Living up to The Truth

6: Revelation and Miracles - the Kuzari Principle

by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb
Become a Supporter Library Library
Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5

I will now be presenting a key argument concerning the belief in miracles. This argument was originally formulated by the Kuzari, a classical work of Jewish philosophy by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi. The Bible records many miraculous events. Verifying these reports is necessary: first, to verify the Bible as an accurate record of historic events, and second, as evidence for G-d's role in history. Therefore, this argument plays a crucial role in the overall assessment of evidence for the truth of the Torah.

I will present this argument twice because it is not a simple argument. First I will present it incompletely in outline form, and then I will take you through it in detail. We begin by taking a miracle which is described as occurring to a large number of people, in our case the entire generation. Take, for example, the revelation at Sinai. There are people who believe that the revelation at Sinai occurred. I'm not going to assume that because people believed it that it must have occurred. That is called "begging the question." However, it is a fact that there are people who believe it occurred.

Now they believe it because the previous generation taught it to them. Likewise, that generation believes it because the previous generation taught it to them. So you have a chain of generations of believers going back in time. That is a fact. The question then is, how did the chain get started? Who were the first believers? How did they arrive at their belief?

Again, oversimplifying, (this is only the outline): There are two broad possibilities. One: the event at Sinai took place and people witnessed it, and that caused their belief. Or two: the event did not take place. If the event did not take place, then someone invented the story and convinced the people to believe it.

The Kuzari's argument proceeds by investigating the second alternative, that the event didn't happen, that the story was made up and was sold. The argument shows that the second alternative is not credible. It is not credible to believe that the story was made up and then sold. If you can defeat the second alternative, that leaves only the first alternative, that it happened and was witnessed. That is the structure of the argument.

The outline of the refutation of the second alternative proceeds as follows. Imagine someone making up the story and trying to sell it. He is going to come to a group of people and he is going to tell them that sometime in the past their ancestors stood at a mountain and heard G-d speak. He is not talking about people in China or Tibet. He is talking about the ancestors of his audience. He is claiming that G-d revealed Himself to all of their ancestors simultaneously and by so doing founded a new religion.

What is the question with which the audience will confront him? The obvious question is: If this happened to our ancestors, how is it that no one knows about it but you? What happened to the memory of that event? Everybody simply forgot it? They were more interested in the soccer scores? No one told us about it? The whole religion just disappeared? It is simply not credible to tell an entire nation that their collective ancestors witnessed such an earth-shattering event and that it was forgotten. It would be impossible to explain why the memory of the event disappeared. Therefore, says the Kuzari, the person inventing the story and trying to sell it will never succeed.

To give you a simple parallel, suppose someone told you today that five hundred years ago gold grew on trees throughout Romania. Gold grew on trees for twenty years and then there was a blight that killed all the gold trees. Would you believe it? Would you have to go to an encyclopedia and look up Rumanian history? I don't think that you would need to investigate the history of Rumania. If such a thing had happened, you would already know about it. It would have been so spectacular that everyone would know about it. The books would be filled with it; novels would have been written about it; there would be botanical research projects to find out what happened to the gold trees and how to reproduce them. It is not the kind of thing that people forget.

Or, to take an example which does not involve a miracle, imagine being told that in 1690 the European settlers in North America conquered all of Central and South America. You would reject such a statement on the same grounds: if it were true, surely we would already know it.

Similarly, the revelation of G-d to an entire ancestry of a nation is not the kind of event that would be forgotten; and therefore if a person is inventing the story and trying to sell it, he will not be able to sell it to his audience. The reason is that he will not be able to explain why no one else remembers that incredible event. That means that the alternative of making it up and selling it is not credible. If that alternative is not credible, we are left with only one alternative, and that is that the event really happened and that people witnessed it. That is the general structure of the argument in an incomplete and outlined form.

Now, let me take you through the argument in detail. It will be considerably longer this time. The first point again: we have a chain of generations going backwards in time who believe that these miracles took place: Revelation at Sinai, the crossing of the Red Sea, the plagues in Egypt, the manna and others. Today, this group constitutes hundreds of millions of people. (Some Jews, and some Christians, some Moslems, etc.) The question is: How did that belief originate? It is not of interest now that there are non-believers. There will always be non-believers. There are even non-believers in the Holocaust. (How there can be people who do not believe in the Holocaust will be discussed below.) What is at issue is that there are believers, a considerably large number of believers, and we want to explain the fact that they believe it. It is a psychological and sociological fact that they believe it. How did this belief first arise?

