THE KUZARI PRINCIPLE - INTRODUCTION
One of the foundations of Judaism is the revelation at Sinai. In this chapter we will see that belief in Sinai is reasonable. There is enough evidence in favor of the revelation to make it reasonable to accept. The evidence is of a very special sort, and that requires a long introduction. But be patient – we will get there!
HOW GOOD IS PERSONAL MEMORY?
Memory is selective - we do not (consciously) remember everything that happens - not even all of our own experiences. But some experiences are so outstanding that we certainly expect to remember them. Let’s consider some examples of both types - events and experiences which we do not expect to remember, and those we do.
Suppose you told me that yesterday I answered two phone calls while reading the newspaper, or that I received exactly four pieces of mail, or that my car started as soon as I turned the ignition key (instead of taking the usual two seconds), or that in one of my attempts to make a phone call the line disconnected and I had to redial. And suppose I do not remember the event you are describing to me. Could I still accept what you say as true?
I think so. I could say to myself: “This event you are describing is not so important. I could easily have forgotten it. So, since you are usually truthful and accurate, I guess it did happen and I just forgot.”
Now, by contrast, suppose you tell me that yesterday I went swimming, or that I heard from a cousin with whom I have not spoken in three years, or that my car did not start and I had to call a mechanic to fix it, or that the city telephone system was down for three hours. And suppose I do not remember the event you are describing to me. Could I still accept what you say as true?
I do not think so - not in these cases. Because here I would say to myself: “This event you are describing is quite uncommon in my life. It would have a significant impact on my activities. It is very unlikely I would forget something like that. So, even though you are usually truthful and accurate, here there must be some mistake.”
Let’s call the first group of events daily forgettables and the second group daily unforgettables. The daily forgettables are events which are so unimportant that I could forget them, even by the next day. The daily unforgettables are events which are striking enough, or important enough that I would surely remember them the next day.
Now there is this difference between the two groups. Suppose you meant to fool me. Suppose you want to get me to believe something happened yesterday which really did not happen - you are making it up. Then you need to choose a daily forgettable. I will only accept a story about an event that happened yesterday that I do not remember if it is a story about a daily forgettable. If you make up a story about an event that would be unforgettable - if you tell me that I heard from my cousin, or called a mechanic, or the telephone system was down, I will not accept it. The reason I will not accept it is this: I know that if it had happened I would surely remember it. Since I do not remember it, it could not have happened.
You might still be able to overcome my resistance to your story. Suppose you explain that I do not remember the event because last night I received a head injury, or a drug overdose, or suffered a traumatic experience. Then I might accept your story even though I do not remember it. The reason is that now you have given me a reason that explains why I do not remember it. [Of course, if you just say that my memory was lost for these reasons, that will not be enough. You will need to show me that the explanation is true.] But without such an explanation of my not remembering the event, I will not accept your story about a daily unforgettable.
Our conclusion so far is this:
There is a lesson here for would-be deceivers: Do not choose a daily unforgettable for your deception! For, unless you explain how it was forgotten, you will not be able to convince anyone that your story is true.
Now let’s try the same thing again, but over a longer period of time. Suppose I am fifty years old. You tell me that when I was in third grade my teacher was replaced in the middle of the year by a much better teacher, or that when I was eleven I lost my favorite football and grieved over it for a month, or that when I was thirteen I acted in a play, or that I won a poetry contest in my ninth grade English class. And suppose I do not remember the event you are describing to me. Could I still accept what you say as true?
I think so. I could say to myself: “Although the event you are describing would have been pretty important at the time, it is not so important that I would remember it thirty-five years later. I could easily have forgotten it. So, since you are usually truthful and accurate, I guess it did happen and I just forgot.” These are examples of long-term forgettables.
Now by contrast, suppose you tell me that when I was in third grade my school building burned to the ground, or that when I was eleven I was the most valuable player when our football team won the State championship, or that when I applied to college I was accepted to Harvard, Yale and Princeton, or that when I was sixteen I spent the summer hiking through China. And suppose I do not remember the event you are describing to me. Could I still accept what you say as true?
