Thursday, June 16, 2011

Kuzari: Why Aren't There More Sinai-Like Stories?

Best miracle ever!

Let me paraphrase a Kuzari-related argument I hear often enough:
If the Mount Sinai story is a myth (taken to mean "untrue") developed through human cultural processes, then we should see more examples of Sinai-like stories. But we don't see more examples. There's only one Mount Sinai story and only one religion claiming to have had a national event like Mount Sinai. Therefore, it's more reasonable to think that Mount Sinai is not a myth and instead really happened.
To consider the argument, let's get clear on what the Mount Sinai story is. Tzvi Freeman characterizes the story as the national witness of Moses' authenticity:
[O]n the sixth day of the third month of the year 2448 from Creation, an entire nation full of dissidents and skeptics gathered at the foot of a mountain in the Sinai Desert and witnessed how G-d spoke with Moses. Rather overwhelmed by the experience, they asked Moses to kindly fetch all the details of what exactly G-d would like from them and report on it. [emphasis added]
Freeman's interpretation is that the nation witnessed not God itself and not God speaking but how God spoke to Moses. This distinction is important because it's Moses the people confirm, not God. The Sinai story is, in this sense, another "proving the prophet" story. But what's supposed to be distinctive about the Sinai story is that the entire nation witnessed Moses as being in conversation with God. Where Kuzari comes in is that allegedly the entire nation believed that what it had witnessed was a bona-fide miracle. Of course, we have no idea what the entire nation actually believed--assuming there was any sort of event at all. But these are the two pillars of Kuzari, national witness and national belief. And neither of these characteristics can be pulled from the history of Israel.

Back, then, to the assertion at the top that we should expect "more examples of Sinai-like stories." Contrary to the assertion, there's no logical requirement for myths exactly like Sinai. The bald fact of many Sinai-like myths or of none is in itself irrelevant. A perceived lack of more examples has no bearing on either the evidence of a Sinai event or the evidence of the Sinai story.

In considering "the Sinai story," we have a complication in that we have at least three Sinai stories. What's more, not all of them correspond well to Freeman's account, given above. Here, for example, is the Sinai story from the J source:
Ch. 19:10. And the Lord said to Moses, "Go to the people and prepare them today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their garments.

11. And they shall be prepared for the third day, for on the third day, the Lord will descend before the eyes of all the people upon Mount Sinai.

12. And you shall set boundaries for the people around, saying, Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.'

13. No hand shall touch it, for he shall be stoned or cast down; whether man or beast, he shall not live. When the ram's horn sounds a long, drawn out blast, they may ascend the mountain."

14. So Moses descended from the mountain to the people, and he prepared the people, and they washed their garments.

15. He said to the people, "Be ready for three days; do not go near a woman."

16a. It came to pass on the third day when it was morning,

* * *

18. And the entire Mount Sinai smoked because the Lord had descended upon it in fire, and its smoke ascended like the smoke of the kiln, and the entire mountain quaked violently.

* * *

20. The Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the peak of the mountain, and the Lord summoned Moses to the peak of the mountain, and Moses ascended.

21. The Lord said to Moses, "Go down, warn the people lest they break [their formation to go nearer] to the Lord, and many of them will fall.

22. And also, the priests who go near to the Lord shall prepare themselves, lest the Lord wreak destruction upon them."

23. And Moses said to the Lord, "The people cannot ascend to Mount Sinai, for You warned us saying, Set boundaries for the mountain and sanctify it.' "

24. But the Lord said to him, "Go, descend, and [then] you shall ascend, and Aaron with you, but the priests and the populace shall not break [their formation] to ascend to the Lord, lest He wreak destruction upon them."

25. So Moses went down to the people and said [this] to them.
Now, here is Sinai in the E source. This is the one that is closest to Freeman:
Ch. 19:2b. and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain.

3. Moses ascended to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, "So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel,

4. You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and [how] I bore you on eagles' wings, and I brought you to Me.

