There is a claim, made by Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen in his books (such as Permission to Receive) and lectures (such as this “The Veracity of Torah” lecture on TorahCafé), that the story of a divine miracle at Mt. Sinai (the revelation of God) taking place before the entire “nation of Israel” is unique among cultures and religions. He says that the Jews claim that at the founding of their religion, God personally spoke the Ten Commandments to each of the millions of Jewish people. He posits if it were naturally possible for false national revelation claims to be made, at least one other religion, nation, or culture should also claim that all of their ancestors witnessed divine miracles. (A non-sequitor, I know, but that’s besides the point.) Instead he says that all other religions start up with a divine revelation to only one or two people. Kelemen asks, “If it’s so normal for an entire people to think that their ancestors heard God speak, why didn’t it happen more than once in recorded history?” (Permission to Receive p.70).
Thus, Kelemen appears to claim that there has been no other religion or culture that claims that their ancestors witnessed a deity or other supernatural miracles on a national scale. “National scale” means that all, or at least enough, members of the culture or religion directly witnessed the miraculous (divine, supernatural) occurrence such that the claim that their ancestors witnessed such an event became a continuous national tradition.*
Is this in fact so? Are there no other cultures, nations, or religions other than Judaism that have a tradition that their ancestors all directly witnessed a divine miracle(s)?
*Although Kelemen also says that no other religion was founded with a revelation of God speaking to more than two people, he does appear to acknowledge claims of Jesus performing public miracles. He apparently does not consider this as a counterexample though, saying that people wouldn’t necessarily have known where the people who saw his miracles were, and they and later generations therefore may not have had the ability to check the claim. So this is why I’m asking about the “national” claim rather than an easier to challenge public miracle claim.
The point of “tradition” is also important to the claim. Kelemen seems to require that the revelation story doesn’t involve the people forgetting and being re-told by a smaller group or prophet. In Permission to Receive and some of his lectures, he mentions a Hindu story where Krishna is revealed to millions of people, but since they almost all die out shortly thereafter, there wouldn’t be a nation of people who could check this story with their ancestors. And so he dismisses this sort of counterexample.
There seem to be two claims here. One is that there are no counterexamples of other cultures with a national tradition of a national divine revelation or miracle. The other is an implicit claim that Judaism itself does have such a tradition.
Claim that Judaism has an unbroken national revelation tradition
In terms of whether Judaism itself has such an uninterrupted nation-wide tradition of the entire nation hearing God directly speak the Ten Commandments, as Kelemen claims, it seems only partially true going by the biblical narrative.
First, it does appear as he says that the biblical narrative includes the Jewish nation experiencing national miracles and at Mt. Sinai hearing God speak, though this latter detail is not obvious from the narrative. Some verses do say that the Jewish people heard God directly, for example:
But at the same time, other verses may conflict with this. For example, Exodus 19:21-25 has God allowing only Moses and Aaron up the mountain to see God and receive the commandments, but nobody else could even touch the bottom of the mountain. The people, according to Exodus 19:18-19, simply saw fire, heard loud noise, and possibly heard the voice Moses was conversing with. Deuteronomy 5:5 appears to make Moses the intermediary when God delivers the Ten Commandments.
It seems that the view that all Jews directly heard God did become the accepted position among rabbinic leaders, however. For an example, Rashi on Exodus 20:2 says:
Even if it’s not clear whether the people were supposed to have heard God speak directly, Deuteronomy 11:2-7 does describe various national miracles, such as the splitting of the Red Sea. Kelemen may have been better served using one of those other miracles as his main example. It is clear that according to the Torah the Jewish people did witness at least some nation-wide miracles, but whether the people were supposed to have all heard God speak directly in the way Kelemen says is not as clear.
Nation-wide unbroken tradition
Whether the biblical narrative includes an unbroken chain of tradition about Mt. Sinai is a different story. There are various places in the Hebrew Bible that describe periods of time when the Jewish people apparently rejected and/or forgot their religion for Canaanite religion en masse, for example:
Further, a reading of II Kings chapters 21-23 describes a 75 year period where Canaanite religion was national and Torah was apparently unknown before being discovered under King Josiah who implemented major religious reforms and restored monotheism (known to scholars as the Deuteronomic Reform). Medieval Jewish commentator Rabbi David Kimhi (RaDaK) describes the state to which the Jewish people were unfamiliar with the Torah and its contents:
So the biblical narrative does include later reintroduction of the Torah to the Jewish nation, and there appears no reason to say that the Mt. Sinai story was excluded from what the people had forgotten. It may be arguable whether an elite few always held on to tradition, but this is not Kelemen’s claim. Going by the Hebrew Bible, Judaism does not seem to claim an unbroken nation-wide tradition of the Mt. Sinai events as Kelemen says and his implicit claim in this regard is false.
Note: This is not to say anything of the actual authorship of the Torah and origin of the the Mt. Sinai story. Whether a king made it up as part of a religious reform and told people it had been forgotten, whether it was the product of natural mythological development and embellishment over centuries, whether the Biblical narrative is completely accurate, or whether it is from some combination of the above, it does not change the reality of the resulting biblical narrative and Jewish beliefs. Whatever the history regarding the Egyptian exodus and Mt. Sinai, the biblical narrative does involve the Jewish people forgetting and being re-introduced to monotheism and the Torah.
Claim of no counterexamples
The claim that there is no other example of a culture with mythology of a national supernatural experience is quite an ambitious one as it would require an analysis of a huge range of beliefs of present and past cultures to verify that there were no other examples. However, there indeed areexamples of cultures with myths comparable to the Mt. Sinai tradition, in the sense that these people believed all of their ancestors experienced supernatural events or witnessed their deity speaking:
There may be additional counterexamples too, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh (and related flood myths) or the Founding of Thebes by Cadmus if you say that Rabbi Kelemen’s claim does not necessitate that a sizable group experienced the miracles (just that all of the people’s ancestors experienced it).
Whether these counterexamples do disprove his claim may depend on how narrow Rabbi Kelemen’s claim is understood to be. If he argues that other peoples should have all their ancestors experience miracles or interaction with their god, then it is easy to see these as counterexamples, and his claim would be false. If, however, he requires that the peoples must have experienced something that matches his understanding of a national prophesy of a large population as the start of a religion with a continuous chain of tradition to the verifiably known believers, then some counterexamples become more arguable. But by the same token the claim would be far less meaningful, and as discussed above it would even be doubtful that the stories in the Hebrew Bible actually meet such a threshold. With the less narrow understanding of Kelemen’s claim, though, the Mt. Sinai story would not be unique in the way he says and the claim would not be true on those grounds.