I do not think so - not in these cases. Because here I would say to myself: “This event you are describing is very uncommon in anyone’s life. It would have been very important to me. I would have told it to others. It would have become part of my permanent memories - it is very unlikely I would forget something like that. So, even though you are usually truthful and accurate, here there must be some mistake.” These are long-term unforgettables.
Here too my resistance to the story could be overcome if there were some explanation of how I could have forgotten even so important an event. Perhaps I received an injury that caused general amnesia, or I was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam and subject to torture. With such an explanation I would be able to accept your story as true, even though I do not remember it. [Of course, if you just say that my memory was lost for these reasons, that will not be enough. You need to show me that the explanation is true.]
So we reach the same conclusion again:
And the same moral concerning deception applies here. If someone wants to convince me that something happened to me decades ago - something which I do not now remember happening - he must choose a long-term forgettable. If he chooses a long-term unforgettable, he will not convince me. I will say: “If what you tell me is really true, I would surely remember it. Since I do not remember it, there must be some mistake.”
HOW GOOD IS FAMILY MEMORY?
Now let’s try the same thing again, but over an even longer period of time, with more than one generation.
Suppose you told me that five generations back my father’s father’s father’s father’s father was murdered in a pogrom by the Cossacks in Russia, or that he was a cultured intellectual in the court of the czar, or that he moved from Russia to England and resided in London, or that he ran a successful import business in Amsterdam. And suppose that our family has no record or memory of this item of family history. Could I still accept what you say as true?
I think so. I could say to myself: “The event you are describing is not so unusual or important that it would necessarily be remembered for five generations. So, since you are usually truthful and accurate, I guess it did happen and our family just forgot it.” [Of course, I will want to know how you came to know this about us!] These are long-term family forgettables.
Now, by contrast, suppose you tell me that five generations ago one of my ancestors was knighted by the Queen of England, or that he or she was the supreme commander of the armed forces of the Hungarian Empire, or that he or she engaged in a religious debate with the Pope in Rome. And suppose that our family has no memory or record of the event you are describing to me. Could I still accept what you say as true?
I do not think so - not in these cases. Because here I would say to myself: “The event you are describing is extremely rare in the history of any family, and is one of very great importance. Surely the story would be told from generation to generation. There would be letters, documents - some kind of records. This is not the kind of event that would be forgotten even in five generations. So, even though you are usually truthful and accurate, here there must be some mistake.” These are long-term family unforgettables.
Once again, if you can explain why the memory was lost, then I may accept your story even though our family has no memory or record of the event. Perhaps war, pogrom, migration or other major disruption destroyed much of the family history, including the events which you describe. Then it would be possible for me to believe your story. [Of course, if you just say that our family’s memory was lost for these reasons, that will not be enough. You need to show me that the explanation is true.] But without such an explanation I will not believe it.
We now have the same conclusion a third time:
And the same moral applies again. If someone wants to deceive our family concerning our family history, he must choose a long-term family forgettable. If he chooses a long-term family unforgettable then he will not convince us. We will say: “That event is too striking to have been forgotten. Since we do not remember it, there must be some mistake.”
HOW GOOD IS CITY MEMORY?
Now let’s try it again, with even longer periods of time, for a whole city.
Suppose you tell me that three hundred years ago my city went through six years of unmatched prosperity due to six years of record harvests, or six years of nearly total starvation due to an infestation of rats, or a generation of people 10% taller than the national average, or a craze for learning Italian. And suppose no one in the city remembers the event which you describe, and there are no records of it. Could I still accept what you say as true?
I think so. I could say to myself: “The events you are describing are not so uncommon in the history of a city, nor are they so significant that they would necessarily be recorded or remembered. Since you are usually truthful and accurate, I guess it did happen and it just was not recorded or remembered.” [Again - I will want to know how you discovered this information.] These are long-term, citywide forgettables.
By contrast, suppose you tell me that three hundred years ago gold was discovered in my city and there was a fifty-year gold rush there, or that my city raised an army which conquered the surrounding area and ruled it for fifty years, or my city was devastated in an earthquake which required rebuilding the entire city. Suppose no one in the city has a record or memory of the event that you describe. Could I still accept what you say as true?
