Thursday, August 26, 2010

Kuzari: Final Thoughts

After yesterday's post on my emails with Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, I want to tie up that discussion with some final reflections.
  • Gottlieb initially said that I had not engaged the empirical support of his argument. However, I believe that anyone who reads yesterday's post will see that I carefully and conclusively show how his argument actually brings in no empirical support at all. His mantra was, and remains, "show me a false NET." He continues to demand evidence (i.e., a false NET) but points to none himself. He is therefore engaging in apologetics rather than establishing a positive case.
  • Gottlieb challenges others to show him documented "real" false NET events. He reasons that if there are no such false NETs, then we are left with only a hypothesis that NETs can be false--only a hypothesis, not a case based on direct evidence. The hypothesis frame is important to Gottlieb because he claims that his "empirically-based" support for Kuzari trumps the hypothesis of false NETs, but Gottlieb is actually incorrect on many levels here. First, as I have already shown, his support for Kuzari is anything but empirically-based. Second, we cannot base a belief in Sinai's truth on whether we can find sufficiently parallel real or fictional events. We can base such a belief on physical evidence, on interpretation of historical data, on the authority of certain figures or certain texts--but the presumed uniqueness of the Sinai story is not a criterion of its accuracy or truth. Third, the tactic to limit matters to the existence of NETs is nothing short of evasion: the case against Kuzari is based on a range of empirical data. Yesterday, I explicitly identified the main categories of this data. The existence or non-existence of NETs has little-to-no bearing on Kuzari's serious problems in logic, on the lack of physical evidence for Sinai, or on the evidence we do have concerning the history and composition of the Torah.
  • One item getting lost in the discussion and its too-loose terminology is that we cannot automatically grant that Sinai itself is true or even a NET event. Without presuming that Sinai is either true or false, we see that NET events are quite subjective and slippery. What defines a "nation"? What defines "witness"? How do we assess the nature and level of belief in "The story was in fact believed to be true? I am not asking trivial questions of semantics but serious questions of philosophical and empirical grounding. These serious questions have not to date been answered satisfactorily, as far as I know.
  • Gottlieb criticizes my argument for being hypothetical, which is to say it consists of a "plausible" scenario that is not, in fact, real. This is puzzling for two reasons. One, my argument has a much wider scope than the two examples I use as Sinai parallels. Indeed, as I have said, "It does not take real cases of false NETs to defeat [Kuzari] because it's already a flawed principle!" Two, Gottlieb's argument in support of Kuzari is itself hypothetical. I give a hypothesis as to how the Sinai story developed, and that hypothesis is one part of my overall argument. Gottlieb gives another hypothesis about Sinai: that what it reports is true and was later recorded by some combination of witnesses and recorders. We are both dealing with the hypothetical, and what we are trying to do is come up with a sensible way to determine which hypothesis is better suited to the truth.
Whether or not we are convinced by Kuzari, we must never ignore or forget what it actually is. It is a principle designed to favor a certain interpretation of Jewish history and texts. It is not evidence and it is not proof. Most of all, it is itself unproven. The basic claim, asserted positively for once, is that there are some stories so big and important that people will only believe they are true with lots and lots of evidence (however defined). I think this is a claim that can be tested, to a limited extent, and that can be adjusted for sliding matters of what's big and what's important. With testing, I think I would be willing to revisit my intellectual disdain for Kuzari.

Another big data point to keep in mind is that outside of the Torah's report of Sinai, there is no positive case for the event. To my knowledge, we have no reason to believe Sinai actually happened other than the Torah's ambiguous description of an event. As thinkers, we have a responsibility to ask what sorts of evidence might reasonably have been produced from the Sinai event in the Torah. For instance, should we expect that other nations might have seen something from afar and reported it? If we say "no" in this case, then perhaps we need to address the problem of Sinai's being an enclosed event. Kuzari downplays other revelations as being "semi-private," yet the Sinai revelation is private in its own way because only the one group has received the revelation. Had Israel, Sinai, and the Amalekites all experienced the same revelation and recorded it, then we would have strong evidence of a most momentous event in human history.


