Thursday, May 26, 2011

Kuzari: Belief and Evidence (and Bias, Oh My!)


Per the discussion in the latest Kuzari post, I’ve agreed to provide greater detail about how the Sinai story in Exodus—that is, the story of a divine revelation before the masses—began and developed. I'm still working on developing that content, so it will come in one or more future posts.

Nevertheless, I want to respond in the meantime to Dovid Kornreich, who says:
I commend you on your bravery and honesty. I’m glad you acknowledge that there is a need to provide a (probable!) alternative explanation to the mass revelation belief in order to justify ignoring it.
Thanks for the commendation, Dovid. I do acknowledge the need to explain my opinion and to justify it as well as I can.

However, let me be very clear on several critical points:
  1. I am not “ignoring” belief in a mass revelation and I never have. Indeed, my entire series on Kuzari seeks to pay extraordinary attention both to the belief and to what inferences can reasonably be drawn from it. 
  2. I also acknowledge that people do believe and have believed that a mass revelation occurred at Sinai. At the same time, I reject the idea that there was an actual divine mass revelation because (a) we don't have sufficient evidence to support such a claim, and (b) divinities are fictional.
  3. Dovid, if you think I'm going to provide an "alternative" explanation for the mass revelation belief, as if your explanation is the "default" or "standard" one, then I must protest. There is no default or standard explanation. 
  4. We are better served by dropping the idea of "probable," at least for now. Our focus should be on accounting for the evidence we have. We have evidence of the Sinai story: the Bible relates the story. Later commentators discuss it. We have evidence that in some historical periods the story was believed to be historically accurate. Let's talk about the evidence first and then think about which explanations seem more probable than others
It's not biased or prejudicial on my part to reject the actuality of the divine mass revelation when we don't have sufficient evidence of it. All that we have is the Torah and later commentaries. What we don't have but need is one or more first-hand accounts written for the purpose of communicating a reliable description of real events as they occurred. Even in a case such as having an account, the reliability of the writer and text must be scrutinized.

It's also not biased or prejudicial on my part to reject the idea that deities (deliberately plural) are real-world entities. To my knowledge, no one has shown that they are. I accept that they could be real in the sense that counts; that is, I am open to the possibility that . But until we get a clear demonstration of what a divinity actually is and does in a real-world context, I don't see how it's reasonable to assume they exist (or ever have).

The questions asked of me concern belief in Sinai. When did it start? Why? How did it develop? I will try to answer these questions as best I can. The question is not whether Sinai is true. If this latter question means something like "Did Sinai happen exactly as reported in the Torah I read today?" then I must answer "no." Now, the modern incarnation of "traditional" Judaism takes it as foundational that the answer to the question is "yes." To his credit, Dovid Kornreich expresses willingness to explore this foundation:
Please be aware that this is a two-way street. I myself admit that I too have the burden to justify ignoring all the thousands of religions' claims to the truth in favor of the one I was born into.
I appreciate this. Truly, I do. Indeed, I would be most interested to learn why you ignore and/or reject the following claims, as I assume you do (please forgive me if I am incorrect on this):
Claim 1: Jesus Christ was the only begotten son of the Jewish God. Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

Claim 2: Muhammad was the messenger of God, and the Qu'ran is the eternal and uncreated speech of God.

Claim 3: Mahaguru Parthasarathy, and Indian man, proves the existence and divinity of Vishnu by being an avatar of the god.
I am mostly interested in the underlined parts and the basis upon which you ignore/reject these claims. I thank you. As I said, I'll post further discussions on early Jewish belief in the Sinai story as soon as I can.

13 comments:

  1. Rambam4:21 PM

    Dovid's counterpoint to the evolving myth hypothesis is quite weak.

    "There can't be any claim of having precise records of who said exactly what happened at Sinai and when it was recorded. Because it will freeze the alleged myth at too early a period and prevent it from evolving without needing to perpetrate an implausibly bald hoax. We will be back to choosing between options one and two exclusively.

    But that's exactly what the Torah records."

    This is just a repackaging of the same fallacy. Details about when the story was first told are also subject to the same hypothesis. In fact, it is all pretty irrelevant since we can all be in agreement that a story was first told the day it actually happened while the details of the story itself evolve continually.

    This guy seems pretty simple. Maybe he will see that in response to all the examples you gave he disbelieves them because the default position is that they are fairy tales. Maybe he will try to be clever. His charge that you give a detailed account of the story's origins is cute. He obviously wants to shift the burden of proof, as usual. Thats the whole point of the Kuzari false dichotomy device. Either it's real, mass conspiracy, or it's YOUR job to prove its something else. Yawn.

