Saadya Gaon starts out by noting that of all the public miracles witnessed by the Jewish people, he ‘personally … consider[s] the case of the miracle of the manna as the most amazing … because a phenomenon of an enduring nature excites greater wonderment than one of a passing character.’ He goes on to consider how the Jewish people could ever have come to believe that such a thing occurred:
Now it is not likely that the forbears of the children of Israel should have been in agreement upon this matter if they had considered it a lie… Besides, if they had told their children: ‘We lived in the wilderness for forty years eating nought except manna,’ and there had been no basis for that in fact, their children would have answered them: ‘Now you are telling us a lie. Thou, so and so, is not this thy field, and thou, so and so, is not this thy garden from which you have always derived your sustenance?’ This is, then, something that the children would not have accepted by any manner of means.
The Khazari King with whom the Rabbi debates, in the Kuzari, wants to know why the Rabbi introduced his God as ‘The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,’ instead of by the more grand description, the creator of the heavens and the earth. The Rabbi states that he was following a hallowed precedent: ‘In the same strain spoke Moses to Pharaoh, when he told him: ‘The God of the Hebrews sent me to thee,’ viz. the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob … He did not say: ‘The God of heaven and earth,’ nor ‘my Creator and thine sent me.’ In the same way God commenced His speech to the assembled people of Israel: ‘I am the God whom you worship, who has led you out of the land of Egypt,’ but He did not say: ‘I am the Creator of the world and your Creator.’’ And the reason that the Rabbi gives for this traditional façon de parle is that the Jewish relationship with God is, first and foremost, a personal one. They have known God directly through His miracles and providence, and thus, ‘I answered thee as was fitting, and is fitting for the whole of Israel who knew these things, first from personal experience [especially via the national revelation at Sinai], and afterwards through uninterrupted tradition, which is equal to the former.’
What we call the Kuzari Principle is what I italicized in the quotation: Personal experience is equal to uninterrupted tradition as a ground for belief. Surely the principle is in need of some refinement, but the basic idea is true. The scientific community doesn’t feel the need to repeat every experiment ever conducted before accepting the relevant findings for themselves. If there wasn’t a modicum of trust given to the testimony of past scientists about their findings, then we could never move on, because we’d first of all have to repeat the entire history of science in our own laboratories. If we take the best elements of these medieval arguments and try to fashion them into something formal, and prima facie worth considering, we end up with something like the following:
(KP1) If a reliable witness, called person-y, witnesses an event, event-x, and an uninterrupted chain of reliable sources passes on person-y’s testimony, even over many years, then, given certain provisos about the make-up of the chain, about person-y and about the reported circumstances of the original observation, we have good reason to believe that event-x transpired.
(KP2) The epistemic warrant provided by such a chain increases with the number of reliable observers in the chain who claim to have witnessed the event themselves.
(KP3) The Biblical Narrative states that the entire Jewish nation witnessed the revelation at Mount Sinai and the miracles of the exodus.
(KP4) The Biblical and Jewish Narrative, as well as Jewish History, indicate that every generation of Jews after the exodus and the national revelation passed the story on to their children. This chain continues until this day.
(KP5) Jewish children in every generation, given 1 and 2, have good grounds for believing that there really was a miraculous exodus and a national revelation.
The argument can also be put in the following terms:
(KP*1) For any widespread historical belief, the belief is either true, or was sold to the general public via some sort of witting or unwitting deception.
(KP*2) The historical belief in the national revelation at Sinai is widespread among the Jewish people, as is the belief that this knowledge has been passed down faithfully from generation to generation since the event itself.
(KP*3) Given (KP*1) and (KP*2), the Jewish belief in the revelation at Sinai is either true, or was sold to them via some sort of deception.
