Jewish Atheist

An agnostic atheist perspective
from a once orthodox Jew.

The Kuzari Argument

Decided to blog this as a text so it’s easier to reblog. But this is in response to a message about the Kuzari argument, probably the most popular argument for god, the torah, and judaism used by orthodox jews.
I don’t mean to sound bitter or sarcastic, so please don’t take this the wrong way, but I was just wondering how you would answer the Matan Torah question. The fact that we say an entire nation witnessed the miracles and passed the legend down to their children, which is how we know what we do today about Judaism. It’s the reason why our mesorah is so important- we have what no other religion does. It would be impossible to make up. People would want to see the so called “witnesses” (continued)
and frankly it would be a pretty dumb move if they didn’t exist. If it was possible to make up the fact that there were witnesses, Jesus would have done it. Why not? It would definitely improve his credibility. It’s because you can’t tell a group of people, “a million men, women and children saw this, but I can’t let you meet them, just believe me.” It would never work. In addition, we tell our children this is what happened to your great great great grandparents. Where did that start (continued

if not for the people it actually happened to? Let’s say for your purposes a guy named Moses decided he wanted to create a new religion and get a ton of followers, so he marches up to a random civillian and says-You don’t remember, but you were with me yesterday when we got the Torah! That’s like me saying to you, hey remember when we went to the beach yesterday and stars started dancing around your head? There’s no way on earth you’d believe me if it didn’t happen (continued)

So I obviously can’t say it happened to you. Maybe I should try your ancestors? After all, you’ve never met them, so it’s possible. Let’s try it. Hey, your great, great grandfather and my great, great grandfather saw G-d give us the Torah! What would you do then? I don’t know about you, but I would ask my mother and even my grandmother or great grandmother if I could why they never told me about such an event. And what would they tell me? That it never happened. And there goes my belief. (cont)

How do we know anything happened in the time period before historical documentation? The greatest form of proof is a recording and if you haven’t the technology, you’re left with peoples reports- the more, the better. If i get one person to tell you there was a rhino dancing the Hora in NYC, you’re right, you probably wouldn’t believe me. But I got hundreds of thousands? There are always going to be deniers. There are still holocaust survivors walking around, telling their stories, still (cont)

gas chambers FULLY intact in Germany, and you will find thousands of people claiming it never even happened. My friends grandfather, with his number identification tattooed on his arm, will beg to disagree. If what happened two generations ago is already being doubted, how do you expect the tale from hundreds of generations ago to still hold power? People can convince themselves of whatever they want, and even IF we did have the proof staring them in the face, like we do with the (cont)

the holocaust, it wouldn’t make a difference. Oh gosh, I really didn’t mean for that to turn into a rant, I’m so sorry… I do respect you and your choice, and I’m in no way trying to force my belief down your throat. I’m just really curious to hear how you’d answer the question, following along with what you believe to be true. Where did our religion come from and how did we get all of those witnesses? If they weren’t real, how’d we pull it off? Thanks in advance :)

theregoesnashh

Hey there,

No need to apologize. It’s a completely legitimate question. Frankly, that argument - known as the Kuzari argument, popularized the past few years by Lawrence Kelemen & Dovid Gottlieb - was what I also considered to be the best argument for Judaism for a long time. It was very much a linchpin of my own belief. And it does have some intuitive appeal {and is actually a very clever and unique argument in its design}. The problem is that it starts to break down when you examine it critically.

I’ve actually been doing a ton of research to write a massive post - and maybe a video - addressing all the problems with it, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I just give a few quick points and ask you to stay tuned for the longer response.

1. We know that beliefs & legends evolve. It seems reasonable to guess that this is no exception. For instance, it may well have started as a legend that most didn’t take seriously, or as a story that happened to one person. Particularly because there were times in Jewish history when even the torah tells us that we didn’t really know anything about the torah.