    His attempt to save the false dichotomy with his silly repackaging is entertaining. The details of the stories first recording clearly eliminate the possibility of any evolving myth. We know exactly where and when the event occurred and how it was first recorded... except we have no exact date, have no idea where it occurred and zero recordings of it dating from the period. Oh wait!

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  2. Claim #1: I need to trust the account of 12 individuals who have not demonstrated any particular credibility.
    I don't KNOW its not true, but there is insufficient evidence due to scant number of witnesses with questionable credibility.

    Claim #2 Again, I don't KNOW its not true, but the claims give no method for verification. How do we know he is a prophet? Did he make true predictions? cause miracles?
    How do we know it is a divine text? Did only one person receive it? Does it make true predictions?

    Claim #3 Same as #2--the claims give no method for verification. I need to trust the claim of an individual of unknown trustworthiness.

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  3. To "Rambam" (out of respect for the dead, please find another moniker)

    Details about when the story was first told are also subject to the same hypothesis. In fact, it is all pretty irrelevant since we can all be in agreement that a story was first told the day it actually happened while the details of the story itself evolve continually.

    You are missing the point.
    How does a story evolve if an element of the story included the claim that it was always around and preserved from the beginning--implying that it never evolved?

    How does a claim of non-evolution evolve? It's a pretty tricky thing, no?

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  4. Rambam9:03 AM

    Preserved in what sense? Where is it claimed that any evidence or recordings of the event were kept? It all seems oral. A bunch of people telling stories. Even if the story contains a clause saying that people have been telling the story since the event, the content of the story can change. First moses experienced it all alone, then with a few priests, then a big chunk of the nation, then most of the nation, then all. Voila! As the story is told and retold the grander embellishments tend to accumulate. The fact that people tell the story as a story that has been told in its current form since the event doesn't really mean anything if people aren't actually recording specific details and EVIDENCE from the earliest dates. They may have had the intention to tell and retell accurately, but without writing down the story or keeping real evidence they were extremely likely to fail and did. So a claim of accurate telling and retelling is empty without any supporting evidence about how the story was actually told BACK THEN. The only thing close to a record, the Torah, cannot be pegged at all reasonably close to the event.

    The embellishments didn't even stop with the writing of the Torah. The descriptions people give nowadays are so much granded than what the Torah describes. In fact, the torah describes basically nothing out of the ordinary. They heard some sound and BELIEVED moses that it was God, whoopdeedoo. Of course, when Jews tell it today there are mountains flipping upside down and God speaking specific words to the people. The more conservative and less forced-on-the-text interpretations like the Rambam's leave ample reasons to doubt that God was really involved.

    Most important in all of this though is: Even if I accept that the Jews have told this story in its exact form since the event.. Who says they were right? So there was thunder and lighting and they believed Moses that God was around. Thats it. They were pretty primitive folk. Isn't the most parsimonious explanation that they believed Moses but there was no actual God. What aspect of this story is clearly not explainable by natural mechanisms? Nothing.

    Yawn.

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  6. The fact that people tell the story as a story that has been told in its current form since the event doesn't really mean anything if people aren't actually recording specific details and EVIDENCE from the earliest dates. They may have had the intention to tell and retell accurately, but without writing down the story or keeping real evidence they were extremely likely to fail and did.

    Who says they didn't write it down?
    The Torah says it WAS written down and it did contain all the details they ever needed.
    How do you manage to dismiss the simple hypothesis that it was all recorded on scrolls --when it happened-- and was faithfully copied by everyone in each generation till the present?

    You dismiss it by simply imagining that nothing was written down and it was transmitted orally and suffered from broken telephone.

    You are not addressing the basic question: Why is your scenario more likely than mine when the only record we have claims it was written down and faithfully transmitted from the beginning?

    What basis do you have to dismiss the biblical record as history?

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  7. Most important in all of this though is: Even if I accept that the Jews have told this story in its exact form since the event.. Who says they were right? So there was thunder and lighting and they believed Moses that God was around. That's it.

    This description ignores much of the account of the Sinai revelation in Deuteronomy chapt 4.

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  8. Rambam8:53 AM

    Where does it say the details of the Sinai account were written down? If I recall, the Torah never really says explicitly it was written down. You have to read into certain verses, it never says clearly what was written and when. This is apart from a few exceptions like the 10 commandments... It is of course standard orthodox doctrine, but weakly supported by the text. You folks don't make much distinction when you dogmatically argue about your fairy tales.

    What element of the description in Deutoronomy ch. 4 betrays naturalistic interpretation. Sound from the midst of a fire could be anything. They didn't take any samples of anything or do any experiments. They got scared at a mountain and believed Moses that God was around.

    Why do I reject the simple hypothesis? Because I think fairy tales with zero evidence tend to be made up.

    More yawns.

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  9. If I recall, the Torah never really says explicitly it was written down. You have to read into certain verses, it never says clearly what was written and when.

