel" published by the American Jewish Committee, "Not only are there very few Israelis who deny their Jewish identity but - perhaps surprisingly, considering our image of most Israelis as secular Jews at best - upward of 80 percent would prefer life-cycle events in their families, such as brit milahs, bar mitzvahs and weddings to be invested with a Jewish religious character... Almost all Israelis who believe firmly that there is a G‑d also believe that the Torah was literally given to Moses at Mount Sinai (as opposed to only 13 percent of American Jews who believe that the Torah is the actual word of G‑d.)" "The Ten Commandments" a grand treatment of the Jewish People being called to the service of G‑d to bear witness to His law given at Sinai through the hand of Moses vs. "The Prince of Egypt" a cartoon depicting the life of a young man raised in the house of Pharaoh who becomes the leader of the Israelites - which is it?
I believe this question to be central to Jewish communal life. For if we carefully dissect many of the issues confronting American Jewry, many of the issues placing ever greater distance between Jews in America and Jews in Israel, we will find that the shaping of positions is significantly affected by one's view of the Biblical narrative - was it really written by God?
Surely conviction in the right of the Jewish People to inhabit Palestine declaring it to be the State of Israel was largely a matter of affirming G‑d's Promise in the Torah regarding Eretz Israel as a factual reality. It ultimately provided the legitimate platform in the world at large upon which Jews could lay their claim to Israel. Jewish identity in the main is grounded in ones belief in the authenticity of the Torah as authored by G‑d. "The Chosen People", the sense of a unique Jewish destiny that impacts upon humanity as a whole , the collective responsibility to be a "light unto the nations," all and more are firmly based only when there is belief in the mission of the Jews described in G‑d's own words in the Torah.
For centuries the salient question in Jewish life has been How. How do I put on Tephillin, how do I truly fulfill the Mitzvah of Zedakah? In a world that generally rejected the Jew, it seemed fruitless to question one's being a Jew. There was little alternative. Today, especially in the United States, the salient question in Jewish life is Why. Why bother being a Jew? The strongest response is - "I believe that the Torah is the written word of G‑d given to the Jewish People and the world at Mount Sinai through the hand of Moses." Sadly, according to Professor Meyer, only a minority of Jewish "believers" in America ascribe to this basic Jewish conviction in stark contrast to our brothers and sisters in Israel who largely accept the Torah as written by G‑d. This conviction surely impacts upon much of our decisions as Jews. Eretz Israel, the land ordained as the eternal Jewish home by G‑d, is a far cry from a society of Jews happening to live in Israel. Each of us must ask ourselves when considering the Torah, do we view it as "The Ten Commandments," the epic story of a spiritual People forged at Sinai with the fire of G‑d's very Word or "The Prince of Egypt" a children's story seen through the eyes of cartoon characters. In the end, more than any other issue, our understanding of the Divine nature of The Torah will be that element that draws us together as one People or tragically casts us asunder.