2. Even if the event occurred in some form, how do they know it was god? For instance, reading Exodus 19 {link}, it sounds much more likely that they witnessed a volcano than anything else. {And that could be another possibility for how the legend evolved.} It’s also interesting that it doesn’t quite say that they heard god speak, but that they heard something. And there are plenty of reports of religious folk who are receptive to hearing something experiencing just that, sometimes in their heads and sometimes interpreting vague sounds.

If I can get philosophical for a moment, even if they heard a voice and even if the medrash was literally true that they died and came back to life! How would that prove it was god? {I understand this is a point which religious folk aren’t keen on, but it’s worth mentioning as it follows a general pattern in supernatural claims that “x happened, I don’t know how, therefore y.”}

3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracle_of_the_Sun - This alone probably destroys the whole argument, though I know gottlieb is trying to make the kuzari argument stronger by adding another factor, that it be commemorated - though I think this ‘miracle’ has been as well. And, truthfully, by adding more factors, I think he’s kindof making the argument weaker, but whatever.

4. Note also that the “miracle of the sun” occurred fairly recently, and long after the enlightenment and science etc. Just imagine how ignorant and naive people were 20+ centuries ago! Think about the differences in culture. For instance, “truth” and “objectivity” and “evidence” meant very different things back then. Just think of how people then responded to magic tricks! The Rambam {maimonides} had to insist to people that those tricks are really just sleight of hand, and not actual magic. Doesn’t seem like a stretch to think those people may have been fooled, one way or the other, into accepting this.

5. For me, one of the strongest points: Any explanation, no matter how far-fetched, cannot be any worse than the proposed explanation, “you know what? there must be a metaphysical realm where an omnipotent, omniscient deity resides, the one who created the universe, and he decided to finally speak to us, and just us, a small group of desert nomads in one corner of the globe, and so he brought us to a mountain, made some noise, and taught us 10 divine rules and that we shouldn’t question the leader.” Honestly, any explanation must be at least as ‘sane’ as that, and probably a whole lot more. For instance, I think the idea of an evolving myth, even if unlikely, is a whole lot more likely than that explanation. Afterall, the story defies nature, has no evidence, and we know that miraculous stories are often invented. Hell, even if everyone had a collective mushroom trip, that would still be more likely. Afterall, we know magic mushrooms and hallucinations exist. Having a mass hallucination can’t be any less likely. {If it helps, imagine someone used the kuzari argument to prove the flying spaghetti monster. obviously ridiculous, and so any other explanation would suffice. and again, see “miracle of the sun.”}

So, just on those grounds, I would say that the argument is a weak hypothesis at best, and surely not a definitive proof. I might add what Carl Sagan said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

6. As for ‘why christians and others didn’t do this if it’s so easy’… well, for one, it may not be easy! But just because it’s a difficult legend to start doesn’t mean it’s impossible. And, if I were starting a religion, I probably would try the easier lie, but that doesn’t mean people don’t create more difficult ones. {And sometimes they create themselves, as when the legends evolve and take on lives of their own.} For another, just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’ll happen. Just like biological evolution. there are lots of traits which evolved multiple times, some a few times, and some only once. they’re possible, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you should expect them. Same thing is true for cultural and mythological evolution.

7. The point about holocaust deniers is interesting but we obviously can’t use that explanation to accept any ancient claim, right? So I see it as an interesting point about how some people delude themselves, but I’m not sure what other lesson there is to be learned from it. Also, we have many ways of studying the past. Literature is just one - and it’s often taken with a grain of salt because, as you might imagine, there are lots of old texts and ancient claims about all sorts of supernatural stuff - just like today with alien abductions. The claims are interesting, but not particularly strong evidence. If it’s coupled with other forms of evidence, then we’re getting somewhere.

8. As a final point, I’d like to mention that we don’t really have witnesses, let alone 3 million. We have a claim that there were witnesses, and an argument why they must have existed - but that’s quite different. And, as I explained, I think there are reasons to seriously doubt they existed.

But stay tuned for a more fleshed out post about this and feel free to write back.

cheers

~

See my follow-up post here.

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