    פרשת כי תבוא

    פרק כז
    וַיְצַו מֹשֶׁה וְזִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הָעָם לֵאמֹר שָׁמֹר אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם:
    וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר תַּעַבְרוּ אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וַהֲקֵמֹתָ לְךָ אֲבָנִים גְּדֹלוֹת וְשַׂדְתָּ אֹתָם בַּשִּׂיד:
    וְכָתַבְתָּ עֲלֵיהֶן אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת בְּעָבְרֶךָ לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר תָּבֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֶיךָ לָךְ:
    וְהָיָה בְּעָבְרְכֶם אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן תָּקִימוּ אֶת הָאֲבָנִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּהַר עֵיבָל וְשַׂדְתָּ אוֹתָם בַּשִּׂיד:
    וּבָנִיתָ שָּׁם מִזְבֵּחַ לַיקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים לֹא תָנִיף עֲלֵיהֶם בַּרְזֶל:
    אֲבָנִים שְׁלֵמוֹת תִּבְנֶה אֶת מִזְבַּח יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְהַעֲלִיתָ עָלָיו עוֹלֹת לַיקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ:
    וְזָבַחְתָּ שְׁלָמִים וְאָכַלְתָּ שָּׁם וְשָׂמַחְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ:
    וְכָתַבְתָּ עַל הָאֲבָנִים אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת בַּאֵר הֵיטֵב: ס

    · (נח) אִם לֹא תִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת הַכְּתוּבִים בַּסֵּפֶר הַזֶּה לְיִרְאָה אֶת הַשֵּׁם הַנִּכְבָּד וְהַנּוֹרָא הַזֶּה אֵת יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ:

    These commands are being issued at the end of Moses' life. References to "This Book of the Torah" being written and transmitted to the people are all over the the last 8 chapters of Deuteronomy from 27-34.

    In fact, the quote above refers to instructions to the Israelites to chisel the text of the Torah into massive stones to be erected in Israel after they have crossed the Jordan.
    According to the book of Joshuah chapter 8-these instructions were duly carried out:
    ל אָז יִבְנֶה יְהוֹשֻׁעַ מִזְבֵּחַ לַיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהַר עֵיבָל:
    לא כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה- מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד-יְהוָה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כַּכָּתוּב בְּסֵפֶר תּוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים שְׁלֵמוֹת אֲשֶׁר לֹא-הֵנִיף עֲלֵיהֶן בַּרְזֶל וַיַּעֲלוּ עָלָיו עֹלוֹת לַיהֹוָה וַיִּזְבְּחוּ שְׁלָמִים:
    לב וַיִּכְתָּב-שָׁם עַל-הָאֲבָנִים אֵת מִשְׁנֵה תּוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר כָּתַב לִפְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

    This means the text of Deuteronomy was believed to be indelibly recorded in scrolls and in stone right after Moses' death.

    And can you knock it off with the yawns? If you wouldn't be sleeping so much you would have paid more attention in your bible classes.

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  10. What element of the description in Deutoronomy ch. 4 betrays naturalistic interpretation. Sound from the midst of a fire could be anything.

    You've been sleeping too much again, "Rambam" Wake Up!! This is GOD speaking!

    10. the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when the Lord said to me, "Assemble the people for Me, and I will let them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.”

    11. And you approached and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire up to the midst of the heavens, with darkness, a cloud, and opaque darkness.

    12. The Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of the words, but saw no image, just a voice.

    13. And He told you His covenant, which He commanded you to do, the Ten Commandments, and He inscribed them on two stone tablets.

    * * *

    32. For ask now regarding the early days that were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and from one end of the heavens to the other end of the heavens, whether there was anything like this great thing, or was the likes of it heard?

    33. Did ever a people hear God's voice speaking out of the midst of the fire as you have heard, and live?


    Count how many times the term "speak" and "words" appear in these verses.
    This is much more than some amorphous "sound".

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  11. They didn't take any samples of anything or do any experiments.

    Um, ever heard of the two tablets of stone? these tablets were placed in the Holy Ark (which were built to keep them specifically) and were preserved for centuries until the destruction of the first temple.

    That's a sample if I ever heard one.

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  12. Rambam6:20 PM

    It isn't clear what "the book of Torah" contains. Without having any physical evidence from the period we just don't know what texts were around when during the earlier period.

    Regarding sounds v.s. words, see Moreh Nevuchim on the subject. Rambam provides a very compelling argument that it was only unintelligible sounds. Regardless, the details are very vague and could mean anything. I repeat that there is zip, zilch, zero anything about the Torah's Sinai account that is so fantastic it couldn't have been anything other than God.

    Can you provide any evidence RE: these two tables. Or just more stories?

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