Definitively Refuting the Kuzari Principle
Definitively Refuting the Kuzari Principle

Definitively Refuting the Kuzari Principle

Definitively Refuting the Kuzari Principle

[A picture of the Iceland volcano eruption, 2010. The smoke and lightening are awe-inspiring.]

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]
Let’s use the revelation at Mount Sinai as our case in point for Kuzari. The following passage, from Chabad rabbi Tzvi Freeman, demonstrates the use of Kuzari to argue that Sinai must be true:
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 Aztecs have 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” thinking applied 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.
Posted by Larry Tanner
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Labels: Argumentation, General Religion, Kuzari Principle, Truth

G*35:36 PM
In short, the Kuzari proof is a strawman. It sets up an easily-ridiculed scenario and asserts that the ridiculous nature of that scenario is proof that the Torah was given at Sinia.


Larry Tanner8:49 PM
In short…yeah.

The funny thing about Kuzari argumentation is the way folks try to bury its assumptions. THAT’s the key.


JG1:33 AM
There is truly a caustic irony in Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb claiming : “If the evidence does not exist, people will not believe that E occurred.” This is a man who believes that Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years and that a global flood killed most life within the last 6,000 years. (Would these not have left behind “enormous, easily available evidence” in his view?) His very existence is the refutation of his own Kuzari argument.

Well written post, though.


Anonymous11:39 AM
You are too charitable. You claim that Jewish tradition maintains that the Jews heard the first two commandments from God, this is only one view. Maimonides states in the guide for the perplexed (part 2 chapter 33) that the Jews heard only unintelligible sounds and relied on Moses to tell them the meaning. This is not just “my reading” of Maimonides, he is unequivocal. See for yourself.

I have asked this of many Jews and they all have said that this is an insignificant detail and that Maimonides clearly accepts they heard God even if they did not understand the sounds to be words.

I of course respond that this is an extremely significant aspect of the most important event in the history of the universe. There is no agreement among Torah scholars about whether they heard words or sounds. This is huge because (as I believe you point out) even if a mass of people assembled and believed that they experienced prophecy, how do we know they didn’t just believe their leader during a lightning storm of volcano? That would seem to be the much more parsimonious explanation.

We cannot simply rely on the skepticism of these ancients to have thoroughly considered natural explanations for what occurred. Unfortunately, there are no available details to the story that defy natural explanation. Further, we have ample reason to believe (based on the Maimonides view I raise) that there has never been consensus about even the most important details anyways.

I agree with you that the argument fails to even establish that *anything* happened. Even if it did, a bunch of ancients believing they heard God is not the same as a bunch of ancients hearing God. It ain’t even close.

Kuzari is a very, very weak argument that can be easily attacked from many angles. It is of tremendous ideological importance to the believers and looks to remain that way.


Larry Tanner12:47 PM

Thanks. I updated the text to reference Maimonides. Your point is well-taken that it’s not always clear from “tradition” what the exact Sinai claim is: Did we all hear God speak? Did we sort of hear God say something? Did we just hear noises?

I think it’s also useful to distinguish specific claims–such as a Sinai claim–from the Kuzari as a principle of which claims must be or might be true. The principle is essentially that if a sufficient number of people believe that a sufficiently extraordinary actually happened, then it must have.

Although the principle is logically weak and probably inconsistent with reality, it is nevertheless powerful because of the leverage that can be exerted by those “sufficient” qualifiers.


Anonymous12:58 PM
see Maimonides’s Guide For The Perplexed Part 2 Chapter 33. He is unequivocal that the Jews heard NOTHING intelligible from God and Moses interpreted the “sounds” into words. This is a very inconvenient fact for Orthodox Jews that they inexplicably write off as an insignificant detail.


Anonymous1:00 PM
whoops can you delete my repeat, I thought blogger had eaten my post.


Anonymous12:40 PM
I want to comment here, because my understanding of the Kuzari, larry, is quite different than what you have attempted to refute, and I think a number of the examples you use to refute Kuzari are not relevant.