Now, 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.

Let's consider a possible event, that is to say an event about which we don't know whether or not it occurred. Let's suppose it is an event which if it had occurred, it would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence. Well, if we don't have the evidence then we will not believe it occurred.

That's what the principle says. Let's try to put it in simpler terms. Someone is trying to convince me that a fictitious war, or an earthquake, or something like that happened. If he is right that it (the war, earthquake, etc.) really happened, I should know about it already. I shouldn't need him to tell me. Then the principle tells me that I will not be convinced by him. The problem of the missing evidence will prevent me from believing him.

Of course, when I say that "people will not believe," I don't mean that no one will believe. After all, there are people who believe in flying saucers, or that they are Napoleon, or that the earth is flat! What I mean is that you will not be able to get the vast majority of a nation to accept such a view about their own ancestors when no one in fact remembers it.

So, for example, here is a possible event of the right type: a volcanic eruption in the middle of Manhattan in 1975. If that had happened, that would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence to all of us today. If a volcanic eruption had really occurred in 1975, there would be newspaper reports, books, there would be signs in New York of the lava under the concrete and so on. And I could say to myself: "If he is right that the volcanic eruption really happened, I should know about it already. I shouldn't need him to tell me." That is why we would not believe someone who tried to convince us that it happened.

Similarly with gold growing on trees throughout Romania five hundred years ago. Even if the event took place five hundred years ago in such a remote spot as Rumania, the social memory of that event would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence. And we could make the same observation: If gold really grew on trees we should know about it ourselves without this person having to tell us.

That is the kind of event that we are talking about. An event which, if it had happened would have left behind an enormous amount of easily available evidence of its occurrence. I stress this because the counter-examples that people usually think of are mistakes because they will not respect the definition.

Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5

The application of this principle to public miracles follows directly. A public miracle, especially a miracle which is described as occurring to an entire nation, is the kind of event which if it had happened would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence. The evidence would be in the form of social memory, just like the evidence we would have had of gold growing on trees throughout Rumania. People don't forget things like that. Therefore a public miracle, public in the large sense of a whole nation, is the kind of event which, if it did happen, would leave behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence. If the event did not take place, and therefore the evidence was missing, you cannot get people to believe in it. That is how the Kuzari principle applies to public miracles.

Now, let me explain to you how limited this principle is. This principle states a limit on human credulity. People throughout history have believed a wide variety of crazy things. This principle says that there is a limit to how foolish people will be. They will believe a wide variety of crazy things, but not every crazy thing. There is a limit. The limit is an event which if it had happened would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence, and which in fact didn't happen and therefore the evidence was missing.

Let me give you some examples. In the Middle Ages, people in Europe believed in dragons. Doesn't that demonstrate that you can sell anybody anything? Think about the kinds of beliefs that they had about dragons. Here is one belief that they never entertained. People did not believe that a dragon marched into downtown London in the middle of the day, burnt hundreds of people to death with its fiery breath, knocked over buildings with its tail, and then drowned in the Thames. Why not? If you can sell people anything, if you can make up any story and get credulous people to believe it, how is it no one ever believed that?

What kinds of stories did they believe about the dragons? Sir Galahad comes riding in from the forest, his armor is dented, he's bruised and bleeding. "What happened Sir Galahad?" "I had an encounter with the dragon." Well, maybe he did and maybe he didn't. The listener have no way of checking it out. Even if it did happen, it would not leave behind enormous, easily available evidence to him of its occurrence. Since it doesn't meet the condition of leaving behind enormous, easily available evidence, you can sell him anything. As long as the audience would have no access to evidence even if the event occurred, the audience has to decide whether to trust the witness or not. If he is tall, if he is handsome, if he writes sonnets, if he is good at jousting, then maybe he will be believed. Why? Because he describes an event which even if it had happened, would be inaccessible. If you describe it as inaccessible, may be able to sell anything.