(KP*4) At no point in time could a whole nation have been deceived into the content of the story in question. A nation could certainly be deceived about ancient history, as many Britons were deceived into believing that there was a King Arthur in a court called Camelot. But part of the story that we’re talking about, as specified in (KP*2), makes the outlandish claim that every generation, including the generation that is now listening to the story, received the tradition from their parents. Thus the Jewish people would never have adopted the narrative in question, unless all of their parents had already told them the story. At no point would the Jewish nation have bought the lie that millions of their forbears witnessed something and that it was faithfully passed down from generation to generation, unless all, or most of the parents of their generation had already told them, and unless the nation was already a sizeable nation.
(KP*5) Given (KP*4), the widespread belief among the Jewish people in the story of the revelation couldn’t have been spread by deception.
(KP*6) Given (KP*5) and (KP*1), the widespread belief among the Jewish people in the story of the revelation must be true. The same argument will work for the story of the exodus from Egypt.
If this argument is sound, then the Jewish people have good reason to believe that there really was a miraculous escape from Egypt and a revelation at Mount Sinai.
Unfortunately, the arguments which the medieval philosophers used in order to grant Judaism its Divine sanction are open to various criticisms. I think that they can be overcome, if we’re willing to revise the argument somewhat, but first, I list the criticisms.
(P1) Both of the arguments above only get going if we assume that the Jewish people were relating to their narratives as a history. But I often argue on this blog that the Biblical narratives are wrongly regarded as an attempt at history; that they have more in common with myth.
(P2) We all know that traditions handed down from generation to generation are subject to corruption. The scientific community only trust their forbears to the extent that they had rigorous methods for observing, recording, and transmitting their results. This cannot be said of an ancient society. So, even if the argument can prove that something remarkable happened to an entire nation in the desert, we have no reason to trust any of the details of the story.
(P3) Building on from (P2): It is generally taken for granted, among archaeologists and Biblical critics, for instance, that the ancient Jewish religion grew up slowly as different tribes with different religious traditions and narratives merged. As those tribes merged, the narratives merged. Thus the narratives in question are more likely to have been the product of a slow evolution than to have been the product of a reliable chain of testimony over time.
(P4) In the book of Kings II, chapters 22-3, it is reported that a hitherto unheard of scroll was found in the temple. Many scholars think that the scroll’s appearance marks the moment that the book of Deuteronomy was first introduced to the Jewish people. The story implies that everybody accepted, uncritically, that the scroll and its content were authentic. Nobody asked how there could have been an ancient, God given, book of the Bible that nobody had told them about beforehand. This all implies that people were more susceptible to deception than (KP*4) allows for.
(P5) The Bible and the prophets don’t try to hide the fact that at various points throughout Jewish history, idol worship was widespread, and that there was a need to encourage a return to Judaism. So a story about a mass revelation that was subsequently forgotten might have been easy to spread at some points in time precisely because idol worship had taken over for generations, and thus nobody would have been surprised that their idolatrous parents hadn’t told them.
I will respond to these criticisms in turn, and in so doing, a new and improved version of the argument will hopefully arise.
In response to (P1), I say the following. I still maintain that when faced with a narrative about his distant history, the ancient Israelite was unlikely to have been concerned, at least first and foremost, with the story’s historical accuracy rather than with its ethical force, symbolic resonance, and personal impact. This wasn’t because they had no notion of truth and falsehood. On the contrary, they must have had. Rather, they wouldn’t have worried about historical accuracy for two reasons: 1) the narratives were to be related to, culturally, as myth rather than history, and 2) the narratives in question concerned the distant past; since they didn’t have any of the tools that we now have, from archaeology to cosmology, to verify the historical claims of narrative about the distant past, they simply had to abandon the desire for historical accuracy – there was no way of knowing either way. But, some of the stories of the Bible, especially those from the exodus and onwards, wouldn’t have struck, and still don’t strike the Jewish reader purely as being about the ancient past, lying beyond the verificataroy reach of a primitive people; some of those stories don’t just posit that some events occurred a long time ago; they also posit an uninterrupted chain of transmission from then until now. I want to call that kind of story a g-narrative. G-narratives are any story with the following two characteristics:
(G1) The events of the story were, according to the story itself, witnessed by an entire generation of an already numerous tribe/nation.