As I understand it, the claim of Sinai(as presented by Gottlieb) is that one cannot *successfully* fabricate a claim of a national event to a people, making the claim that all of their ancestors, a large and identifiable group, witnessed something remarkable and unusual, if it did not happen.

Now, the fact that the Torah is a single source of this is wholly irrelevant. The Torah (or another tradition) is the source of this Sinai claim, but the argument is that there is a limit to human belief, and people will not accept a tradition or story based on these parameters (national, memorable) if it did not happen.

Ie. One cannot sucessfully fabricate a claim of national nature featuring one’s own ancestors if it were false- it would be far too verifiable- the Torah would be making a claim about all of Israel’s ancestors, about something that never occurred.

The argument behind this, I think, is that, as Gottlieb says, and even with all the counter-arguments I’ve seen, no, I cannot see any parallel in history where a nation of people were all successfully convinced that all of their ancestors experienced something remarkable and memorable (not necessarily religious), if we know it to be false. Example- a mass migration, a huge war, famine, etc.

Now- This is where the myth formation rebuttal comes in- well, it may not have been made up in a moment, but surely Sinai started as a myth and grew over time.

The problem with that rebuttal is that it if it were true, we would have a multiplicity of similar examples in history of myth formation creating an event (with a large, identifiable group, etc.) which we know to be false. Many peoples have many traditions meeting these criteria (traditions about their ancestors with a war, or migration, etc), but do we know any of these traditions to be false?


Anonymous12:40 PM
Unless we have examples where we can see that myth formation created a tradition which we know to be false we cannot make the leap and say myth formation explains every tradition.

The Catholic example you bring misses the point- anyone can *make* a claim of a national tradition- this is not the argument- the question is whether it was accepted by the people as a real event which happened to all of their ancestors if we know that it did not. That is central, thus making the rest of the Catholic example irrelevant.

Also, that Catholic website says the Jewish people saw Jesus nationally. Even if Christians throughout history had believed this (which is not what Christians have believed), this Jesus revelation event was not claimed to have happened to THEIR ancestors, but the ancestors of another group- the Jews.

The Aztec example I read about after seeing people cite it from the blog you cited- there are a multiple reasons to believe that the Aztecs never claimed such a thing:


Anonymous12:41 PM
1/ The source cited by Orthoprax never says the god was revealed/communicated to all the people- it could just as easily be interpreted as a single group. In other words, perhaps they never actually had this belief that Orthoprax says they did.

2/ Every single other Aztec source I researched over a year ago) has the god speaking to the priests, who then relay the message to the people. So if that is representative at all of Aztec belief, it is yet another reason to believe this is what they believed.

3/ This overall Aztec migration story is widely available in scholarly books, but this detail about god speaking to everyone is noticeably absent. This indicates that far from being part of the collective consciousness of the Aztecs, this detail was simply not part of it. More evidence that this was not the Aztec belief.

As for Maimonides, the post from Anonymous also tragically misses the point entirely. This argument says that one (ie. The Torah) cannot successfully make a claim to a nation of people that all of their ancestors- a large and identifiable group – all witnessed something memorable and remarkable, if it were false.

Differing views over the specific details of the event is a red herring; it does nothing to refute the argument. The argument is that one cannot successfully fabricate such a tradition- this tradition being that the entire nation of Israel had a divine revelation. Maimonides did not dispute this.


Anonymous12:41 PM
Maimonides did not say Sinai never happened, or that Israel never experienced anything remarkable at the revelation. That is the major event in question.

Larry, this is my understanding of the argument, and I believe that you have misunderstood Gottlieb a couple times:

1/ In his work, he repeatedly and explicitly mentions myth formation

2/ The argument is not that no group can ever *make* such a claim (which, other than a handful of blog posts, I believe that is the truth, but a sidepoint), but rather than never in history (and certainly not in any of the examples I have ever read, including Aztecs, etc) has a claim of a national, formational event, told to a people about their direct and identifiable ancestors, which was nationally accepted.
In short, if the Sinai claim is indeed the product of some sort of myth formation, it would be the only known case in history where a myth of a formative national event (which we know to be false) was successfully sold to an entire nation of people.

