Kuzari argument

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One of the most common arguments that believing Jews give for their belief in God and the Torah is the "Kuzari argument", or the Argument from National Revelation Tradition. It is named after the medieval work of Jewish philosophy, the Kuzari, which first expressed the argument, although it has gained more recent popularity by Kiruv rabbis such as Lawrence Kelemen.

The argument

The modern Kuzari argument from a national tradition, specifically that of a mass revelation at Mt. Sinai or the associated national-scale miracles described in the Torah, is a popular argument among Kiruv rabbis. Different rabbis may present their own variants on the argument, but in its basic form the Kuzari argument suggests that the only way that the Jewish nation would start believing that there were millions of witnesses to the miracles described in the Torah is if those events actually happened, the idea being that people would not accept a lie of this magnitude without getting verification from the preceding generation.

Problem: Overlooking Alternatives

In the basic form, the argument suffers from overlooking alternatives and from an argument from incredulity fallacy. That is, the proponent cannot see how the mass revelation mythology may have developed naturally, and therefore they are left with the conclusion that it must indicate an actual mass revelation. However, in order to be able to conclude that the tradition is evidence of an actual event, alternative explanations would need to be ruled out.

It would need to be demonstrated that the story was never invented and sold to the nation as something that had been lost by their ancestors, it would need to be demonstrated that the story was never sold to a small group of gullible people and eventually worked its way into national mythology, it would need to be demonstrated that the story is not a product of the evolution of a lesser myth, it would need to be demonstrated that at no point was belief in the mass revelation imposed on the Jewish people forcefully, etc. This burden is never met.

Problem: The Bible Tells a Different Story

Additionally, contrary to one of the fundamental premises of the Kuzari argument, the Tanach does not even describe the tradition as something that the nation faithfully passed down from generation to generation. Quite the opposite: The Tanach describes times of national ignorance of the Torah and God (for example repeatedly throughout the books of Judges, Kings, and Jeremiah), times of leaders allegedly rediscovering the lost Torah or presenting the Torah to an ignorant population (such as in II Kings 21-23, Nehemiah 8, 13:1-3), and times of forceful religious reforms to replace pervasive adherence of Canaanite religion with monotheism (such as in II Kings 23, II Chronicles 15).

Judges 2 is one of the first examples where the Tanach describes a failure in the national tradition:

And the nation served the Lord during all the days of Joshua and all the days of the elders that outlived Joshua and who had seen all the great deed of the Lord that He had performed for Israel.

And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died, being one hundred and ten years old…

And also all that generation were gathered to their forefathers, and there arose another generation after them, who knew not the Lord nor the deed which He had done for Israel.

And the children of Israel did that which was evil in the eyes of the Lord and they served the Baalim. And they forsook the God of their forefathers, Who had brought them up from the land of Egypt, and they went after other gods, of the gods of the nations that were around them, and they bowed to them and they provoked the Lord. And they forsook the Lord and served the Baal and the Ashtaroth.

And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and He delivered them into the hands of spoilers and they spoiled them, and He gave them over into the hands of their enemies around, and they could no longer stand before their enemies. Wherever they went out, the hand of the Lord was against them for evil, as the Lord had spoken and as the Lord had sworn to them, and they were greatly distressed.

And the Lord raised up judges and they saved them from the hands of those who had spoiled them. But also their judges they did not obey, for they went astray after other gods, and they bowed to them; they turned aside quickly from the way wherein their forefathers had walked, obeying the commandments of the Lord, (but) they did not do so.

(Judges 2:7-17)

Also problematic for the argument from tradition is II Chronicles 15, which quotes the prophet Azariah describing how prior to King Asa the Jews did not worship God or have teachers and Torah, and which describes a covenant King Asa then made, essentially using force to impose worship of God onto the Jewish people.