(G2) The story itself claims that the witnesses endeavoured to initiate a chain of transmission from generation to generation – ‘And you shall tell your child’ – such that their progeny would never forget what they saw.
Jewish narratives are treated, by the religion, as myth – given that it bases rituals, retellings and re-livings upon them. But, myths can be based upon historical facts. The truth or falsehood, in terms of historical accuracy, of a myth is not a key factor in the worth of that myth. But, when some of the historical claims of a myth do lie within the verificatory grasp of a culture, that myth is unlikely to be adopted, unless its historical claims were seen to have stood up. Once a myth is adopted, however, and embedded into a religious culture, like the myth of the Garden of Eden, for example, its historical accuracy is no longer relevant to its worth as a religious myth.
G-narratives, even when their storylines are set a long time ago, are not completely beyond the verificatory reach of their audience, because, at the very least, the audience will know whether the story was passed down to them by the entirety of the previous generation. G-narratives in the body of Jewish narratives are an exception, rather than the norm. But they are significant for the following reason: it’s difficult to believe that any g-narrative could have become widespread as a myth unless it had been passed down from generation to generation. The only generation that would have accepted a g-narrative, even as the basis of a myth, or so it seems to me, would be the generation that witnessed the key events of the story for themselves. Otherwise, they’d have said, ‘I didn’t see this, and no one ever told me about it before now!’ If a g-narrative is widespread across a culture, however primitive, you’d have good reason to believe that its central story line, or something similar to it, actually occurred. To accept this thesis is not to revert to anything like an historiographical approach to Jewish narrative in general.
It’s also worth pointing out just how few of the central Jewish narratives are g-narratives. All of the stories that pertain to times before the emergence of the Jewish people fall short of being g-narratives. All of the narratives that weren’t supposed to have happened before the entire nation also fall short. There are even narratives that talk of miracles that were beheld by the entire nation, such as the sun standing still for Joshua, that fail to be g-narratives because the story doesn’t talk of an endeavour to pass the story on from generation to generation. The story of the exodus from Egypt and the mass revelation at Mount Sinai, which are both accompanied with commandments to keep the story alive, are some of the rare occasions in which a Jewish narrative can claim to be a g-narrative. In fact, very few religious or historical narratives outside of Judaism can claim to be g-narratives either.
In response to (P2), I have to make some concessions. It’s true. A narrative transmitted down the generations can be subject to all manner of subtle and gradual evolutions. Imagine a massive intergenerational game of Chinese Whispers. By the time that the message has reached the end of the line, its originator has died, and can’t tell you whether its integrity has been preserved. Nevertheless, one would imagine that the main headlines of the story, even if all of the details became perverted, would remain constant down the chain. Any major rupture or change to the general plot-line, and any diminution of its most striking claims, would surely be noted by a public in love with its legends and folklore. But, we can imagine a gradual process of exaggeration, and we can imagine a gradual corruption of mundane details. For that reason, a widespread g-narrative cannot be trusted as an accurate history. Its religious function, thankfully, isn’t to serve as an accurate history – because as I say, historical accuracy isn't the purpose of myth. But, one can trust, or so it seems, that its main claims must have had some basis in fact, however tenuous. An uninterrupted chain of testimony doesn’t have the truth-preserving qualities attributed to it by Saadya Gaon and R. Yehuda Halevi, but it does justify the less ambitious claim that the story must have had some sort of grounding in fact. The story of the exodus and the revelation at Sinai is now a widespread g-narrative. This seems to justify the claim that an entire nation or tribe had some remarkable religious experiences, once upon a time, even if the finer details of the story can’t be trusted as an accurate historical account.
