[The Hiroshima blast, 1945]
In discussions on the Kuzari Principle (KP), I politely and repeatedly asked Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb to provide me with historical events that he would consider National Experiential Tradition (NET) events. According to Gottlieb, a NET “is a national tradition concerning a national experience that would change the life of the nation.” NET is also Gottlieb’s category for Sinai. A key argument for him is that beliefs about NETs don’t form in the same way as mythic beliefs. Ancient Jewish belief about Sinai should be true, he claims, because it’s implausible that a NET belief would arise as myths typically do. Many myths, for instance, emerge as “the gradual transformation of the record of a natural event.” Gottlieb uses Kuzari to argue that the miraculous explanation--an actual divine-human interaction between God and Israel--is the more likely one.
Gottlieb typically challenges critics of the Kuzari Principle to come up with false NETs, and he so challenged me. Initially, I refused to provide an example because my main issue with Kuzari was not NETs but the reasoning being employed by its defenders. That is, my argument was that each of the three elements in Gottlieb's Kuzari argument were flawed:
I find the logical proofs on Kuzari unpersuasive for reasons I explain in my article: (1) The very possibility of a divine-human event is itself not established satisfactorily; (2) the definition of "evidence" used is too imprecise; and (3) the seemingly arbitrary tethering of cultural beliefs to single events is overly simple and not sufficiently nuanced to deal with real cultural history.Only later, and after pressing, did Gottlieb engage me on my assessment of his reasoning. Although I don't think he ever explicitly conceded my point, my opinion remains that the reasoning of Kuzari--both the reasoning of the principle and the reasoning that assumes the principle's validity--makes it a principle of limited and ever-questionable value. In the end, Kuzari attempts to use philosophy to answer a historical question.
On the matter of false NETs, I eventually conceded to Gottlieb that I was unable to think of one:
I do want to address your words, so: I don't know of any false NET events. However, if Sinai is false it would qualify as one.I want now to re-visit the issue of NETs and talk about Gottlieb's curious obsession with false NETs. I get the rhetorical/argumentative game he is playing with demanding false NETs, but I don't understand why he gives no attention at all to real--that is, true--NETs. Indeed, he dismissed my request for real NETs as immaterial.
But my question to you is whether there are any other events, true or false, that qualify as NETs. Does the fall of Troy qualify? Does 9-11? Does Woodstock?
Finding a Sinai-like event is not relevant, if by Sinai-like you mean national revelation. What is relevant is finding a known false NET, since that category is the content of KP.Thus the question is why Gottlieb is only interested in a false NET, that is, in a national tradition concerning a very significant national experience that didn’t actually happen. To explore a possible answer to this question (and I have also emailed Gottlieb a link to this article), let's review a case Gottlieb made to me against the applicability of myth formation to NETs, like Sinai:
If myth formation applies to a belief, then of course the belief is not true. Myth formation shows how false beliefs arise. Now THERE ARE NO KNOWN FALSE NET BELIEFS. If myth formation worked in the NET category there should be many NET beliefs that are known false, but there are none. So the evidence that we have of myth formation working is limited to cases that are not NET. The evidence we have is against myth formation applying to NET beliefs since if it did there should be many known false NET beliefs.For Gottlieb, false NET beliefs would show that the KP is incorrect. False NETs would show that national beliefs can be based on fabrications of nationally witnessed events. Without false NETs, says Gottlieb, KP leads us to conclude that the more plausible case for Sinai is that it actually happened, since it’s more unlikely that a national belief could be made up about direct national ancestors having experienced something unforgettable and life-altering.
Let’s put aside Gottlieb’s argument for a moment and ask what I think is a reasonable and relevant question: “What NETs do we know, true or false?” My rationale for the question is simple: If myth formation does not apply to the emergence of NET beliefs, then perhaps looking at other NET beliefs will help us to understand how they happen and what effects they have. These NET beliefs seem like very interesting phenomena which should be investigated and studied.
Gottlieb says that there are no known false NET beliefs and that these are the only kind of NETs that are relevant to KP. But how can true NET beliefs not be relevant? Wouldn’t true NET beliefs provide positive support for Gottlieb’s argument that such beliefs arise not by myth formation but rather by actually happening? Wouldn’t true NETs clarify why myth formation didn’t work for them? Wouldn’t true NETs demonstrate how nations respond to life-altering events and incorporate these events into traditions, and wouldn’t these demonstrations be helpful in understanding post-Sinai Israel?
Gottlieb’s dismissal of true NETs is therefore very strange. I have been puzzled by his not providing at least one documented NET to show, at the very least, that it can be a genuine category. Thus, I want to look at one event that I think very well qualifies as a NET: the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945.