Now there were many days for Israel without a true God and without an instructing priest, and without the Torah. (II Chronicles 15:3)

And they entered the covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their forefathers, with all their heart and with all their soul. And whoever would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, shall be put to death, from the smallest to the greatest, whether man or woman. (II Chronicles 15:12-13)

II Kings 21-23 also describes a gap in tradition and an alleged discovery of the lost Torah, as well as forceful implementation of the laws and introduction of laws that the people were not acquainted with:

Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem fifty-five years, and his mother’s name was Hephzibah. And he did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord; like the abominations of the nations that the Lord had driven out from before the children of Israel. (21:1-2)

… But [the children of Israel] did not obey [the Torah that Moses commanded], and Manasseh led them astray to do what was evil, more than the nations that the Lord had destroyed from before the children of Israel. (21:9) … And it was in the eighteenth year of King Josiah [Manasseh’s grandson], that the king sent Shaphan the son of Azaliah the son of Meshullam the scribe to the house of the Lord… (22:3) …

And Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the scribe, “I have found the Scroll of the Law in the house of the Lord,” and Hilkiah gave the scroll to Shaphan, and he read it. (22:8) … And Shaphan the scribe told the king, saying, “Hilkiah the priest gave me a scroll,” and Shaphan read it before the king. And it was when the king heard the words of the scroll of the Law, that he rent his garments. (22:10-11) … And the king summoned, and they assembled before him all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem.

And the king went up to the house of the Lord, and all the people of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were with him, and the priests and the prophets, and all the people from small to great, and he read within their hearing all the words of the scroll of the covenant that was found in the house of the Lord. And the king stood on his place, and enacted the covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord and to observe His commandments and His testimonies and His statutes with all their heart and soul, to fulfill the words of this covenant, which are written in this scroll.

And all the people were steadfast in their acceptance of the covenant. And the king commanded Hilkiah the high priest and the priests of the second rank and the guards of the threshold, to take out of the Temple of the Lord all the utensils that were made for the Baal and for the asherah, and for the entire host of the heaven, and he burnt them outside Jerusalem in the plains of Kidron, and he carried their ashes to Bethel.

And he abolished the pagan priests whom the kings of Judah had appointed and who had burnt incense on the high places in the cities of Judah and the environs of Jerusalem, and those who burnt incense to the Baal, to the sun, to the moon, and to the constellations, and to all the host of heaven. (23:1-5)

… And he brought all the priests from the cities of Judah, and he defiled the high places where the priests had burnt incense, from Geba as far as Beersheba, and he demolished the high places near the gates, the one that was at the entrance of the gate of Joshua the mayor of the city, which is on a person’s left in the gate of the city. (23:8) … And also all the temples of the high places that were in the cities of Samaria that the kings of Israel had made [in order] to anger, Josiah removed, and he did to them like all the deeds he had done in Bethel.

And he slaughtered all the priests of the high places who were there, on the altars, and he burnt human bones upon them, and he returned to Jerusalem. And the king commanded all the people, saying, “Perform a Passover sacrifice to the Lord your God, as it is written in this scroll of the covenant.” For such a Passover sacrifice had not been performed since the time of the judges who judged Israel, and all the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah. Except in the eighteenth year of King Josiah, this Passover sacrifice was performed to the Lord, in Jerusalem.

And also the necromancers and those who divine by the Jidoa bone and the teraphim and the idols and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, Josiah abolished, in order to fulfill the words of the Torah which were written in the scroll that Hilkiah the priest had found in the house of the Lord. Now, before him there was no king like him, who returned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his possessions, according to the entire Torah of Moses, and after him no one arose. (23:19-25)

(Even after this, the narrative brings the integrity of the national-scale of these beliefs into question, as following the death of King Josiah, his successors led the nation to polytheism again, with the nation only firmly following Judaism in the wake of the Babylonian exile.)