I do not think so. Here I would say to myself: “Events like the one you describe are very rare in the life of a city, and they are very significant for its development. Surely, if it really happened, there would be some record and memory of it.” These are long-term citywide unforgettables.
As before, if you can explain how the entire city lost its memory of the event, then perhaps I can still accept your story. Perhaps an extended famine or severe economic depression caused the loss of the memory. Then I might be able to believe your story. [Of course, if you just say that the memory of the city was lost for these reasons, that will not be enough. You need to show me that the explanation is true.] But without such an explanation I will not believe it.
And so we reach the same conclusion a fourth
And again, the same moral follows for attempts to deceive. If you want to persuade the city that the event you describe really occurred, you need to choose a long-term city-wide forgettable. If you try to fabricate an event that would be a long-term city-wide unforgettable, you will fail to persuade the city that it really happened. The reason you will fail is this: The people of the city know that if any of these events happened it would be recorded and remembered. Since they have no record or memory of the event it could not have happened.
Now let’s try it one last time, on an even greater scale.
HOW GOOD IS NATIONAL MEMORY?
Let us take a country with a long history - say England. Suppose you tell an English person that in the thirteenth century there was a two-year, nation-wide craze for French wine, or a rash of serial murders, or a drastic shortage of horseshoes. And suppose that the event you describe is absent from all the history books, and no one remembers it. Could that English person believe your story?
I think so. The reasoning will be the same as before: “The event you describe is relatively unimportant. Events like that are usually not recorded, and usually forgotten. You are describing history from seven centuries ago. The fact that we have no record or memory does not mean it did not happen.” [Of course, he will want to know how you alone are in possession of this information.] These are examples of national forgettables.
By contrast, suppose you tell the English person that in the thirteenth century England conquered and ruled all of Europe for fifty years, or that they endured a plague which wiped out 50% of the population in five years, or that they made a national pilgrimage to Rome in which 70% of the population participated, or that up until that time English people all spoke Hebrew and then suddenly switched to (Old) English. And suppose that the event which you describe is absent from all the history books and no one remembers it. Could the English person believe your story?
I do not think so. And again, the reason will be the same as before: “The event you describe is so rare, and so important in the history of a nation, it would surely be recorded and remembered. Since we have no memory or record of it, I cannot believe it really happened.” These are national unforgettables.
Of course, if you can explain why the memory was lost, the story may still be accepted. Here it is much harder to imagine conditions that would wipe out the memory of an entire nation. But perhaps a very drastic and extended war, or a very systematic, long-term governmental effort to falsify historical records could have that effect. If so, then perhaps your story will be accepted. [Of course, if you just say that the national memory was lost for these reasons, that will not be enough. You need to show that the explanation is true.] But without such an explanation it will not be believed.
So we reach the same conclusion a fifth time:
The same moral applies here to the would-be deceiver. If he wants to deceive a nation that an event occurred in its history, he must choose a national forgettable. If he chooses a national unforgettable, he will fail to convince them. He will fail because they know that if the event had happened they would have records of it. Since they do not have records, it could not have happened.
Now, finally, let us apply this reasoning to the revelation at Sinai.
Suppose someone tells us that hundreds of years ago all of our ancestors stood at a mountain and witnessed a national revelation. This is his story: All our ancestors saw a fire on top of the mountain, and felt the ground trembling under their feet, and heard a voice that they understood was from G-d. This voice commanded them to live according to certain rules. That revelation was the beginning of a new religion for them.
Now suppose he is making this up - it never happened. Let’s ask: what kind of a story is this? Is it a national forgettable, or a national unforgettable? This is crucial. Remember the moral for the would-be deceiver? If the story is a national forgettable, then it is possible we will trust him and accept it. If it is a national unforgettable, then we will not accept it [unless he can explain why we do not remember it]. So which is it?
Should we say: “The event you describe is relatively unimportant. Events like that are usually not recorded, and usually forgotten. You are describing history from centuries ago. Even though we have no record or memory, it might still have happened.”
Or should we say: “The event you describe is so rare, and so important in the history of a nation, it would surely be recorded and remembered – even from centuries ago. Since we have no memory or record of it [and you cannot explain how it could be forgotten], I cannot believe it really happened.”