Yes, these could be considered two events, but for the sake of argument, we’ll consider it one event. Now, does the bombing qualify as a NET? Absolutely, “it is a national tradition concerning a national experience that would change the life of the nation.” There is an annual ceremony in Japan commemorating the event. In fact, this past August the US ambassador to Japan attended the ceremony; it was the first time since the actual event that the US ambassador had done so. Thus, we have solid grounding for there being a national tradition. Now we can hardly think of an experience having a greater change on a nation. In addition to the death, destruction, radiation and after-effects of the blasts, the bombings preceded Japan's unconditional surrender in the war. Following the war, Japan and the US enjoyed good relations, and Japan later became a leader in electronics technologies and manufacturing.
The bombings should be a textbook case for the Kuzari Principle. We have an event that we know really occurred. It left behind “enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence.” If the evidence did not exist, we are hard-pressed to think of how the Japanese people could have believed that it did happen. So why isn’t Gottlieb trumpeting Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a real-life example of a NET? Surely a main source of belief among the people on the ground lies in the two mushroom clouds over Japan and not in myth formation, just as Gottlieb says the source of belief in Sinai must lie in an awesome event in the desert. With the bombings, he gets a real-life NET, and he also gets to say that there are still no known false NETs.
My hypothesis as to why Gottlieb doesn’t tout Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or any other true NET, is this: “formation of beliefs involves more than simply the truth of (all/some of) the event.” He knows that Kuzari posits a straight line from event to evidence to belief. But the event, the evidence, and the belief all get forked and complicated in real life. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrate how easily complications emerge.
Consider being on the ground near Hiroshima and/or Nagasaki at the time of the bombings. That the atomic bombs were dropped is but one small aspect of the event and the beliefs about it. Immediately following detonation, the people of Japan and the world have only basic knowledge to rely upon. They know that there were two extraordinary explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They know that many people died and were made to suffer. Beyond this basic level, beliefs about the event develop and facts quickly become an issue; they become sites of contest. With the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the issues include:
- The number killed: At least one US report lists “many tens of thousands of deaths” while official Japanese records calculate at least 200,000 people. Some historians say “the vast majority of victims [were] women, children and elderly men.”
- The military efficacy of the bombings: The US position is that the bombings forced immediate Japanese surrender and made a land invasion by the US unnecessary. However, post-war studies indicate that the war in Japan could have ended as soon or sooner without the bombings—when, for instance, Russia entered the war.
- The intentions of Japan: It’s contested as to whether Japan would have surrendered unconditionally with or without the bombings.
- US advance warning to civilians: There are claims that "Special leaflets were…dropped on Japanese cities three days before a bombing raid to warn civilians to evacuate." But the evidence seems to point against there ever having been any advance warning.
- The objectives served by the bombings: It seems that the bombings could have served curiosity as to the destructive powers of atomic weapons and not necessarily a military objective.
The Tokyo control operator of the Broadcasting Corporation of Japan noticed that the Hiroshima station had gone off the air. He tried to re-establish his program by using another telephone line, but it too had failed. About 20 minutes later the Tokyo railroad telegraph center realized that the main line telegraph had stopped working just north of Hiroshima. From some small railway stops within 16 kilometers (10 mi) of the city came unofficial and confused reports of a terrible explosion in Hiroshima. All these reports were transmitted to the headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff.These issues collectively teach us two important lessons: people don’t always know exactly what it is they have witnessed, especially without context; and post-event contextualization and interpretation can shape public memory and opinion of real events in significant ways. To confirm these points further, and perhaps finally, consider this testimony of an eyewitness to Hiroshima:
Military bases repeatedly tried to call the Army Control Station in Hiroshima. The complete silence from that city puzzled the men at headquarters; they knew that no large enemy raid had occurred and that no sizeable store of explosives was in Hiroshima at that time. A young officer of the Japanese General Staff was instructed to fly immediately to Hiroshima, to land, survey the damage, and return to Tokyo with reliable information for the staff. It was generally felt at headquarters that nothing serious had taken place and that the explosion was just a rumor.
The staff officer went to the airport and took off for the southwest. After flying for about three hours, while still nearly 100 miles (160 km) from Hiroshima, he and his pilot saw a great cloud of smoke from the bomb. In the bright afternoon, the remains of Hiroshima were burning. Their plane soon reached the city, around which they circled in disbelief. A great scar on the land still burning and covered by a heavy cloud of smoke was all that was left. They landed south of the city, and the staff officer, after reporting to Tokyo, immediately began to organize relief measures.
By August 8, 1945, newspapers in the U.S. were reporting that broadcasts from Radio Tokyo had described the destruction observed in Hiroshima. "Practically all living things, human and animal, were literally seared to death," Japanese radio announcers said in a broadcast received by Allied sources.
The magnitude of the disaster that befell Hiroshima on August 6th was only slowly pieced together in my mind. I lived through the catastrophe and saw it only in flashes, which only gradually were merged to give me a total picture.Applied to Sinai, these lessons remind us that we don’t know what, if anything, happened at Sinai and how it was experienced. The lessons also tell us that the Torah’s report provides a single source that does not always seem to say what the rabbis insist it does. Reference, for example, my reading of the relevant passages in Exodus 19 and 20, “where the direct interaction of God occurs unambiguously only with Moses, and perhaps also with Aaron.”