I have attempted to clarify the Kuzari argument (at least as Gottlieb presents it), and I believe that your usage of the Catholic and Maimonides examples show that a major part of the argument was not made clear to you.

Finally, I do not believe that Gottlieb or the argument itself claims to prove that whatever happened at Sinai was really Divine, etc- merely that a formative national event happened to Israel, where they stood at a mountain and had a major experience, and that this belief is unlikely to have arisen through either outright fabrication or through myth-formation.



Larry Tanner2:27 PM

Thanks for the series of comments.

You have left out a critical element of Gottlieb’s claim and so have re-directed it.

Look at what Gottlieb says particularly about the importance of evidence: “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]”

This is the claim I have analyzed, and I have addressed it as head-on as possible. I have shown the claim’s formal weakness, its logical weakness, and factual/historical weakness.

The claim of Sinai’s exceptional-ness doesn’t pass the laugh test. Sinai is one of many “way in the past” stories about the origins of a people/nation/religion. It’s completely in the interest of present-day believers to accept such a story, regardless of its truth and the availability of quality evidence. It gives people identity, a sense of privilege and pride, and psychic validation.

So, you say I’ve misunderstood Gottlieb, which is insulting enough, but my posts show otherwise. I rather think it is you who are not actually engaging my arguments.

I’ve recently been talking about the origins and development of the Sinai story from its different sources and then assembled in the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Please check out these posts.


Anonymous9:30 PM
Larry, I am trying to engage you in discussion- deflecting my post by being “insulted” is not appropriate.
Yes, I have read all your posts on this topic, which is why I wrote such a lengthy comment.
And yes, I do not hesitate to say that if you used the Maimonides, Catholic and Aztec examples to bolster your case, then yes, clearly a central part of Gottlieb’s argument has not been understood, for those examples you cited are not relevant to the subject, for the reasons I outlined. I have read so many internet atheists try to debunk kuzari based on the fatima miracles, and thinking they have come across something amazing. I have to shake my head because it simply does not address the argument at all.
Sinai is not a prehistory story, primarily because the claim does not speak of a group of some ancient or extinct group of people, but rather all ancestors of a current, existing group. It was eminently verifiable for those descendants who would have been hearing such a tale. We don’t know the span of the origin of the tradition to the earliest known believers of it, but probably 500 years or so. I don’t think it’s so easy to say people simply accepted this legend- I think on the contrary, it is laughable to suggest that anyone could have ever successfully concocted such a tale. And if someone did actually manage to do that successfully, it appears they are the only ones in history who managed to pull it off.
Now, I think few people would accept that this legend developed out of thin air, but rather is the result of legendary development, as you say.
The issue I have with that is if naturalistic causes (myth formation) create legends such as this – memorable, central events etched into the national consciousness of a people – then it goes without saying that other examples should be readily available. If not, than we cannot simply assume that myth formation creates results such as this.


Anonymous9:30 PM
That is, if myth formation can create such a national tradition, why are real-world (even rough) examples fitting these criteria so hard to come by?
Now, at this point you would tell me that is a weak argument, because absence of evidence is surely no evidence of absence.
But surely you do not believe that, because many of your arguments you use on this blog to claim the exodus never happened is based on the premise that there is no evidence (a terrible oversimplification at the very least, in my humble opinion). But that sounds like special pleading to me- to say my argument here for kuzari is illogical or weak, while you use the same argument against the historicity of the exodus.
I appreciate the quotation from Gottlieb, and yes, I am addressing his major point also. He and I are talking about the same point, and I most certainly did not miss anything major of his.
To clarify what he meant by that sentence you quoted, let me quote the following paragraphs he provides to put it in context:
“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. “


Terminator5:27 AM
“because absence of evidence is surely no evidence of absence”
No real judge will ever be bothered by absence of evidence so “evidence of absence” is … non-sense; it is a literary fabrication for demagogs (I dare say). Please don’t make speeches here. That’s for the Parliament.