Achilles comes down from the mountain and he says, "I just met Athena and she gave me a new strategy for the war." Now, if you are in the Greek camp down below, you have no access to evidence. You don't know what happened on the mountain top. At that point, all bets are off. At that point you may be able to get people to believe without limit. Only when you have an event which meets the Kuzari's conditions, an event which if it had happened would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence to the audience, are you out of luck and not able to sell it. That is what the Kuzari says.

Take, for example, Christian "miracles." Many people feel that if we had a good reason to believe in miracles, we would be embarrassed by Christian claims to miracles. There are two things wrong with this worry.

Number one, we have no commitment against Christian miracles. As far as we are concerned, maybe the Christian miracles did take place, because in Judaism, miracles alone prove nothing. It says in Deuteronomy, Chapter 13, that there will be false prophets who will do miracles! So, if someone tries to prove that he has a message from G-d by strolling on the lake, that proves nothing. It could be that he is one of the false prophets who does miracles. So I have no particular commitment against Christian miracles. If they happen to have occurred then they would qualify for chapter 13 (Deuteronomy)!

Number two, the Christian miracles were by and large semi-private affairs witnessed by no more than a few thousand people. Now a few thousand people, if you are making up the story fifty years later, is by no means the entire ancestry of a nation. The audience will ask themselves: "If it really happened, must I assume that everyone at that time would have believed it and then created a social memory which would have been available to me today? Maybe they just did not believe it? Perhaps it was filed with the many stories of the current Greek mystery cults and just forgotten?" Perhaps so, and then the Kuzari principle does not apply. Only if the audience is convinced that if the event had happened they surely would have known of it does the principle apply. In this case the audience would not necessarily have been convinced.

Perhaps the following analogy will help. Imagine that you spent yesterday in the library. A friend now wants to convince you that you went swimming yesterday. You are not likely to accept his story. Your reason will be this: If I really went swimming yesterday, surely I would remember it! The fact that you should remember it if it happened and in fact you don't remember it is enough for you to reject it. On the other hand, if your friend tells you that you absentmindedly put your eyeglass case on top of the radio you might well believe him. You will reason: Even if I did that, I would probably not remember doing it. So the fact that you do not remember it is not enough reason to reject it. We have used the same reasoning for national events.

Now, some people confuse the Kuzari's principle with its converse in the following way. They say you are trying to claim that enormous, easily available evidence is very powerful, powerful enough to wipe out all opposition, powerful enough to settle all issues. What about people today who do not believe in the Holocaust? The Holocaust took place only fifty years ago. There is enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence. You could talk to thousands of survivors who are still alive today. There are books, records, photographic materials, death camps that you can visit, and yet there are people today who don't believe in the Holocaust. Doesn't that show that enormous, easily available evidence doesn't settle all questions?

The answer is yes, it does show that, but that is not what the Kuzari's principle says. The Kuzari's principle says that for an event which if it had occurred would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence, and didn't occur, you can't get people to believe in it

What would you need to show that this principle is false? You would need an event which did not occur, and yet people believed in it. That would show that the principle is false. You would need an event for which you would expect to find evidence, the evidence is missing because the event did not happen, and yet people managed to believe in it. Now with the Holocaust you have the opposite. Here you have an event which did occur and yet people don't believe it did. That is not a counter-example to the principle. It is the opposite.

Now some will say: "Okay, that is a fine point of logic, it did occur, it didn't occur, you do believe it, you don't believe it, but still, isn't it really the same thing? Doesn't it come down to the same thing that such evidence doesn't settle all questions?"

The answer is no, it does not come down to the same thing. There is a crucial difference between the Kuzari's principle and the case of the Holocaust. The reason is that everyone has to sift and be selective when he considers evidence for a proposition. Sometimes evidence is fabricated, sometimes the evidence is irrelevant, sometimes it is misinterpreted. We are always sifting, rejecting, and accepting, and reinterpreting. Only then do we decide what conclusion to draw from the evidence. When we come to the Holocaust, these nuts say we know that sometimes evidence is fabricated or misleading: in this case all of it is fabricated or misleading. In other words, they are taking a normal part of human cognitive life and extending it beyond its appropriate boundaries. They say that sometimes you have to reject some evidence proposed for a proposition; in the case of the Holocaust they want you to reject all the evidence as sufficient to believe it.

Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5

Now you can imagine that happening at least on the fringes of society. But the case of the Kuzari is the opposite. To violate the Kuzari principle we have to believe something for which all the expected evidence is missing. If it were true that there ought to be evidence, and there isn't any evidence, we would never accept a belief. That is not part of our normal cognitive life. We are never confronted with a case where if it had happened the evidence ought to be all over in front of me and there is no evidence, and yet I leap over that hurdle and believe. Therefore, the disbelievers in the Holocaust are irrelevant to the Kuzari's principle.

[Some will wonder whether we have avoided the objection only by defining the event positively, i.e. as the occurrence of the Holocaust. There is no reason in principle, they will say, that we could not consider the non-occurrence of the Holocaust as an equally bona fide event. How would we avoid the objection then? Well, let's try to see how the objection would go.

The non-occurrence of the Holocaust (the second World War without the massacre of 6,000,000 Jews) is a possible event. If it had happened - if the second World War had not included the massacre of 6,000,000 Jews - then there would be enormous, easily available evidence of that event. The evidence would be in the form of histories of the second World War making no mention of the Holocaust. The absence of the event from the histories would surely be compelling evidence that the event did not take place. Since the evidence is in fact missing - the histories of the second World War do in fact include the Holocaust - the Kuzari principle says that people should not believe in the event. That is, they should not believe in the non-occurrence of the Holocaust.

I think this argument is correct: the Kuzari principle predicts that you cannot get people to believe that the Holocaust did not occur. But the prediction is in fact correct! More than ninety per cent of contemporary Americans believe in the Holocaust. The Kuzari principle does not say that no one will accept such a belief. For any kind of craziness you can find some believers! It says that a whole society will not accept the occurrence of an event when it lacks the evidence it should have had if the event had occurred. That has not happened in the case of the Holocaust. And even if it were to happen in the future (G-d forbid) that a great number of Americans come to disbelieve the Holocaust, that would still not be directly relevant to our use of the Kuzari principle since the Holocaust did not happen to their ancestors. Since to them it is a foreign event, perhaps they can explain to themselves why they do not possess the expected evidence. This will have no bearing on the ability of the descendants of the witnesses themselves to explain their lack of the relevant evidence.]

Now let's examine the principle itself. What kind of principle is this? At base it is a principle of empirical psychology. It is a principle describing how people come to believe things. It says that under certain conditions, beliefs won't form. People will not come to believe in events that the Kuzari's principle forbids.

Why should we accept this principle? After all, everything relies on this principle. Could we defeat it? Here is one way not to go about it. We should not say: "You are telling me that just because it is an event that if it had happened would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence, that you can't get people to believe it? I don't think that is right. I can imagine very well that a very influential priesthood, or a very powerful leader, or a person whom you would think has magical powers, convincing people to believe in even things like that. I don't think there is any limit to what the populace can believe. I think I could even write a very convincing novel describing such a case and get it published."

Does your ability to imagine such a case defeat the principle? The answer is no. This is a principle about real people in the real world. The principle doesn't say anything about your imagination. People can imagine all sorts of things. They can even imagine impossible things. People have imagined squaring a circle; it just happens to be mathematically impossible. I know people who imagine machines that run without loss of any energy. There are people who design them every year. The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that it is impossible, yet they do it anyway.

The limits are on your imagination are is of no interest. The question is: Do real people in the real world accept beliefs like that? The only way to defeat the Kuzari's principle is to find real cases. Real cases of communities that have come to believe events which if they had happened would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence, and didn't happen, and therefore the evidence wasn't present. I have never yet come across such an event, nothing even remotely resembling such an event.

I'll give you some more examples of non-contenders. People say: "Didn't the vast majority of Germans believe that the Jews stabbed Germany in the back during the first World War? Didn't they believe that Jews had control of international business and banking?" Of course they believed those things, but put yourself in the position of the average German shopkeeper or bus driver. You are told thirty years later that the Jews stabbed them in the back in the first World War. (Even the description is important. When someone stabs you in the back, you don't see them.) What kind of back-stabbing are they describing? Do they say for example that during the first World War that Jews lay down in front of German tanks and stopped them from moving? No, they don't say that, because they know that if they say that, no one will believe it. After all, the soldiers in that war were still alive. They know that didn't happen. No, they stabbed us in the back. They covered their tracks and nobody ever caught them. Because if you claim that it happened in public, nobody will believe you.