Is the answer clear? This story describes an event that has never happened to anyone else, anywhere. No other nation even claims that its religion started with a public revelation. This story describes an event that would be absolutely unique in all human history. The fire, the shaking earth, and hearing the voice of G-d together are sure to make a deep impression. And the story says that the rules commanded by the voice became the foundation of a new religion. Such an event would radically change the life of the whole nation - its values, attitudes, perceptions, national organization and priorities. It would profoundly transform daily life. Surely there would be many records and memories of such an event. This is the story of a national unforgettable.
Since it is a national unforgettable, it is not a story that can be made up. A deceiver will not succeed with a story like this. He will not succeed because the people whom he is trying to deceive will say: “If our ancestors really witnessed an event like that, our whole national life would show it. There would be holidays to celebrate the event, records of what the voice said, and a history of national decisions implementing the new rules. This is not the sort of event which a whole nation would forget.”
Of course, if the deceiver can explain how such an event could be forgotten, then perhaps his story may be believed. But here it will be extremely difficult to imagine such an explanation. What could cause a whole nation to forget a revelation that created their national religion? So the conclusion in this case will be absolute:
A false story of a national revelation that creates a national religion will not be believed.
now we can add a second conclusion:
Suppose that we have an established belief in any of the categories we have discussed. We believe something happened to us yesterday, or thirty years ago, or our family believes something happened to an ancestor from five generations ago, or our city believes some event took place in its history, or our nation believes something happened in its national history. We need to ask: Why do we believe this? Where did the belief come from?
Beliefs are formed in many ways. A belief that an event occurred may be formed when the event occurred and was witnessed and reported. But it may be that the event did not take place. Perhaps the “report” was a lie, or a misperception. Perhaps prejudice or wish fulfillment played a role. Perhaps, at a later time, someone invented the story and convinced others to believe it.
Now the belief in a national revelation at Sinai has been held by the whole of the Jewish nation for thousands of years. We need to ask: Why did they believe this? Where did this belief come from? What we have seen so far enables us to rule out one answer to these questions. They were not deceived into believing it by later persuasion. Since this is a national unforgettable [and no one can explain how the memory of such an event could be lost], no one could make up the story and convince the nation to accept it.
Since the belief in a national revelation was not made up later, we must ask again: Where did it come from? One possibility is that it really happened, and the witnesses remembered it and recorded it. Are there any other reasonable alternatives? Can the belief be accounted for if the event did not happen?
Here is the challenge: Either we find some reasonable explanation for the belief without assuming the event happened, or we must accept the event as real.
AN ATTEMPT TO MEET THE CHALLENGE
There are critics who think they can meet this challenge. They think they can explain how a false belief in a national revelation could become accepted. Here is what they propose.
Imagine a group of people on a trek through the desert. Suppose a very shocking, but perfectly natural, event occurs. It could be an earthquake, or a volcanic eruption, or heavy rain in the middle of the summer. The people will be very disoriented by the event. They are likely to interpret it as a sign from the gods. Now as the years go by, the memory of the event grows dim. People add to the story. Perhaps the people heard voices? Perhaps the gods appeared to them? Perhaps the gods wanted something from them? Perhaps the gods told them what they wanted? Gradually the memory of the original natural event is transformed into the story of a national revelation.
The critics say that this sort of transformation has occurred very often. The myths of many ancient peoples were produced by this sort of process. There is no reason, they say, not to suppose that it caused the belief in a national revelation as well. Thus they claim to have a reasonable alternative explanation for the belief.
THE ATTEMPT FAILS (1) - IMPLAUSIBLE
The explanation offered by the critics is not acceptable. There are two reasons. The less important reason is that the explanation is extremely implausible. To see this we need to inspect the details of the explanation. Exactly how is the story first formulated? How is it transmitted to the next generation? What are the stages of the breakdown in memory? Who invents the new details and how are they accepted by others? Now there is one great obstacle to inspecting the details – they are never provided! The suggestion is always a vague “maybe it happened something like this.”
At this point we could say, “If the critics will not provide the details, how can we tell if the explanation is really plausible?” But let’s make an attempt to see how the details could go.