  1. Rambam3:13 PM

    I lived my whole life based on Kuzari for some time before coming to reject it, so it is a topic I have thought about quite a bit and I have enjoyed reading the exchange here.

    I have argued many Kuzari proponents, but I have never managed to convince someone that accepts it that it is bunk. As I see it there are three main problems with the argument.

    1) Premises that oversimplify and distort how people construct their beliefs, particularly in the ancient world.

    2) Existence of public miracle and revelation claims by other faiths, as well as general examples of people believing easy-to-check falsities.

    3) Even if we accept that the Jews actually assembled at the mountain and believed they heard God, an actual divine revelation is still far from the most parsimonious explanation for the origin of this belief.

    While I think that (3) concedes way, way too much it is really the only effective counter to the argument. This is because for (1) the proponent will just argue and argue. The problem is that this person's real burden is to prove that their model is legit, show that collective memory is generally reliable for that period using empirical data. They will just shift the burden and say, "show me the false NETs" etc.

    For (2) they will just make distinctions. This ends up being a two way street because while they manage to show that other stories don't meet the definition, the definition becomes so narrow as to only include Sinai. They think this uniqueness is a win, but it obviously is not. The method needs to be shown reliable with empirical examples, but it can't be. The reality is that there was essentially no concept of factual history in that time period. We can't find examples of any stories (NET or not) from the period that survived cultural transmission and are known to be true. Most of what we know from the period is from archaeology that provides primary source manuscripts from these periods. Cultural transmission didn't work anywhere. KP says there is one case it works for. Great. We know it worked on this case because of KP. Wait a second! Uniqueness = special pleading, gimme a break. Nevertheless, expect the proponent to ask questions like "Why didn't another religion do the same thing then!" blah.

  2. Rambam3:13 PM

    This brings us to (3) and I pretty firmly believe now that this is the only thing worth saying to a KP proponent. It is the one point I have never heard a counter too. When we look at the description of the event, there is simply nothing there that demands we posit a deity to explain. A bunch of people stood at a mountain (making sure not to get too close, of course) and they thought they heard a sound from nowhere, whoopdeedoo. There are many, many natural explanations for what happened. They saw some trippy natural stuff and believed their leader that it was God, end of story. Compared to other parts of the Bible, the Sinai account is pretty unimpressive from a fireworks perspective. Some will try to read into the text and give a more spectacular account, but there is a fatal flaw here. That is, the KP itself doesn't apply to the details. Consider for instance Maimonides view that the Jews didn't hear a voice, but rather just unintelligible sound later interpreted for them by Moses (presumably through Aaron). The point is the KP is obviously a "big picture" argument. The fact we can't identify the site of Sinai today corroborates this point. Without any reliable details of what happened on the mountain, how can we assess whether the Jews made the right determination? Assuming that they were skeptical and would prefer scientific explanations, and had access to such methods for explanation is untenable.

    The retort I have heard says that it is the nature of the covenant that proves it was really God. That rejection of the popular religions in the area couldn't have been popular otherwise. This is obviously a very weak reply because it still only argues that they believed they heard God. Without data, we just don't know whether they were right. It goes without saying we have to be extremely skeptical of these primitive peoples' desire to reject a supernatural explanation of something genuinely inexplicable to them.

  3. Rambam3:19 PM

    If a war was the event in question, there would be no prob because we know that even primitive people no when they are witnessing a war and when they are not.

    Kuzari argument tends to try and frame the events at Sinai as very simplistic, or "simple to rmember". The trouble is that ultimately we are asking these primitive folks to have done their homework. That is unreasonable.

  4. I heard the answer to 3. It's "It's improbable to fool so many people for such a long time". And then If Jews were at Sinai, then it implies other parts of the Torah are true, and then we have other, less easy to fake miracles, like the manna, and such.

  5. "If Jews were at Sinai, then it implies other parts of the Torah are true."

    No, it does not imply any such thing. A truly bizarre thing to assert.


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