Again, put yourself in the position of the average German shopkeeper and bus driver. You are told that the Jews control the international business community. Could you get evidence about that? Of course not, there is no way for you to check that claim. Even if it were true you would not have the evidence. Then people may believe anything. As long as you make the claim something which, even if it were true, your audience would not have the evidence, then the audience has to decide whether you are credible or not and people can make awful mistakes about that.

That is why the claim of the Nazis that the bigger the lie the more successful it will be is wrong. It is a mistake, because a really big lie would have been to lie about something that everyone experienced. They didn't do that, because you can't lie about that which everyone should have experienced, because if it had happened it would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence.

Some people ask about the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Almost everyone in China believes that the students massed against the soldiers and attacked them and the soldiers fired in self-defense. Correct, but if you live in Shanghai, could you get evidence as to what happened in Tiananmen Square? How would you get it? There is no evidence available to you except what is played out on Chinese television, and that is controlled. So again, the vast majority of people in China would not have evidence even if the massacre occurred. Under those conditions you can sell them anything.

So, the principle asserts that you cannot create beliefs of this kind. The principle rests simply on the experience of mankind that people don't believe these sorts of things. If they don't believe these sorts of things, then when you have such an event, as for example a public miracle, if people do believe it, the alternate scenario of its having been made up has now been discredited. That being the case, the only thing that is left is to accept the event as having occurred.

Now there are two qualifications. First of all, when you have an account of a miracle, part of what you rely upon is the reliability of the description of the miracle. Maybe something happened, but who says that the description of what happened is accurate? Maybe the people who witnessed it misunderstood it. Maybe they misperceived it. What criteria do I need in order to lend credence to the particular description of the event that I get from the witnesses?

Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5

An eye witness report is made compelling by the following factors. Calm: If they were upset, anxious, afraid, if the event astounded or stupefied them, that may cast some doubt on their ability to describe the event appropriately. Repetition: rarely are miracles repeated. If they are repeated, the more times that they are repeated, the more credible and compelling the eye witness account becomes. Corroboration: How many people witnessed the event? If it is one or two then it is less compelling. If it is thousands or tens of thousands it becomes more compelling. Irrelevance of expertise: You do not want a witness drawing a conclusion which he is not equipped to draw. If I visit an atomic laboratory, and I come out and you ask: "Was the cyclotron on?" And I say "Well, the machine in the corner was blinking its lights red and blue, but I don't know if it was the cyclotron or whether it was a coffee machine. I don't know what it was. I can't tell those things!" You do not want a witness drawing conclusions that he does not have the expertise to substantiate. Absence of self interest: If a person has an interest in telling the story one way or another, then you can suspect that he is motivated by self-interest.

Now, I said the presence of all these factors makes the report compelling. What does that mean if one or more of the factors is missing? Does that mean that the report is worthless? No, it just means that it is less compelling. But even when the evidence is less compelling, it can be compelling enough. The lack of the cited factors leads to doubt when there is contrary evidence. If the witnesses report seeing A kill B, and we have evidence that A was elsewhere at the time, we may use the witnesses' fright and shock at seeing a murder to explain the innaccuracy of their report. But if there is no contrary evidence, we will accept their report as good enough (even to convict in court).

Now Rav Yehuda Halevi, who created this argument, applied it most directly to the miracle of the manna. If I were looking at the Bible for outstanding miracles, I don't think that I would choose the manna. It is not so spectacular, they just ate something they found on the ground every morning for thirty-nine years. The reason he chose this is because it fits the conditions that we previously described perfectly.

It is something that happened thousands of times. Maybe the first few times they were astounded or stupefied and in shock, but after the thousandth time or the ten-thousandth time, I cannot imagine that they were still in such shock that they could not calmly investigate what is taking place. You have here repetition galore. Corroboration? It is something that was witnessed by an entire nation. You cannot find much greater corroboration than that. Irrelevance of expertise? You do not have to be an expert to know that every morning you woke up, scooped the stuff off the ground and ate it and it nourished you. That is not drawing conclusions about cyclotrons.

