Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Kuzari Principle: Index of Posts

[No more Kuzari now. You come back later.]

For reference, here are the articles I posted on the Kuzari Principle and the Sinai revelation:
I sincerely thank Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb for our email exchange. He certainly did not have to deal with me, and I suspect that from his perspective very little new ground was covered.

From my perspective, the posts and the discussion were illuminating. Some last observations:
  1. I would think something labeled as a "principle" would have many examples illustrating it. Kuzari is the only principle I can think of without such real-world instances. However, I could easily be persuaded to see Kuzari as a full-fledged principle: Just show me examples of nations that refused to believe NET stories which were introduced to them as real history.
  2. The case of the atomic bombings reveals the gaping weaknesses of the Sinai story. The eyewitness accounts of Hiroshima, like first-person testimonies in many momentous events, are visceral and immediate. People understand where they were in the critical moment, what they were doing, how it felt to go through what they did. These people talk about their confusion, their fear, and their concern for fellows. The Sinai story, in contrast, reads as craft. It bears all the hallmarks of artifice. It's a detached, omniscient narrative story that is less about national revelation than about a claim to power by self-appointed political and filial descendants of both Moses and Aaron.
  3. Kuzari proponents do all they can to avoid discussing current historical knowledge, biblical scholarship, and archeological science. No wonder, since the convergence of data in these disciplines tends not only to diminish whatever a "real Sinai" might have been but also to highlight the brute fact that we have no empirical data to suggest that there ever was a "real Sinai" at all. 
  4. Ultimately, Sinai is a historical question. To date, the answer is a very strong no. No faux principle is able to circumvent this reality.
  5. Even if the principle were more solid than it is, one central fact of the religious claim for Sinai is that a true divine revelation, a full-blown miracle, is by definition the absolute least likely thing that could ever happen. Sinai is supposed to be utterly unique in human history, meaning that it's in a category of one. There's not another event that could  even be remotely like it. Now I ask you, if we have no evidence today of the single most extraordinary thing that's ever happened in the history of the universe, how much credence is appropriate for me to give?
I hope that further opportunities arise to address Kuzari, but for now the topic is closed.


  1. I think I found the core problem in the Kuzari Proof:

    Here is how the proof is supposed to work: Suppose that 100,000 people all claim to see a flaming unicorn walk through their midst. Is their testimony likely to be true? I think so. Suppose these 100,000 people form a community and all tell their children about the flaming unicorn incident. Is the witness of that entire second generation enough to establish that the first generation believed they saw a flaming unicorn? I think so too. When a third generation is produced, it attests the validity of the second generation's beliefs, which attests to the validity of the first generation's beliefs, which attests to the validity of the original event.

    No matter how many generations away from the event you go, as long as you have that unbroken chain with at least 100,000 in each generation, you have proof of the original event. In this way, the modern Jewish people are in a sense direct witnesses to the events on Sinai.

    So what's the catch? Why is this argument so thoroughly rejected by liberal Jews, many Modern Orthodox Rabbis, and even some Haredim?

    The fatal flaw with this entire argument is in the Kuzari Principle itself. Remember what it states: Suppose that at least one hundred thousand people claim to witness a certain event. Then almost certainly, this event must have occurred. Do you see the flaw? The Kuzari Principle argument is really nothing more than a Sorites paradox.

    What is a Sorites paradox? A Sorites paradox is a paradox that arises from vague predicates. The paradox of the heap is an example of this paradox which arises when one considers a heap of sand, from which grains are individually removed. Is it still a heap when only one grain remains? If not, when did it change from a heap to a non-heap?

    Just because a sand heap can remain a heap when you remove one grain of sand, it does not follow that you can remove any number of grains of sand and expect that it will remain a heap. Likewise, if you hear the testimony of 100,000 people that they witnessed an event, is that the same as witnessing the event yourself? Is there absolutely no difference? I think there is. Hearing the testimony of the second generation attesting to the first generation is not as reliable as hearing the testimony of the first generation directly. You lose credibility with each generation.

    In order for the argument to actually work, the Kuzari Principle would have to be reformulated as: Suppose that at least one hundred thousand people claim to witness a certain event. Then 100% certainly, this event must have occurred. But that's obviously false. Hearing the testimony of 100,000 witnesses just isn't the same as being an eyewitness to the event.

  2. Drew,

    I think a Kuzari proponent will say that in every new generation that new generation would not believe unless there were abundant evidence. The new generation could ask any one from the older generation and get the story (or get a contradictory story). For modern Kuzari proponents, the negative phrasing is critical, and you will see them use it doggedly.

    The Principle is supposed to explain the continued acceptance of Judaism's miracle stories against disbelief, alteration, and re-interpretation. Against all odds, these stories have been believed by the Jewish people. Kuzari says they couldn't have been believed and passed down if they weren't true because of the number of people involved and the manner of transmission.

    In my series of posts, I raised many objections against the principle and its construction of Jewish history. The challenge I like best at the moment is to have Kuzari proponents give examples of nations that refused to believe NET stories which were introduced to them as real history. Such examples would not only directly confirm the principle but also allow us to examine the way it really works sociologically.

    I think there must be examples that would meet my challenge, but I have yet to hear of any.

  3. Doesn't that sound like a fallacy of composition? Even if every link in the chain of tradition is strong, it does not follow that the chain of tradition itself is strong.

    If we think about this proof in mathematical terms, suppose we attached a percentage of certainty to the 100,000 witnesses. Let's say that the witness of 100,000 people gives you a 97% certainty that the event was true. So speaking to the eyewitnesses of the event, you're 97% certain it happened. Speaking to the children of the eyewitnesses, you're 97% certain that the parents believed it, which if true would give you a 97% chance that the event happened. So 97% of 97% is about 94%. Not too bad, but at the 20 generation mark that brings you to about 54%. Twenty more generations takes you to about 30% certainty. Twenty more generations which would get you to around the time of the Macabees, and you're at 16%. Today, we are somewhere around 150 generations from the time of the event, which even under these generous probabilities, gives you about 1% certainty based on oral tradition alone.

  4. But on what basis do you suppose to attach any percentage of certainty?

    Anyway, I think I get your point that as the generations proceed it becomes more difficult for us to credit the original event.

    Yet if we're considering that there's a stable written tradition that dates back to the original event and that this tradition has not departed from the community, we may have trouble with the erosion of certainly.

    That's why I think we also have to look at the claims of stability and continuity, which don't hold up.

    What's more, we have much less evidence for biblical miracle claims than we do for modern ones. We have more evidence that in the Salem Witch trials of the 17th century, the women were really witches. We have more evidence for a miracle at Lourdes.

    There are all sorts of historical, physical, practical, and cultural reasons to think that the biblical miracle stories are only stories and not records of actual events as they actually happened.

  5. I chose the 97% figure as arbitrarily as Gottlieb chose his 100,000 witnesses figure. I think that's another weakness. The criteria for reliability seem enormously ad hoc.

  6. I don't think the stable written tradition is going to help if the oral tradition is undermined. If a kiruv rabbi conceded the point that oral tradition becomes less and less reliable as you move away from the source, and then punts to the written tradition, I would just ask the following question:

    "How do we know that written tradition goes all the way back to Sinai?"

    Because we have an oral tradi...oh crap.

  7. Anonymous4:02 PM

    I really hope that some day, Gottlieb will post the Kuzari argument in a trade journal like History and Theory.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.