I don’t want to get into the whole question as to the reliability of Biblical criticism and the historical claims that are made in its wake. Inspired by Umberto Cassuto, I have my doubts about Biblical Criticism as a science. Notwithstanding, I think that the whole question is largely irrelevant to the philosophy of Judaism. Traditional Judaism relates to some of its texts as if they were written, word for word, by God Himself. The philosophically interesting question is: what does that attitude towards that text achieve; what effect does it have; why and how? Even though I’m dubious about the findings of Biblical Criticism, and dubious of their philosophical relevance even if they’re true, I would like to assume, only for the sake of argument, that the Biblical Critics are right about the way in which the Jewish people slowly grew into one nation via an amalgamation of different tribes; that each tribe brought with it its own variously divergent religious narratives and traditions. I contend that even if we accept this assumption, a version of the Kuzari Principle can still get through. This would show, in turn, that (P3) simply isn’t worth worrying about.
A tribe is unlikely to accept a g-narrative if they didn’t witness the events of the narrative for themselves, or if they didn’t inherent the narrative as a tradition from the previous generation. But, there is one important class of exceptions. At any point in the life of a tribe, outsiders can join that tribe. When they do, they often adopt the history of their new found tribe as their own. As a British Jew, I was taught British history, even by my parents, as if that history was my own, even when the historical events in question happened long before my ancestors became British. I have had conversations with American Jews in which they mock me and my kind for having lost the war of Independence against the Americans in 1777, but, in 1777 both their ancestors and mine were living in Eastern Europe! When outsiders join a tribe, they adopt its narrative as their own.
Let us imagine that tribe A has a g-narrative. Let us imagine further that members of tribe B or even the whole tribe joins tribe A. At that point, members of tribe B, who have joined tribe A, start to teach their children the g-narrative of tribe A as if it were their own history. It is still true to say that tribe A is unlikely to have had a g-narrative in the first place unless they had witnessed its key events for themselves, or if they had inherited the narrative from the generation before them. Thus, it’s still true to say that the existence of the g-narrative is good grounds for believing that its content is in some way grounded in fact. Even if new members of the generational chain of transmission (henceforth, the g-chain) find their way into that chain somewhat artificially. Nothing in this example is changed when two tribes merge and decide to adopt one another’s narratives. When the narratives are g-narratives, their very existence, which allows them to play a role in the inter-tribal merger, is good evidence that their content is somehow grounded in fact.
Thus, even if the Jewish people and their narratives emerged after a long process of intertribal merging, the presence of g-narratives in the resulting tradition is still good evidence that those narratives are grounded in fact. For that reason, it seems that (P3) is largely irrelevant to the Kuzari Principle.
In response to (P4): It is true that 'a book of the Torah' was discovered in the temple during the reign of King Josiah, according to Kings 2, chapters 22-3. Let us concede for the moment, that the book discovered was the book of Deuteronomy, or some forerunner to that book, as is the consensus among Bible scholars. It is interesting to note that the book of Deuteronomy, though it contains mentions of certain g-narratives, isn't the source of any of them. The book of Deuteronomy is generally just a re-cap of the previous books of the Bible, of both their narrative and legal sections.
There are, admittedly, a few new laws in the book, but from the context of the story of its 'rediscovery' in the temple, we see that King Josiah was impressed not so much with new information, in terms of new stories or new laws. What impressed King Josiah about the book seems to have been, if it was the book of Deuteronomy, the stirring words of rebuke that Moses delivers in it to the Jewish people. Moses warns the Jewish people, in the book of Deuteronomy, that if they sin, and follow other Gods, as they were doing in the time of King Josiah, that there would be great suffering and destruction. It was this information, more than anything else in the book that seems to have moved King Josiah to tears, and to renting his clothes. When King Josiah declares: '[G]reat is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not hearkened unto the words of this book, to do according unto all that which is written concerning us,' he sounds like a man who's had the fear of God driven in to him by the fearful threats of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy.
The 'discovery' of this book of the Torah is irrelevant to the Kuzari principle for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if it was the book of Deuteronomy, then it doesn't bear any relevance to Jewish g-narratives, as none of them originate in the book of Deuteronomy. Secondly, it seems that what the discovery of the book inculcated, consistent with it's being the book of Deuteronomy, was a new found religious fervour rather than a new found religion!