As far as the application of self-interest is concerned, this can be ruled out in the following manner. We are talking now about an event being misreported. How could self-interest have created the story of the manna if it didn't happen? It couldn't have been created later than the event even if they had wanted to make it up, because that is a direct application of the Kuzari's Principle. If you make it up later, people will ask you, if it really happened to all of our ancestors, how come no one knows about it but you? It is not the kind of event you can make up because if it had happened, it would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence, and if it didn't occur, then there is no evidence of its occurrence. So, you could not make it up later.

Could self-interest have produced a false report while the event was going on? Clearly not. We are talking about an event which repeated thousands of times. It was experienced by an entire nation. Who is going to make a false report of it when everybody experiences it every day and sees that the report is false? So, even if there were self-interest, it could not play a role here in creating a false report of the event. Therefore says the Kuzari, the manna is the strongest candidate for a credible miracle. It is credible because of its public nature, and the reports about what happened are credible because they meet all the conditions we have discussed.

The application of the Kuzari principle to other miracles, like the Revelation at Sinai and the crossing of the sea, is somewhat less compelling. They happened only once and they took place at a time when the people were in a very agitated state of mind. Therefore, one would have to scale down the credibility of the details in the descriptions of these miracles. They are somewhat less compelling than they would have been if the people had been calm and the miracles had been repeated. But, as noted above, even for the details the evidence is compelling enough since there is no contrary evidence. Furthermore, if we consider the general descriptions of these miracles - leaving out the fine details - the Kuzari principle applies directly with full strength.

There is also a kind of domino effect here. If you have one miracle which you can strongly substantiate, one miracle for which the argument is perfect, once you breach the natural order, it then becomes possible to accept the account of other miracles more easily. I'll give you an analogy. Suppose you have a person whom you believe to be honest in a business and there is money missing from the business. Someone accuses this honest fellow. You are not likely to accept the accusation even if there is some evidence that he was in the right place at the right time. You say: "I know him to be an honest fellow. Therefore I cannot suspect him."

Now, let's suppose you find one incident in which he is known to have cheated. Just one. That changes the entire picture. Now you know that he isn't completely honest. Then, when you have evidence that he was in the right place at the right time, you take it seriously. Once you broke the consistent picture of honesty, then he becomes suspected of any misdoings that take place.

Similarly here: if you can believe in nature without exception, it is difficult to argue that there was a breach of nature. But once you have argued successfully that there was a single breach of nature, it becomes easier to argue for other breaches of nature in the future. Now the argument for the manna is extremely powerful and conclusive, even including the details, as is the general description of the other national miracles. Therefore, standards of evidence for the records in Jewish sources of private miracles are reduced. Here we invoke the principle that all of a single body of information receives credibility from the parts that are tested and found true.

Now let me come finally to the most natural and strongest opposition to this argument. Let's go back to the revelation at Sinai. I said that there are two possibilities: Either the event took place or it was made up. But it cannot be made up since people will not believe in an event whose necessary evidence is missing.

Now the objection will be that this is too simplistic a classification, that there is really a third intermediate possibility. They didn't just make it up. Something happened, and that something was gradually transformed by telling the story, adding, and embellishing. The gradual transformation of imperfect information went together with wishful thinking, glorifying your ancestors, and all the other motivations. This kind of gradual embellishment is well known by anthropologists. It is called myth formation and it definitely takes place in other nations. Why can't stories like the Revelation at Sinai, or the manna, or the crossing of the Red Sea have at their base some event that really did take place, but then was gradually glorified into a miracle?

There are two problems with this sort of "explanation." One general problem is this: when you fill in the details of the scenario it tends to become extremely implausible. Only by ignoring the details does the scenario gain any initial interest. When you ask for the details of the original natural event, how it was understood by the people who experienced it, how they described it to their children, how the reports started to change etc., the story becomes much less consistent with normal human psychology. The second problem is equally fundamental: If you think that an event which was a natural event gradually glorified into this kind of supernatural event, and you think that is normal, and a natural process for a society at that time, then there ought to be parallels. The Kuzari's principle is an empirical principle. You can defeat it. You merely need to find cases. It is not enough to dream up a scenario. You need to find real parallels.

Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5

Let's take the manna as an illustration of both problems. There is a book called The Bible As History by Werner Keller who claims that the miracle of the manna "really took place." Here is his story. The Jews left Egypt, and there are bushes in the Sinai desert to this day which are periodically attacked by insects which bore holes in the trunk of the bush. A sap which is sweet and nourishing oozes out, and the Jews ate this sap as they traveled through the desert. (He claims that this makes the Bible into History. Of course this really makes the Bible false. The Bible doesn't say anything about bushes and sap. The Bible says that they found the manna scattered all over the desert every morning. ) Now here is the suggestion. Every morning they went out and ate the sap of the bushes, and then later it became gradually transformed into the story of a miracle.

Now, as I said, you cannot trust your imagination. The question here is an empirical one. First let's try to face the first problem by filling in the details. The people who left Egypt ate the sap. Did they think it was a miracle? Presumably not. Those bushes have been in existence for over three thousand years. Presumably they were there before the Jews left Egypt. Everyone knew about them. It was a well known desert phenomenon. For them to go out and eat that which everyone knows about, and for them to experience it as a miracle with a quite different description is incredible. They knew they were eating sap!

They went into the land of Israel. What did they teach their children? Did they tell them a completely different story? Of course not. They experienced it. The vast majority of people alive experienced it. They couldn't simply discontinue the old story and make up a brand new story on the spot that everybody tells the same way. No, they must have told their children about the same story.

Well how did the breakdown occur? We can imagine little Reuven sitting and listening to stories from his great-grandfather. And the great-grandfather has become senile, his mind wanders, he gets the details wrong, he makes up a few things and so on. Reuven comes the next morning to play with his friends and says: "Boy, do you know what great-granddad told me yesterday? He told me this great story about all these things..." What will all the other children say? "Gee, my father never told me about that." They go home and ask their father, and their father says Reuven's great-grandfather is 116 years old. People like that make up stories. One of the things needed is a credible scenario of the story developing put into a real social context. Here it is quite difficult to imagine how it could occur.

But more than that. Here you have an event that when it was experienced was a natural event, and the event continues to occur. The bushes still exist. People are still eating the sap from those bushes year after year. The above scenario says that under these conditions, the story was gradually elevated into the level of a miracle. Now we come to the second problem. I challenge you to find me a parallel. It is not enough to make it up in your imagination. Find a parallel. Find a group of people who experienced an event as a natural occurrence, who interpret the event as a natural occurrence, the event continues to occur regularly in their vicinity, and in spite of all that they elevate it into an account of a miracle. If you find such occurrences then that will weaken the argument here. I do not know of any such parallel.

The same has to be true with respect to every scenario. First of all, the scenario has to be initially plausible. Most scenarios are not even initially plausible, but even if they are, there must also be real parallels. Let's apply this now to the revelation at Sinai.

Here is the proposed "explanation" of the belief in revelation at Sinai in terms of myth formation. Maybe the Jewish people were in the desert and there was a volcanic eruption or an earthquake. These are very startling events. These are very shocking events. They might even have been regarded as supernatural. Then maybe later people told them that they heard voices, saw visions and so on, and all of that was elevated into the story of Revelation. This is the sort of "explanation" which myth formation offers. Here too the "explanation" suffers from both implausibility and lack of parallels.

First, note that earthquakes occur along the Syrio-African fault approximately every ninety years. The assumption that such an event would produce shock and trigger a unique belief in a public revelation is naive. The many earthquakes which occurred in the same area produced no parallel effects.

Second, in order to see how implausible the "explanation" is, let's take it in two stages. For the first stage, imagine that the story says of itself that it has been passed down continuously from the time of the event. In other words, the story says: "So-and-so many years ago the entire ancestry of your nation stood at a mountain and heard G-d speaking to them. They were commanded to tell the story of this event to their children, and they to their children, and the nation in fact did this." (There actually is something like this in the Torah itself - cf. Deut. 4:9-10, 31: 9-13, 19-21. But I will not use this below because it is not clear and prominent enough.) Now we have to imagine a gradual process of taking a natural event and promoting it into a national revelation, ending with the story that this national revelation was always known by the nation. But before you arrive at the story of a national revelation no one knows about it! How are we supposed to imagine the story which says that it was always known being accepted gradually?