5. And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth.

6. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.' These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel."

7. Moses came and summoned the elders of Israel and placed before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him.

8. And all the people replied in unison and said, "All that the Lord has spoken we shall do!" and Moses took the words of the people back to the Lord.

9. And the Lord said to Moses, "Behold, I am coming to you in the thickness of the cloud, in order that the people hear when I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever." And Moses relayed the words of the people to the Lord.

* * *

16b. there were thunder claps and lightning flashes, and a thick cloud was upon the mountain, and a very powerful blast of a shofar, and the entire nation that was in the camp shuddered.

17. Moses brought the people out toward God from the camp, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain.

* * *

19. The sound of the shofar grew increasingly stronger; Moses would speak and God would answer him with a voice.

* * *

Ch. 20:18. The people remained far off, but Moses drew near to the opaque darkness, where God was.

19. The Lord said to Moses, "So shall you say to the children of Israel, You have seen that from the heavens I have spoken with you.

20. You shall not make [images of anything that is] with Me. Gods of silver or gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves.

21. An altar of earth you shall make for Me, and you shall slaughter beside it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your cattle. Wherever I allow My name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.
Finally, here is Sinai from the P source:
19:1. In the third month of the children of Israel's departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai.

* * *

Ch. 24:15b. and the cloud covered the mountain.

16. And the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days, and He called to Moses on the seventh day from within the cloud.

17. And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire atop the mountain, before the eyes of the children of Israel.

18a. And Moses came within the cloud.
Thus, the Sinai story is multiple. This multiplicity, in turn, reveals that Kuzari-style interpretations of Sinai are post-hoc and at least partly revisionist. Kuzari is therefore unable to prove anything--a critical point that ought to be acknowledged but seldom is.

One final note: myth formation is not incompatible or inconsistent with some "real" historical event serving as an originating point for the story--there could have been something like a real Sinai moment between 1313 BCE and 2200 BCE, but there also needn't have been. Even at best, Kuzari does not give us a solid reason to think whether there might have been any real Sinai event or not.

If one is so biased, one can use the Kuzari Principle to rationalize acceptance of Judaism. Indeed, given the fantastical nature of so many tales in the Torah and in the traditional Jewish library (which makes the tales fun and interesting, by the way), one needs whatever arguments are available to justify giving oneself over to traditional authorities. Without such bias, however, Kuzari appears as what it is: an interesting yet problematic stretch. When we leave idle philosophizing and start to collect and consider material artifacts, Kuzari's wish-world offers too little and too faintly.


  1. Did I ever tell you yet I think you are doing great work debunking the Kuzari proofs? Thanks so much!!!

  2. Ichabod Chrain12:37 AM

    Don't fundamentalist Christians accept the Sinai story? And why would anyone expect other religions to have mass revelation stories? After all Unitaritans, Buddhists, Taoists etc. aren't based on claims of a revelation, so they have no need for a Sinai story. The Mormons don't need one because they did pretty well with a private revelation story.

    Besides, I don't follow the logic of why he thinks that if the Mt Sinai story is a myth developed through human cultural processes, we should expect to see more examples. It's not as though there are a whole lot more religions to go around. If you can get where you want to go without a revelation story or with a private revelation story, then you don't need a mass revelation story.

  3. UK, many thanks!

    IC, I believe fundies do accept the Sinai story, but I also think they interpret the story differently than traditional Judaism. In traditional Judaism, the entire nation has a direct experience of God, at least at the beginning. Christianity tends to emphasize Moses's role as one of mediator, a prefiguring of the kind of intercession offered to men by Jesus.

    Like you, I don't see much strength in logic to suggest that if the Sinai story developed over hundreds of years then there should be many more similar kinds of mass revelation story. You are right to point out that some of the stories found in most religions are unique in their particulars.