Anonymous9:31 PM
Gottlieb is saying exactly what I addressed in my blog posts, Larry- His point and mine is that one cannot successfully create a myth of such major significance and magnitude. It’s simply a ludicrous suggestion.
My point to all of your rebuttals is that the examples of Maimonides, Aztecs and Catholics are irrelevant to the argument, and that simply claiming that `myth formation`could have been an answer leaves a big question mark as to why, if this is such a naturalistic human development- myth formation, why are other examples of central, formative events seared into a group`s collective consciousness (that we know to be false) so hard to come by. If myth formation created Sinai, it would seem to be the only time in history (as far as every kuzari rebuttal I have ever read, I have not seen any legitimate parallels)
Surely if myth formation causes myths such as Sinai, we would see more examples in history, and people wouldn`t have to rely on weak Aztec parallels to try and refute Gottlieb`s argument.
But just to confirm, Larry- I do not think the kuzari aims to prove that what happened at Sinai was specifically Divine, etc. What it simply aims to prove is that the tradition of a national event at mount Sinai is more likely to be rooted in a real, historical event than myth formation.


Larry Tanner8:28 AM

These arguments are straight from Gottlieb’s playbook. I’m not inclined to deal with old stuff again. I’ll make just a few points and then ask that something new be brought to the table; otherwise, I can’t be bothered.

You say: “if myth formation causes myths such as Sinai, we would see more examples in history.”

First of all, there is no logical requirement for myths exactly like Sinai. There are several examples of stories that share similar features to Sinai, and I have talked about them in various posts. If you are looking for a Sinai duplicate, well that’s unreasonable. In any case, a perceived lack of “more examples” tells us nothing about the origins and development of the Sinai story (or stories, I should say: see below).

Second of all, as I’ve been showing, the Sinai account in the J, E, and D sources are (1) multiple and (2) more like the semi-private revelations that Gottlieb-ites like to wave away as irrelevant to Sinai. What this shows is that the Kuzari interpretation of Sinai is post-hoc and revisionist.

Finally, you say: “What it [Kuzari] simply aims to prove is that the tradition of a national event at mount Sinai is more likely to be rooted in a real, historical event than myth formation.”

And what I have shown is that Kuzari is unable to prove anything. That’s a critical point that ought to be acknowledged but seldom is. I have also shown that myth formation is not incompatible or inconsistent with some “real” historical event serving as an originating point for the story–there could have been something like a real Sinai moment between 1313 BCE and 2200 BCE, but there also needn’t have been. Even at best, Kuzari does not give us a solid reason to think whether there might have been any real Sinai event or not.

If one is so biased, one can use the Kuzari Principle to rationalize acceptance of Judaism. Indeed, given the fantastical nature of so many tales in the Torah and in the traditional Jewish library (which makes the tales fun and interesting, by the way), one needs whatever arguments are available to justify giving oneself over to traditional authorities.

Without such bias, however, Kuzari appears as what it is: an interesting yet problematic stretch. When we leave idle philosophizing and start to collect and consider material artifacts, Kuzari’s wish-world offers too little and too faintly.


Cheeze3:40 PM
So I don’t know if anyone is still picking up the post or blog, but all ill say is this. The reason you are having a difficult timr arguing outside of kuzari is you are not attacking your own fundamental assumption. Why must the torah/religion/god be the only unifying factor of the jewish people? Viewed from that lens, it is even entirely plausible that a group, perhaps even a majority of the recemtly freedmen, saw something miraculous at sinai, and were convinced it was god. It happens everyday here when people see mother mary in their french toast. The underlying issue that no one addresses is that jews have a reason to be a nation other than religion. And, the fact that religion may unify a people doesn’t mean that all, some, or most jews have historically cared about the veracity of ancestral claims. In this context, we rationally negate the principle that a “people believed”. Hogwash! When have 600000a ever agreed on anything?