Now for the second stage, suppose that the story does not say that it was passed down continuously, but that the reader or listener will automatically assume that it will be passed down continuously. Then we have precisely the same problem as the last paragraph: how can a story which the listener assumes must have been continuously known be promoted gradually? This is the Kuzari's point: a story of a national revelation will not be forgotten, and the listener to whom the story is being sold knows this and will use it in evaluating the story and deciding whether to believe it. The problem of filling in the details of the gradual promotion of such a story is a great obstacle to the hypothesis of myth formation for the Sinai revelation.

Now for the second problem, the lack of historical parallels. If the belief in the revelation at Sinai is the result of myth formation applied to a natural event, and if that is a normal sort of thing to happen, then it ought to happen more than once. We are not the only people in history that have witnessed earthquakes or who saw volcanic eruptions, or to whom typhoons took place, or tidal waves or other events that could be regarded as supernatural. If a belief in a public revelation could be produced by a natural event, it should have been produced more than once. It is very suspicious to say that here is an effect of a natural cause, a normal cause, fitting in well with human psychology and the normal human environment, but it only happened once in the history of the world!

This is especially true with respect to a belief like the revelation at Sinai, for three reasons. First, a belief in a public revelation is the strongest possible foundation for a religion. If somebody goes up on a mountain and says that he heard G-d speak, either you believe him or you don't believe him. It is then open for everyone else to doubt it and to say that he either made it up or had delusions. In fact, the vast majority of such claims have been rejected throughout history. For every founder of a new religion, there are thousands whose claims to divine revelation or inspiration were ignored. It is much more powerful logically to start out with a belief that an entire nation heard G-d speak. Now if that kind of belief could have been made up then it should have been made up more than once. After all, it is logically the most sound foundation for a religion.

Second, ancient religions borrowed from one another, they were in contact with one another, they had a similar structure; they have the same sort of Pantheon, the same sorts of beliefs. Why wasn't this element ever borrowed? Our belief goes back at least three thousand years. There was a lot of travel through our area of the world. How is it that no one picked it up?

Third, Christianity and Islam desperately need this belief. Christianity and Islam in their early stages made strenuous efforts to convert Jews. Now, if you are a Christian or a Moslem missionary and you come to a Jew and you tell him that your leader is G-d, or that your leader is a Prophet and so forth, the Jew responds: "I don't know about your leader, all I know is that my ancestors stood at Sinai, and you agree. You Christian, you Moslem agree that my ancestors stood at Sinai. How can I now abandon that? How can I contradict that?" What shall the Christian or Moslem answer? That is one of the reasons that they did so poorly in converting Jews. Because the Revelation at Sinai is a foundation that is very difficult to contradict.

Now, according to myth formation there would have been a perfect answer that the Christian or Moslem could have given. He could have said: "You are right, your ancestors stood at Sinai, but it happened again. Another public revelation. All of your ancestors, five hundred years ago, stood again at another mountain and heard the second edition, and we have the second edition." Why did they not make up that kind of belief? If this is the kind of belief that you can make up, why didn't they make it up?

So, if you are working on a scenario about how the original belief of the Revelation took place, you have an enormous obstacle to overcome. The more plausible your scenario is, the more difficult it is to explain why it didn't happen to anybody else. You are sort of caught between two improbable alternatives. Either you create a very implausible scenario so as to protect yourself from the fact that no one else did it, but then it is implausible as an explanation as to how it happened to us. Or you create a very plausible scenario, in which case the question why no one else ever did it is simply impossible to answer.

Next: Chapter VII - Jewish Survival - the Fact and its Implications
Previous: Chapter V - Archeology

© 1995-2024 Ohr Somayach International - All rights reserved.

Articles may be distributed to another person intact without prior permission. We also encourage you to include this material in other publications, such as synagogue or school newsletters. Hardcopy or electronic. However, we ask that you contact us beforehand for permission in advance at [email protected] and credit for the source as Ohr Somayach Institutions

« Back to Living up to The Truth

Ohr Somayach International is a 501c3 not-for-profit corporation (letter on file) EIN 13-3503155 and your donation is tax deductable.