The Kuzari Principle holds that some events cannot be invented or hoaxed because they have an unforgettable character and have occurred before a massive public. Accordingly, biblical miracles such as “manna from heaven”–a repeated occurrence–and the revelation at Sinai are too exceptional and visible to be anything but true because it would be impossible to fabricate or fake them and get people to believe. If someone tried to introduce a national unforgettable story, people would speak up and say, “that’s not true!”
In this third and final installment on Kuzari (a temporary break from blogging on Walt Whitman), I will explain why the Kuzari claim ultimately fails to make a compelling case for the truth of the Torah’s miracles: Kuzari addresses a simplistic and weak form of culture and myth formation, and it specially pleads for belief as an indicator of a story’s truth. To be clear, I’m not “disproving” or attempting to disprove Judaism here. However, I am disputing (and, I think, refuting) the idea that Kuzari provides a sound basis for accepting the miracle claims of the Torah as true.
Here’s the most cogent modern statement of Kuzari, by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb:
in modern language the principle that the Kuzari uses is as follows. I beg you to look at it, hear it, and pay close attention to all of its details. Let E be a possible event which, had it really occurred, would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence. If the evidence does not exist, people will not believe that E occurred.[Emphasis in original]
Gottlieb also has a supplementary argument related to Kuzari:
Suppose A invents a story about a national unforgettable and tries to convince B that it happened. Suppose further that B and his nation do not remember the event, and A gives no explanation why the event would not be remembered. Then B will not believe the story. [Emphasis in original]
The evidence [for Sinai] is as follows: Universally, there is a single account of how the Jewish people received the Torah. It states that on the sixth day of the third month of the year 2448 from Creation, an entire nation full of dissidents and skeptics gathered at the foot of a mountain in the Sinai Desert and witnessed how G-d spoke with Moses. Rather overwhelmed by the experience, they asked Moses to kindly fetch all the details of what exactly G-d would like from them and report on it. Which he did, over a period of forty years wandering in the desert. Moses also charged the people to keep multiple copies of the written record, which they did, and so we have many copies of that record to this day.
Here is the proposed most likely explanation of the existence of this record: Someone made up the whole story. Someone else later wrote it down. A third individual put it together with other manuscripts, and the entire nation conspired to agree that it had actually happened. They agreed to agree on only one version of how it had happened, eradicating any trace of dissent.
Basically, a conspiracy theory. This time, involving huge numbers of people over a very long period of time.
Let’s be clear about what Freeman calls the evidence: it’s the Torah report (see below). So we essentially have only one account of the Sinai story. Most everything else in Freeman’s argument comes from his traditional reading of that one account, from the quarrelsome nature of the people to the charge for multiple copies. So, our evidence for Sinai is this and only this: a single surviving report of an event that purportedly occurred over 4450 years ago in a desert wilderness before one people.
Freeman uses rhetorical spin to make this evidence seem more credible and stronger than it really is. Freeman also uses spin to downplay and, in my opinion, misrepresent the alternative explanation. Gottlieb’s second syllogism is a version of this same misrepresentation. If I may summarize, both Freeman and Gottlieb claim that “The proposed most likely explanation of the existence of this record” is a sudden fabrication of an incredible story; that is, the Torah records a story that a person made up at some definite point in time, a story that was taken to be true then and there. But this is not the alternative position. Someone did not make up the Sinai story complete and unalterable at one time, for this is a modern sense of how stories are made and circulated. It was more like many people communally developing and interpreting back-stories for already existing rituals and practices. Gottlieb’s A and B scenario above is simply inaccurate and irrelevant. The Sinai story was not a conspiracy but the ongoing evolution of culture. And it was not just the evolution of culture but the evolution of cultural texts.
This evolution is described by the Documentary Hypothesis, the modern form of which emerges from seven types of evidence: (1) the Hebrew language of different periods in the Torah, (2) the use and quantity of terms in the different sources, (3) consistent content (such as the revelation of God’s name, (4) the narrative flow of each source, (5) the connection between parts of the Torah and other parts of the Bible, (6) the relationships of the sources to each other and to history, and (7) the convergence of the different lines of evidence. According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the Torah as we have it today develops from early oral and written sources that coagulated into four main sources–J, E, P, and D. Between 922 BCE and 400 BCE, the four sources were compiled and woven together to produce the Torah.