  4. Ichabod Chrain2:51 AM

    If the Christians still accept the Sinai story, then why would it matter if they viewed Moses's role differently from the way the Jews do?

    The Kuzari argument is questionable for other reasons as well. Why would we expect everything that was the product of a human cultural process to be repeated? It's possible that things that are the product of human cultural processes could be repeated, but the probability that it would be repeated depends on what it is that's being repeated.

    Maybe there's even some low probablity that a mass revelation story would be repeated if it were the product of human cultural process, but Kuzari assumes that the probability is close to 100%. Where do they get that from?

    Why would the probabilty be more than 50%? And even it were more than 50%, why would it be much more than that? And then when you balance that probability against everything else we know that undercuts the statements in the Torah, the probablity becomes much lower.

    Also, if we would expect to see other mass revelation stories if they were the process of human cultural process, then we'd expect everything we know to be a product of a human cultural process to be repeated. But how often are Greek myths repeated in a different form among other contemporary societies?

    Since we know that the Greek myths are the product of human cultural processes, then the fact that they're not repeated speaks against the Kuzari argument that if something arose from human cultural processes it would be repeated.

    The Kuzari advocates are also being arbitrary about what they consider unique. They focus on the mass revelation, but what about other parts of the Torah? From what I've read there are parallels between the Torah and the myths or the legal systems of the locals at the time. If that's true, then the "mass revelation" isn't really a revelation at all, it's just an echoing of what was already part of the society.

    And then if private revelations can be a basis for a religion, and people believe that the private revelation is true, even though they know that it spread through forced conversions, then what would be unusual about believing a claim of a public revelation that happened generations ago?

    The people back then didn't even have modern communication devices, and might not even have had more than a basic literacy. Look at what people believe today that isn't true.

  5. "If the Christians still accept the Sinai story, then why would it matter if they viewed Moses's role differently from the way the Jews do?"

    It matters because the heart of Kuzari--with respect to Sinai--is the Jewish interpretation of the event. That interpretation supports the argument that Judaism is the one true religion and the others are mistaken.

  6. It seems to me you never answered the question "Why Aren't There More Sinai-Like Stories?" You explained why the Sinai-Like story may be insignificant, but did not explain why we don't find similar stories anywhere else. I would expect that something unmiraculous would occur more than once. (or better yet are there in fact other stories similar to the Sinai experience?)

  7. where are the contradictions in the different versus your brought above? i don't see any. besides to be thorough one needs to read the original hebrew text, not a translation. what is the point of all of this?

  8. There are more Sinai-like stories: there are three stories in Exodus alone!

    I am not saying the three stories contradict one another.

    The point is that we have at least three Sinai stories in Exodus alone. If you want to find more stories outside of Exodus, then you'll need to define your criteria. For example, if your criterion is a large group of people together witnessing a public miracle, then you can cite the story of the resurrected Jesus appearing to 500 followers simultaneously. This event is relayed in the authentic letters of Paul.

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  10. your joking right? it's all the same account just broken up. if it was all said within the same verse then you'd be happy? im sorry but you lost me.

    btw, about jesus, two things can be said. one, that the 500 people are a bit insignificant since jesus would tell them to be quiet afterwards, he didnt want them to spread the story, and we don't even know who jesus spoke to.
    but thats not the main point so even putting that aside, or if its wrong
    the thing about jesus is i could even believe, (as a religious Jew) that jesus did all the miracles that it says he did, ofcourse he did them as a false prophet, the kind of false prophet that Deuteronomy 13 talks about. thats the irony, the Christians for all their troubles and effort never created a valid religion, even if you believe all they say. no human can come and change the law! and yes i know jesus says hes not a human, but obviously he can't prove that. if he does miracles, or dissapears from his grave or whatever, it doesn't prove anything more than that he's been given big abilities by G-d as a test like Deuteronomy explain. and btw the same can be said about other miracle stories involving idols and such, they dont show anything.


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