Larry Tanner9:40 AM
I am well aware that Jewish identity involves more than only religion. This is true for other faiths as well, and the fact is not obviated by appealing to Jewish nationhood.

I’m also aware that the historical veracity may or may not have been so important to Jews in all times and places.

You have missed the point, however, and that is that Kuzari addresses belief specifically and explicitly. That’s what Kuzari is for, to justify belief in the historical veracity of particular “miracles.”

Kuzari proponents have defined the issue in terms of belief in historical veracity. Therefore, your points are best directed to them.

Let me know how it goes.


Terminator5:59 AM
I agree Kuzari Principle doesn’t explain anything because it assumes too much (too simplistic) about the people envolved. I also agree with Anonymous that the Sinai story is beneficial to a whole nation so there is no much incetive to research those past events. I want to say this:
A group of people were initially united by a fantastic story made by a very clever person, but they continued to thrive together through the history, on some very enlighted ideas (some ideas are progressive even by today’s standarts)
By defining a people solely on a book is like saying the connection between wife and husband is sex or that children love their parents because they receive free food.
You give to little credit to the Human Kind. They are capable to make believable, beautiful and Moses was a very clever human. The only chance to find out what religion is based on what, we should build a time machine but I’m not sure this is a worth aim for that a time machine.
Anyway I liked the philosophical debate on this site and I wish you all Happy New Hebrew Year.
The important thing is to look for the answers NOT keep them!


ben9:45 PM
I’ve never seen people talk about this point, so it may be worth pointing out. I’ve always known that in story details, numbers, and names, there are many contradictions between the various books of Tanach that make religious people look so cute when they try to come up with clever answers for what are obviously contradictions. But I recently found a contradiction that blew my mind with regards to the Kuzari argument. In general, it shows that the refutation to Kuzari lies not in focusing on the number 600,000 that were leaving Egypt in particular, but that ALL the numbers in the Bible that sound unreasonable and unreliable should be treated with the skepticism that they deserve. (something that has occured to me over time). Well, without further ado, here is the contradiction. Comparing the same story in Chronicles and Kings regarding David sending Joab to take a census of Israel (where Yahweh gets angry and smites 70,000), we come across what is the largest discrepancy in the Hebrew Bible that I am aware of. The census of the Israelites in I Chronicles 21:5 is 1.1 Million. In II Samuel 24:9 there were 800,000. Now of course you don’t have to hold your breath long before the floodgates of apologetics come swinging open from the mouths of the practitioners of Rabbinic Talmudism. But the obvious truth is plain as day for all to see in the text: a discrepancy valued at a full 50% of the Kuzari proof of 600,000. When you couple this fact with 120,000 soldiers of Ahaz slain in one day by Pekah you begin to see how absurd Bible numbers are in general, not just the Kuzari proof figure of 600,000. 120,000 soldiers slain in one day with swords and shields and chariots! Amazing isn’t it? That’s something that even Hiroshima and Nagasaki couldn’t accomplish (60-80K in one day)! Bravo to those statistics! When you really begin to meditate and internalize the magnitude of the discrepancy I just cited, the whole Kuzari argument falls to dust. Anyone can argue anything of course – 1000 rationalizations can be thought up, just like there are many arguments on the homepage of the Flat Earth Society. But argue all you like, AIN MIKRA YOTZEI MIDAY PSHUTO!


A Jew with a Spiritual Crisis10:05 AM
You quoted from abbi Tzvi Freeman
“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”

The fact is that there is a dispute in the Talmud on what day the revelation at Sinai took place, the 6th or the 7th.