In response to (P5) I make the following point: the Biblical account of Jewish history, consistent with everything we know about religiosity in the ancient near east, paints a picture of a people in which syncretism and monolatrism were generally rife. If this is the case, then just because belief in and worship of other gods may have waxed and waned, there is no reason to think that knowledge of, and belief in the God of the Hebrew Bible, and the associated g-narratives ever disappeared. Instead, the God of the Hebrew Bible was often regarded, by the Jews of the Bible, as one of many regional gods competing for their affections. Syncretism and Monolatrism were the bane of the prophets' existence. 'How long will you waver between two opinions? If Hashem is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him,' declared a frustrated Elijah who wanted the Jewish people to make their mind up. But there is no notion that Hashem had been forgotten about at any point, or that the transmission of g-narratives down the g-chain had ever been threatened. On the contrary, the Biblical critics would have us believe that the various tribal traditions and legends that went into the formation of the Bible stretched back into the very distant past.
The Kuzari Principle had to face off five major concerns. Having looked at each of these concerns in turn, it looks like a version of the argument can still survive:
(rKP1) A myth will not initially find any traction with a culture who know it to be historically inaccurate, although once it has been adopted and becomes culturally significant, then a culture will not abandon it merely because of its historical inaccuracies.
(rKP2) The generations of a g-chain will not accept a g-narrative about them unless:
a. The generation is the first in the g-chain and witnessed the events for themselves, or
b. The generation received the g-narrative as an inheritance from their parents, although each generation after the first may have members outside of the core of the g-chain who adopt the g-narrative as they join or merge with the community and adopt its history as their own, or
c. The entire generation becomes convinced, presumably only with a large amount of evidence, that a g-chain that was supposed to have reached them was broken – this doesn’t seem to be the case with the small number of Jewish g-narratives, all of which seem to stretch right back into the mist of Jewish pre-history.
(rKP3) G-narratives can be subject to slow corruption and exaggeration. Thus, the fact that a g-narrative is widespread among a contemporary generation of a g-chain is no reason to believe that that g-narrative presents an accurate history.
(rKP4) The original g-narrative, before any corruption or exaggeration, must have been sufficiently impressive in and of itself to have initiated a sustained desire to transmit the story down a g-chain.
(rKP5) There are a small number of remarkable and widespread g-narratives about the Jewish people, about mass revelation and divine deliverance. These narratives are still transmitted to the majority of Jewish children by their parents at events like the Seder Night, in which Jewish parents recount the exodus from Egypt for the benefit of their children. This ritual retelling is even conducted by a very large number of Jews who no longer believe in the historical accuracy of the narrative.
(rKP6) Given (rKP3), the fact that these g-narratives are widespread among the living members of the Jewish g-chain is no reason to trust the historical accuracy of the stories.
(rKP7) But, given (rKP2) and (rKP4), the fact that these g-narratives are widespread does provide good reason to believe that the story wasn’t initially adopted by a generation to whom the story didn’t actually happen, and that the story is grounded in fact even if it’s been distorted, and that the facts, in and of themselves, were sufficiently impressive to generate the very long lasting feeling of cultural obligation to pass the story on down the g-chain.
(rKP8) We have no reason to believe that the details of Jewish g-narratives are historically accurate, but we do have reason to believe that they are grounded in extraordinary facts witnessed by an entire generation of the g-chain.
(rKP9) Therefore, we have good grounds to believe that an entire generation of the forbears of the Jewish people, or an entire generation of a tribe that would later amalgamate into an emergent Jewish people, were collectively witness to an extraordinary sequence of supernatural events, and events that would have been collectively understood as Divine revelation.
We dismiss (P1) with (rKP1). (P2) is given due weight by (rKP3) and (rKP4). (P3) is duly noted by (rKP2b). (P4) and (P5) really shouldn't bother us, for reasons I went into above, but the revised argument alludes to them with (rKP2c)
I contend that this revised Kuzari principle makes it rational to believe that the forbears of the Jewish people experienced a mass revelation of Divinity and that there was a miraculous Exodus from Egpyt, even if the numbers involved were very much smaller than in the Biblical account. I'm interested, as always, to hear people's responses!