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 - 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. 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. 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.”
The events in the first group are often forgotten because they are so unimportant that I could forget them, even by the next day. The events in the second group are striking enough that I would surely remember them the next day and so are rarely forgotten.
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 something that is easily forgotten. Only then will I accept a story about an event that happened yesterday that I do not remember. If you make up a story about an event that would be forgotten only rarely, 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 beenough. 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 rarely forgotten event.
Our conclusion so far is this:
Suppose A invents a story about an event of a kind that is rarely forgotten and tries to convince B that it happened. Suppose further that B does not remember the event, and A gives no explanation why the event would not be remembered. Then B will not believe the story.
There is a lesson here for would-be deceivers: Do not choose an event of a type that is rarely forgotten for your deception! For, unless you explain how it was forgotten, you will not be able to convince anyone that your story is true.
[The conclusion is based on knowing ourselves. We know that we would not accept such a story. Suppose someone disputes this “knowledge”. You think you would not accept such a story, but maybe you are fooling yourself. You are more impressionable than you think, etc. This critique will be answered below.]
Now let’s try the same reasoning on a larger 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 events that are often forgotten.
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. And suppose that the event that 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.”
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:
Suppose A invents a story about a national event that occurred to B and his nation, and suppose the story describes an event that would be forgotten only very rarely. Suppose A 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.
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 event that would be easy to forget. If he does not do so, 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.
[And again - the conclusion is based on knowing ourselves. We know that we would not accept such a story. Suppose someone disputes this “knowledge”. You think you would not accept such a story, but maybe you are fooling yourself. You are more impressionable than you think, etc. This critique will be answered below.]
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 an event of a kind that would be forgotten often or rarely? This is crucial. Remember the moral for the would-be deceiver? If this type of story would be forgotten often, then it is possible we will trust him and accept it. If it would be forgotten rarely, 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 an event that would be extremely hard to forget.
Since it would be extremely hard to forget, 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? And the story of Sinai does not contain any explanation of the original memory being lost. So the conclusion in this case will be absolute:
A deceiver using a false story of a national revelation that creates a national religion will not be believed.
[And again – this conclusion is based on knowing ourselves. We know that we would not accept a false story of a national revelation. Suppose someone disputes this “knowledge”. You think you would not accept such a story, but maybe you are fooling yourself. You are more impressionable than you think, etc. This critique will be answered below.]
Suppose that we have an established belief about a past event, personal or national. 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 was 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 an event that would be rarely forgotten [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.
[We have not forgotten the critic who says that this conclusion is based on knowing ourselves. We think that we would not accept a false story of a national revelation. He disputes this “knowledge”. “You think you would not accept such a story, but maybe you are fooling yourself. You are more impressionable than you think, etc.” He will be answered below.]
Since the belief in a national revelation was not made up later, we must ask: 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. 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 was 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 start the changes now? Do they introduce voices, or specific demands of the gods, or other details 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 now introduce voices, or specific demands of the gods, or other details? But they have been telling the real story for a hundred years! How can they add details to a tradition one hundred years old? 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 someone’s memory fails him and he adds to the original. But then, how do the others react? Do they not 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. 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 someday tell such a story. Nevertheless, 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 the heavens always existed. 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 deceivers that created the story. But that is very unlikely. So we will have to settle for indirect evidence.
How much evidence can we ask for? Here it depends upon what the critic claims. If he claims only that his scenario [or any alternative scenario] is possible, then we should agree with him: we set no limits on what is possible. But we do not have to give up our position due to other possibilities – no matter what you believe there are always other possibilities. Only if the critic claims that his scenario [or an alternative] is probable does he present a real challenge to our position. How much evidence must he produce to justify his claim that his scenario [or some alternative] is probable?
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.
So here is the challenge to the critic. You say that the belief in Sinai was produced by a gradual transformation of a natural event. And this transformation happened in spite of the fact that the belief in Sinai is an event that would be very hard to forget. You need to show us somewhere this has happened – somewhere a natural transformation of a natural event produced a false belief in an event equally unlikely to be forgotten.
[And – finally! - this is the answer to our persistent critic in the brackets. You say that perhaps our claimed self-knowledge is a mistake. Perhaps we are more impressionable than we think. Perhaps we would accept false stories that would be rarely forgotten. Well, the only way to see whether we are so impressionable is to find real cases in which we have accepted such stories. If you find real cases, then we will admit that it is a natural part of our psychology to accept such stories. But if you cannot find any real cases, then we will have overwhelming evidence that our psychology works the way we say – we will not accept stories that are rarely forgotten.]
Here the critic meets a major problem. There are no parallel beliefs at all. There are no beliefs in fictitious national events of a kind that would be rarely forgotten. So the critic will not be able to show us cases in which his gradual transformation process produced such a belief.
This is surprising, but true. In all the myths that people believed, or still believe, not one is a national event that would be rarely forgotten. The critic cannot show us even one case where his transformation produced such a belief, because there are no such beliefs.
[So we are not impressionable as the brackets critic claimed. There are no known cases of a nation accepting a belief in a false story about a national event of a type that would be hard to forget.]
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.
We now 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 describe a national event of a type that would be hard to forget. They always describe events that would be forgotten often, or were not observed by the whole nation. That is why they can be invented.
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 events that are rarely forgotten. Any national miracle that would create a national tradition qualifies. 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.