As to the Sinai story itself, well, the claim of its exceptional nature starts to diminish upon scrutiny. National revelation is not unique to the Torah or to Jews. The Aztecshave a national revelation story. Some Christians claim that the revelation of Jesus happened before the nation of Israel and thus qualifies as a national revelation just as much as Sinai. It is also untrue to say “there is a single account of how the Jewish people received the Torah.” There is, after all, the Samaritan Torah, the Septuagint, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Torah’s unbroken chain of transmission is dubious also, as evidenced by the missing and superfluous letters in the Torah portion Vayigash (Gen. 44:18-47:27). Plus, the Bible itself tells of missing links in the chain of transmission, as in the days of King Josiah (2 Kings 22-23) and again in the days of Ezra.
Although we have no information available to help us corroborate and understand the driving reality of the specific events of the Torah account, we know that religions can emerge gradually and do not necessarily need individual founders or foundational events. This point is made by looking at Hinduism. Shintoism, Asatru, Druidism, and the ancient religions of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece. We actually do have, therefore, some knowledge of surrounding cultures in the same approximate time periods. Furthermore, we have some knowledge about how the Bible was assembled. Whether one agrees with the Documentary Hypothesis or not, one must acknowledge that is provides an empirically-based explanation for the history and relationship of different elements in the Bible. The person who prefers Kuzari thus chooses a weak and indirect logical argument over an argument developed using empirical data. We also have scientific knowledge of the real workings of the natural and social world – and this knowledge leads us to see the truth as being ever less likely as portrayed in ancient religions.
What about the logical proofs offered by Gottlieb to explain Kuzari? These also wither under scrutiny. Let’s look at Gottlieb’s main syllogism:
(1) Let E be a possible event: Why are we assuming that an event–any event–actually happened? Whether the event really happened is what we are trying to figure out! We also need to clarify the parameters of “possible,” as I don’t grant automatically that a god appearing to the multitude is itself a possible event. Finally, notice how we begin here with an event, something empirical, but then move in #2 to something that could be empirical or subjective, and end up in #3 with a purely subjective belief. With every step, the reasoning takes us away from the empirical.
(2) had it really occurred, would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence: What is meant by evidence? If I tell you something and you tell your brother, is your tale considered “evidence”? What’s meant by “enormous” and “easily available”? I am not engaging in sophistry by asking that the vital terms of an important argument be made with the utmost clarity and specificity. I have little problem with the phrasing of the principle on its own, but when we apply the principle to Sinai, we need to have the key terms mapped unambiguously to details of the story. When we’re talking about Sinai, the fact is that we don’t have good evidence and we don’t have enormous and easily available evidence. We basically now have only the Torah. If the only evidence is testimony and/or social memory, then the evidence is poor: it doesn’t bring us to the truth of what the event might actually have been.
(3) If the evidence does not exist, people will not believe that E occurred: This is ultimately the money statement of Kuzari, the assertion that people won’t believe just anything. Some claims are so extraordinary that people will demand to see the evidence, the assertion says. In this way, Jewish belief is supposed to be proof of Jewish belief–hence, we go around in a circle. But the big flaw in much Kuzari-based reasoning on Sinai is the assumption that the story appears suddenly, as if the story itself were specially created by a god and placed in a culture that also was largely static. Claims evolve and societies evolve–both are dynamic.
The evolutionary nature of both stories and societies thus undermines Kuzari’s premises. This evolutionary development is extremely plausible and very well attested. I am not here proposing that a band of actual pre-Jews were stupefied before a real volcano (for instance), and that this event was the true and singular origin of the Torah’s revelation story. Indeed, if Kuzari were right, then the Torah would the one and only instance in human history of a cultural text emerging fully formed and never, ever changing across the centuries. I am instead proposing that the existence of the Torah report and that the traditional Jewish interpretation are not and never were necessarily credible as evidence. And, crucially, I am proposing that that people don’t necessarily need evidence–good or otherwise–to believe the truth (factual or literary) of a story. See, for example, a recent article on how facts can backfire:
Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.
The final sentences of the above quote speak eloquently to why people champion Kuzari despite its mismatch with reality and history. For many, accepting Kuzari’s limitations would admit doubts in their personal beliefs. Accepting Kuzari’s shortcomings would upset the ordered and imposed world of Jewish theology. They defend Kuzari because it’s intuitively understandable, rather like “great man” thinkingapplied to miraculous events. Kuzari supports an illusion people can afford to have and often feel like they cannot afford to live without.
