Thursday, April 22, 2010

Kuzari Principle: The Sinai Argument

Previously, I introduced the Kuzari Principle and its application to the alleged Mount Sinai revelation. This was intentionally a sketch, an outline of the argument. In this installment, however, I want to look again at Kuzari to examine its details. My aim now is to achieve a faithful expression of Kuzari. I will not criticize it or raise objections, as these will be the subject of a later post.

The Kuzari Principle is derived from The Book of the Khazars, a 12th century philosophical work by Judah Halevi. In the first part of the work, the King of the Khazars and a rabbi discuss the nature and origin of Jewish knowledge, including the reckoning of the date of the world and the way to verify true reports:
46. Al Khazari: What date do you consider it at present?

47. The Rabbi: Four thousand and nine hundred years. The details can be demonstrated from the lives of Adam, Seth and Enōsh to Noah; then Shem and Eber to Abraham; then Isaac and Jacob to Moses. All of them represented the essence and purity of Adam on account of their intimacy with God. Each of them had children only to be compared to them outwardly, but not really like them, and, therefore, without direct union with the divine influence. The chronology was established through the medium of those sainted persons who were only single individuals, and not a crowd, until Jacob begat the Twelve Tribes, who were all under this divine influence. Thus the divine element reached a multitude of persons who carried the records further. The chronology of those who lived before these has been handed down to us by Moses..

48. Al Khazari: An arrangement of this kind removes any suspicion of untruth or common plot. Not ten people could discuss such a thing without disagreeing, and disclosing their secret understanding; nor could they refute any one who tried to establish the truth of a matter like this. How is it possible where such a mass of people is concerned? Finally, the period involved is not large enough to admit untruth and fiction.

49. The Rabbi: That is so. Abraham himself lived during the period of the separation of languages. He and his relatives retained the language of his grandfather Eber, which for that reason is called Hebrew. Four hundred years after him appeared Moses at a time when the world was rich in information concerning the heavens and earth. He approached Pharaoh and the Doctors of Egypt, as well as those of the Israelites. Whilst agreeing with him they questioned him, and completely refused to believe that God spoke with man, until he caused them to hear the Ten Words. In the same way the people were on his side, not from ignorance, but on account of the knowledge they possessed. They feared magic and astrological arts, and similar snares, things which, like deceit, do not bear close examination, whereas the divine might is like pure gold, ever increasing in brilliancy. How could one imagine that an attempt had been made to show that a language spoken five hundred years previously was none but Eber's own language split up in Babel during the days of Peleg; also to trace the origin of this or that nation back to Shem or Ham, and the same with their countries? Is it likely that any one could to-day invent false statements concerning the origin, history, and languages of well-known nations, the latter being less than five hundred years old?

50. Al Khazari: This is not possible. How could it be, since we possess books in the handwriting of their authors written five hundred years ago? No false interpolation could enter the contents of a book which is not above five hundred years of age, such as genealogical tables, linguistic and other works. [Emphasis added]
The argument emerging from this section concerns the transmission of historical knowledge--from single individuals in a line to Moses. Al Khazari sees the single line as a reason for believing what the rabbi says; more than one transmitter would introduce the risks of lies, spin, and "common plot." In paragraph 50, Al Khazar seems to believe that social memory is good enough to retain accuracy within 500 years and to prevent historical invention from creeping in.

Transmission of true knowledge and prevention/identification of fabricated history remain important themes in Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb's formulation of Kuzari:
in modern language the principle that the Kuzari uses is as follows. I beg you to look at it, hear it, and pay close attention to all of its details. Let E be a possible event which, had it really occurred, would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence. If the evidence does not exist, people will not believe that E occurred. [Emphasis in original]
In my opinion, Gottlieb gives the best expression of the modern Kuzari Principle. His call for us to pay attention to his formulation, however, suggests that Kuzari may be open to misinterpretation. Thus, to reduce the chance of misunderstanding, let us begin by breaking down the bolded portion:

(1) E is a possible event.
(2) E is an event such that its occurrence leaves behind enormous, easily available evidence.
(3) If no such evidence exists, people will not believe that E occurred.

The breakdown above departs from Gottlieb’s Kuzari formulation at (2). In order to highlight the salient features of event E, I have decided to use present indicative rather than the subjunctive that was given to us. The important feature of E is that if it really occurs, it must leave behind enormous, easily available evidence. If I have interpreted Gottlieb’s formulation correctly, a (although perhaps not the only) Sinai-oriented syllogism might go like this:

(4) Major premise: Sinai is the type of event that should have left behind enormous, easily available evidence if it occurred.
(5) Minor premise: A type of enormous, easily available evidence actually exists.
(6) Conclusion: Aware of this evidence, people believe that Sinai really occurred.
(7) Implication: The existence of the enormous, easily available evidence favors the probability that a Sinai event actually occurred.

Gottlieb also has a slightly different argument that applies directly to Sinai:
Suppose A invents a story about a national unforgettable and tries to convince B that it happened. Suppose further that B and his nation do not remember the event, and A gives no explanation why the event would not be remembered. Then B will not believe the story.
The syllogism here might run like this:

(8) Major premise: Religious leaders (A) invent a story about Sinai, an event they say was public, national, and absolutely unique (literally).
(9) Minor premise: Members of the public (B) do not remember Sinai having occurred.
(10) Minor premise: Religious leaders provide no explanation why the event would not be remembered.
(11) Conclusion: Members of the public will not believe that Sinai actually occurred [with no memory of the event and no explanation of why the event would not be remembered].
(12) Implication: The story of the Sinai event was likely unable to be invented/fabricated.

With these two syllogisms, I assert confidently that we have the proper grounding for Kuzari, particularly as it applies to the Sinai event. Following Kuzari, the belief of Jewish people--up to the Jewish Enlightenment--supports the likelihood of Sinai’s having happened. The people would not have believed for so long if there was no evidence. Furthermore, the Sinai story could not have been introduced later because people would have wondered why they didn’t know before about the story, and no explanation would be able to account for a “national unforgettable” (Gottlieb’s term).

Thus, with this grounding established, we can turn in the next installment to questions about Kuzari and its logic.


  1. > Thus, with this grounding established, we can turn in the next installment to questions about Kuzari and its logic.

    I’ll leave my specific comments till the next installment, and just say here that the main problem with the Kuzari’s logic is that the almost all of premises just aren’t true.

  2. But do you think I have captured the argument accurately? I think having the correct argument is absolutely vital.

    I'm inclined to think that I've mis-represented the argument.

    Which one premise is clearly false for you?

  3. I don’t have the time right now to think through the logic, but after a quick re-reading your syllogisms they seem to be an accurate representation of the Kuzari.

    If I have to pick one thing as standing out, it would be the assumption that people are rational and won’t accept things they’re told, as assumed in:

    (3) If no such evidence exists, people will not believe that E occurred.

    And the related idea that:
    (10) Minor premise: Religious leaders provide no explanation why the event would not be remembered.
    (11) Conclusion: Members of the public will not believe that Sinai actually occurred.

    The Navi tells us that the majority of Jews forgot most if not all of the Torah, and Ezra re-introduced it. Thus there is a reason for why their fathers didn’t tell them about Sinai – they had forgotten - and what’s more, that reason was canonically accepted by the masses. According to the cannon, transmission of the mesorah among the masses starts with Ezra, not Moshe.


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