Shabbos 86b:
“Our Rabbis taught: On the sixth day of the month [Siwan] were the Ten Commandments given to Israel. R. Jose maintained: On the seventh thereof. Said Raba: All agree that they arrived in the Wilderness of Sinai on the first of the month. [For] here it is written, on this day they came into the wilderness of Sinai;15 whilst elsewhere it is written, This month shall be unto you the beginning of months:16 just as there the first of the month,17 so here [too] the first of the month [is meant]. ”

What is even more interesting is that the talmud goes on arguing about this for a while with each side bringing textual proofs. You would think that the most momentous event in Jewish History would have a clear date! But nobody knows for sure. We all know 9/11, but the date of the revelation at Sinai? Not sure! Nobody (here or elsewhere) ever says he has a Mesorah on it from his father? Why not? Isn’t that the biggest proof?


Unknown12:34 AM
Where the Kuzari principle is very strong is in defending Judaism against Christianity. “Our covenant was revealed to a whole nation of hundreds of thousands of people at once when God spoke with booming voice on Sinai; yours was revealed to 12 guys who saw visions of Jesus after the resurrection. So we win, you lose.” Its similar to when an Atheist says to me “Show me your God” and I say “Show me your subatomic particles.” I haven’t proven that God exists nor that subatomic particles do not; I’ve only proven that its not logically consistent to believe in subatomic particles you can’t see while demanding that God been shown you before you can believe. So, by the Kuzari principle, the Jew proves it is not logically consistent to try and replace a public revelation (Sinai) by a private one (Jesus’ resurrection).


Unknown10:41 PM
“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.”

What is and is not a fact is open to interpretation. Rarely do we have a set of neutral facts before us requiring interpretation. The interpretation seems to generally be about whether what is placed before us is indeed factual or not. This study is clearly proceeding from the point of view that it has a set of absolute facts: meaning it is preceding from a biased position from the beginning and is worthless.


Larry Tanner8:53 AM
“What is and is not a fact is open to interpretation”

James, so what? All you’re saying is that one way people shelter themselves from facts is to challenge factual status. And of course, you practice this same challenge – with little compelling reason – against the conclusions of the study. Your statements, in fact (ahem), demonstrate the study’s point very well.


Terminator6:10 AM
Let’s talk about:
What everybody may agree are “facts” ?
What everybody may agree about how “facts” are properly reached and expressed ? Can we agree on anything ? Don’t be shy.


eliezer5:36 AM
The main point in the kuzari argument is that the events recorded in the Bible happened to those that received it. Had the events not happened, why would they accept the story as true?


Anonymous3:21 PM


Unknown2:01 PM
Cosmological concept which is complete from logical point of view
Initial composition of boundless space from the point of view of element:
1.It is suffucient to declare existence of two elements, SIMPLE and COMPLEX, possesing closed systemic appearance in order to imagine different (homogenous) and completed one.
2.It is sufficient to declare existence of Lord and Almighty in other element, possesing non-closed systematic appearance in order to imagine it as different and incomplete as heterogenous (in other words: various type).
It is not difficult to presume that simple and complex compression is happened in possible minimal widening from permanent widening level, first, inclination to descending, from material component of God from non-material component of Divine Spirit/separation happened as maximum possible diversity (1H) on essence of God on minimum possible numeric homogeneity regarding with blockage of start of non-material components, permanently widening, inclined to their increase of essence/God widens minimal possible homogeneity as maximum possible numeric diversity (2H) to His essence on the basis of 1H material components. Closing process starts only from time, known to God, starting from completion of 2 H opening process. Closing process reopens according to initial opening level of Divine Spirit 1H-1H process of God to 2H process and conversion possibilities of 2H process to 1 H process!


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“Larry Tanner” is my nom de blog. I am an atheist (from a Jewish household) enjoying life in New England. I am happily married to the most wonderful woman, who happens to be a devout Christian, and we have three beautiful children. I work with robotic technologies, teach classes in English literature, and ghostwrite non-fiction books for a rabbi. I’m currently working on a Ph.D. on matters of literature, textuality, and probabilistic reasoning.
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