Finally, to close Sinai and Kuzari together, we should examine the relevant Torah passage, where the direct interaction of God occurs unambiguously only with Moses, and perhaps also with Aaron:
Chapter 19: 17-25
17. Moses brought the people out toward God from the camp, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain. 18. And the entire Mount Sinai smoked because the Lord had descended upon it in fire, and its smoke ascended like the smoke of the kiln, and the entire mountain quaked violently. 19. The sound of the shofar grew increasingly stronger; Moses would speak and God would answer him with a voice. 20. The Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the peak of the mountain, and the Lord summoned Moses to the peak of the mountain, and Moses ascended. 21. The Lord said to Moses, “Go down, warn the people lest they break [their formation to go nearer] to the Lord, and many of them will fall. 22. And also, the priests who go near to the Lord shall prepare themselves, lest the Lord wreak destruction upon them.” 23. And Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot ascend to Mount Sinai, for You warned us saying, Set boundaries for the mountain and sanctify it.” 24. But the Lord said to him, “Go, descend, and [then] you shall ascend, and Aaron with you, but the priests and the populace shall not break [their formation] to ascend to the Lord, lest He wreak destruction upon them.” 25. So Moses went down to the people and said [this] to them.
Chapter 20: 1-18
1. God spoke all these words, to respond: 2. “I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3. You shall not have the gods of others in My presence. 4. You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth. 5. You shall neither prostrate yourself before them nor worship them, for I, the Lord, your God, am a zealous God, Who visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, upon the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me, 6. and [I] perform loving kindness to thousands [of generations], to those who love Me and to those who keep My commandments. 7. You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain, for the Lord will not hold blameless anyone who takes His name in vain. 8. Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it. 9. Six days may you work and perform all your labor, 10. but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your God; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your beast, nor your stranger who is in your cities. 11. For [in] six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it. 12. Honor your father and your mother, in order that your days be lengthened on the land that the Lord, your God, is giving you. 13. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 14. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or whatever belongs to your neighbor.” 15. And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain, and the people saw and trembled; so they stood from afar. 16. They said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die.” 17. But Moses said to the people, “Fear not, for God has come in order to exalt you, and in order that His awe shall be upon your faces, so that you shall not sin.” 18. The people remained far off, but Moses drew near to the opaque darkness, where God was.
When we look at the biblical passage above, and we must remember that we read it in translation, we see that the nature of the interaction between God and Israel is hardly so remarkable as Kuzari might otherwise lead us to believe. With Moses and then Aaron seemingly as the sole exceptions, all Israel keeps its distance from Sinai and remains “far off.” The people see smoke and feel shaking, as if they are before a volcano. What did Israel hear? Certainly, they heard the shofar. What of God did they hear? Only sound. Moses later reminds Israel that when they encountered God at Sinai, “You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deuteronomy 4:12).
While Jewish tradition has maintained that God spoke the first two commandments directly to Israel (but see Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, II.33), this seems to be an interpretation that is not explicit in the text itself. In abject fear and standing from afar, Israel pleads to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die.” We might suppose that the Israelites actually hear nothing directly from God, if we accept the speaking Moses as being literal:
The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between the Lord and you at that time to declare to you the word of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain. He said, “I am the Lord your God . . .” (Deuteronomy 5:4-6; emphasis added)
In this regard, the biblical claim of God’s direct interaction with Israel is like later miracle accounts, such as the risen Jesus appearing to a few followers. The singularity of Sinai, in other words, may be highly exaggerated.
The Sinai event also has analogues and precursors in the theme of establishing a social and ethical contract between ruler and ruled. In the ancient Near East, we have the law codes of Ur-Namma of Ur (ruled 2112 to 2095 BCE), Lipit-Ishtar (1930 BCE), Eshnunna (1770 BCE), Hammurabi (1750 BCE), and other kings. Of course, the biblical claim appears unique in having God authorize the laws, but in practical terms Moses actually is the one who issues the laws. God is identified as their source and authority, but Moses is the vehicle for their presentation to Israel. And their presentation is that of a suzerain treaty (or vassal treaty), whose form pre-dates the Decalogue:
(a) Self-identification of the speaker.
(b) Historical prologue.
(c) Treaty stipulations.
(d) Provisions for making the provisions of the treaty public.
(e) Mention of the gods.
(f) Blessings and curses.
Thus, neither the Sinai event nor the laws purported to have been given at that time seem to represent anything of radical uniqueness or difference. This is, of course, assuming there was some such event. I remain unconvinced that there was. As a modern and skeptical reader, I hear in the Exodus passages above a rhetorical ploy to justify the need for rabbis and priests. The passages appear to me as a politicized re-telling of a pre-existing story or stories. I realize that this hypothesis leaves open the questions of what earlier versions of the story might have been and what real events may possibly have been captured in any of the story’s versions. Nevertheless, the Kuzari claim of the Sinai legend’s unique, uniform, and unified voice–this claim is shattered.
In the end, Kuzari fails to prove Sinai, Torah, and Judaism because it misunderstands reality and history. It is a projection of itself onto the human cultural landscape. It specially pleads that IT succeeds where every other miracle claim fails, just as every apologist today claims that HER or HIS RELIGION is not the like the religion criticized by the New Atheists.