Stage 1: They witness an earthquake. They are frightened and disoriented. They interpret it as a sign from the gods. A sign of what? Do they invent the Ten Commandments on the spot? No – that would be patently implausible. It is supposed to be a gradual transformation over many generations. So on the spot they may say that the gods are angry or something like that. No detailed revelation yet.
Stage 2: They tell the story to the next generation, say during the next 20 years. What story do they tell? Do they make up the revelation now, when 80% of the population still remembers the real event? That is not plausible. So they tell their children that there was an earthquake because the gods were angry, nothing more.
Stage 3: A hundred years later there is no one alive who witnessed the event. Do they make up the revelation now? But they have been telling the real story for a hundred years! Can they just substitute another story? After all, they know that the new version is false. What would be the point indulging in collective self-deception? This is not plausible.
Another stage 3: A hundred years later a new version of the story makes an appearance. Someone’s memory fails him and he adds or subtracts from the original. But how do the others react? Do not they know his memory is failing him? Why should anyone accept the new version? This is not plausible.
Another stage 3: A hundred years later the priests create the new story and use their religious authority to get it accepted. This may be the critic’s best shot. But even if we think that the priests were very powerful, this is a bit hard to swallow. After all, they have to oppose a hundred years of consistent tradition. They have to explain how the original experience was forgotten. They have to explain why there were no consequences of failing to keep the laws that were revealed. Although this may be possible, it is not very plausible.
It is very hard to see how the critic will provide a really plausible story. But who knows? Maybe a clever critic with a rich imagination will some day tell such a story. Even if he does, his position is still not acceptable. We now turn to the really conclusive reason that his position fails.
THE ATTEMPT FAILS (2) - NO PARALLELS
The conclusive reason that the critic’s story is unacceptable is this. Even if it were plausible, that does not mean that it really happened that way. Many ideas are intuitively plausible and turn out to be wrong. It was plausible that the earth is flat and stationary. It was plausible that people would never discover what makes the stars shine. It was plausible that no machine heavier than air can fly. All these ideas turned out to be false. So plausibility is not enough. We need reason to think that the gradual transformation really caused the belief in national revelation.
What kind of reason could that be? The very best reason would be direct evidence that it happened that way. We might for example discover the diary of the charlatan who created the story. But that is very unlikely. So we will have to settle for indirect evidence.
The very minimum indirect evidence would be for the critic to find some cases in which we know that this type of transformation did in fact happen. If he can prove that it has happened in some cases, then he can say that it is reasonable to think it happened here too. On the other hand, suppose he cannot find any cases in which his explanation is known to have worked. Then he is saying that something that no one has ever seen happen is the explanation of the belief in Sinai. That is unacceptable.
Here the critic meets a major problem. There are no parallel beliefs at all. No other religion even claims a national revelation. So it is impossible to find a verified case of such a belief which can be explained by the critic’s gradual transformation, or by any other process. It is impossible since there are no such beliefs to be explained.
We can make this point even stronger. National revelation is a national unforgettable. There are no beliefs in fictitious national unforgettables. So the critic will not be able to show us cases in which his gradual transformation process produced such a belief.
So, as we said at the beginning of this section, there is no reason whatsoever to think that the critic’s explanation has ever worked. Therefore it is unreasonable to think that it is the real explanation in the case of the national revelation at Sinai.
So we have two reasons to disqualify the critic’s explanation as unreasonable. One: the story is not plausible. Two: there are no known cases in which the critic’s explanation has ever worked. But, the critic will ask, surely this kind of gradual transformation does happen. Where else do all the myths come from?
The answer is simple. Those myths never “record” a national unforgettable. They always describe events that are forgettable, or were not observed by the whole nation. That is why they can be invented. The fact that people can be convinced to believe forgettables gives no reason at all to think they can be convinced to believe unforgettables.
Thus our original conclusion stands: Since there is no reasonable alternative explanation of the belief in revelation at Sinai, we must accept that belief as true. As a matter of fact, we can extend this conclusion even farther. The focus on national revelation does not exhaust the category of national unforgettables. Any national miracle that would create a national tradition is unforgettable. So, if a nation believes in such a miracle, we have sufficient reason to accept that belief as true. For Judaism, this includes the Exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the conquest of the land of Israel. We have sufficient reason to accept that all these events occurred.