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As much as six kilometers from the center of the explosion, all houses were damaged and many collapsed and caught fire. Even fifteen kilometers away, windows were broken. It was rumored that the enemy fliers had spread an explosive and incendiary material over the city and then had created the explosion and ignition. A few maintained that they saw the planes drop a parachute which had carried something that exploded at a height of 1,000 meters. The newspapers called the bomb an "atomic bomb" and noted that the force of the blast had resulted from the explosion of uranium atoms, and that gamma rays had been sent out as a result of this, but no one knew anything for certain concerning the nature of the bomb.
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.…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.Applied to Kuzari, the atomic bombings example offers lessons in the malleability of both beliefs and evidence. If I’m a very nationalistic American, I will dismiss or diminish information that potentially upsets my view. I’ll rather accept the lower casualty figure and believe that the two locations served a mostly military purpose. If I am suspicious of the government, I will accept different evidence and evaluate it differently. I don’t know whether ordinary people in Japan and around the world were unprepared to believe that the two bombings had happened unless evidence was presented to them. I suspect that many people had their opinions shaped and solidified by media, government spokespeople, and influential personal contacts—far away from direct evidence. I also know that people do funny things with evidence. Some people think the Zapruder film shows a conspiracy to assassinate JFK. Some people think the lunar photos show evidence that the US Moon missions were hoaxes.
In light of the above points, we can see how inadequately Kuzari handles concepts such as “event,” “evidence,” and “belief.” None of these concepts is put in the context of cultural knowledge and social power relations. None of these concepts is used in a way that considers the nuances in personal/collective experience, the ties between evidence and presupposition, and the use of beliefs as instruments of community coherence and conformity. A true NET belief such as the atomic bombings shows that people will believe according to their agenda and according to their favorite thought leaders.
Finally, I want to return to the quotation I gave earlier of Gottlieb’s case against myth formation. Gottlieb has continued to maintain the mistaken claim that “we have positive evidence that KP is true.” He has pointed to the quotation I gave as containing the positive evidence. As I went through in an earlier post to dispute his claims to empirical backing for Kuzari, I want to go through the quotation now to show that he is not providing positive evidence:
- “If myth formation applies to a belief, then of course the belief is not true.” This is a conditional statement and probably too much a generalization, since many myths are great exaggerations of the truth (i.e., Euhemerism). No positive evidence is contained in this sentence.
- “Myth formation shows how false beliefs arise.” This is an assertion, and no positive evidence is contained in the sentence.
- “Now THERE ARE NO KNOWN FALSE NET BELIEFS.” This is an assertion; moreover it is an assertion of having no positive evidence. The assertion itself and alone contains no positive evidence.
- “If myth formation worked in the NET category there should be many NET beliefs that are known false, but there are none.” This is a conditional statement that repeats the lack of positive evidence. It is an argumentative statement, but no positive evidence is here that supports why “there should be many NET events that are known false.”
- “So the evidence that we have of myth formation working is limited to cases that are not NET.” This statement asserts the existence of evidence for myth formation. While this statement makes an unspecified appeal to positive evidence, it actually contains none of its own.
- “The evidence we have is against myth formation applying to NET beliefs since if it did there should be many known false NET beliefs.” This is an assertion that makes an appeal to unspecified evidence of myth formation, as in #5, above. However, this statement claims that the evidence goes against the application of myth formation to NET beliefs. We get no mention here of either the specific evidence being referred to or the reasons the evidence would lead us away from a conclusion that myth formation applies to NET beliefs. So, this statement by itself contains no positive evidence.
With Sinai, we have one report given from one perspective. We don't know the report of the people closest to the mountain. We don't know the observations of witnesses in the very back. We cannot hear the voices of the women, the outsiders, and the opponents. We have no documents from the nations closest to Sinai telling us about something most unusual having happened. The strongest inference we can draw from Sinai is that something--a natural event or some other fantastic occurrence--may have happened out in the wilderness. We may even be able to justify saying something must have happened. We cannot, however, say with any confidence that Sinai happened. Kuzari changes nothing about this because even if the principle itself is 100 percent true, it doesn't tell us anything about what exactly happened at Sinai, how, to whom, over what time period, and at what stakes. It's a believer's reason to believe, a "nice to have." But it's not especially compelling to a neutral observer.
And that's why at this point it's best to leave the discussion because, with Sinai, the one thing we have not talked about is the one thing we should have been talking about all along: The actual evidence that we have for the actual people we think correspond to "Biblical Israel." Although this has been a fascinating discussion on logic, belief, and classification of events, we cannot get very far without a collection of real evidence and data. I have already shown that the pro-Kuzari side is not forthcoming when it comes to direct, positive evidence. We cannot derive a clear picture of Biblical Israel, Sinai, or the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki based on a principle. If we truly want to understand the events and these people, we need to study the writings and the physical data, and we need to remember not to get carried away by the existence or non-existence of evidence. The evidence often means what we want it to mean, and the non-evidence doesn't tell us much of anything.