Here, the Tanach reports that knowledge of the Torah was so thoroughly eradicated from Israel that the “discovery” of a Torah scroll completely overturned the religious and political practice under King Josiah’s reign, in an event sometimes referred to as the Deuteronomic Reform. Regarding Judaism’s tradition involving a loss of national level of knowledge of the Torah, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes:

A number of Israelite kings had attempted to uproot or change the teachings of the Torah. Thus, during the reign of Achaz (3183-3199; 578-562 BCE) many Torah scrolls were destroyed. Because of this, the Kohen-priests hid the Torah written by Moses in order to safeguard it. Later during the reign of Manasseh (3228-3283; 533-478 BCE), efforts to destroy the Torah were so successful that the existence of the Torah written by Moses had to be concealed from all but a dedicated few. It was only later, during the reign of Yoshia (in 3303; 458 BCE) that this Torah was found hidden in the Temple. It is thus written, “Chilkiah the Kohen-priest found the book of God’s Torah, [written] in Moses’ hand” (2 Chronicles 34:14). King Yoshia used this as an occasion to rededicate the people to the observance of the Torah.

Similarly, Radak on II Kings 22:8 comments:

מנשה מלך זמן רב שהרי מלך נ“ה שנה ועשה הרע בעיני ה’ כתועבות הגוים ובנה מזבחות לע”ג בבית ה’ והוא השכיח התורה מישראל ואין פונה אליה כי כלם היו פונים אל אלהים אחרים ואל חקות הגוים ובנ"ה שנה נשתכחה התורה… ובהוציאם את הכסף המובא בית ה’ מצא חלקיהו הכהן את ספר תורת ה’ ופתח וקראו ונתנו אל סופר המלך שיביאהו אל המלך שיקרא בו ויראה איך שכחו התורה המונעת כל המעשים הרעים שהיו עושים בישראל

Menasseh reigned for a long time, for he was king for fifty-five years and did evil in the eyes of the Lord, like the abominations of the nations, and built altars to idols in the house of the Lord. And he caused the Torah to be forgotten from Israel, and they did not turn to it, for they all turned to other gods and to the [evil] ways of the nations, and in fifty-five years the Torah was forgotten…. And when they brought out the silver they found in the house of the Lord, Hilkiah the priest found the Torah of the Lord, and he opened and read it and gave it to the king’s scribe to give to the king to read it and see how the Torah prohibits all the evil deeds done in Israel.

Potential for reintroduction of ostensibly lost teachings of the Torah occur even later, as well. For example, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe the return of the Jewish people to Judea and the efforts to teach the people the contents of the Torah, even including what should have been common knowledge of basic laws and holidays of the Torah:

Now all the people gathered as one man to the square that was before the Water Gate, and they said to Ezra the scholar to bring the scroll of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Israel…. And he read in it before the square that was before the Water Gate from the [first] light until midday in the presence of the men and the women and those who understood, and the ears of all the people were [attentive] to the Scroll of the Law…. And they read in the scroll, in the Law of God, distinctly, and gave sense, and they explained the reading to them…. And on the second day, the heads of the fathers’ houses of all the people, the priests, and the Levites, gathered to Ezra the scholar, and to understand the words of the Torah. And they found written in the Torah that the Lord had commanded by the hand of Moses that the Children of Israel dwell in booths on the festival in the seventh month…. And that they should announce and proclaim in all their cities and in Jerusalem, saying, “Go out to the mountain and bring olive leaves and leaves of oil trees, myrtle leaves, date palm leaves, and leaves of plaited trees, to make booths, as it is written.” … And all the congregation of the returnees from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths, for they had not done so from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun until that day, and there was exceedingly great joy. (Nehemiah 8)

As the Jewish Encyclopedia puts it, citing the gemara in Sukkah 20a,

Ezra marks the springtime in the national history of Judaism. “The flowers appear on the earth” (Cant. ii. 12) refers to Ezra and Nehemiah (Midr. Cant. ad loc.). Ezra was worthy of being the vehicle of the Law, had it not been already given through Moses (Sanh.21b). It was forgotten, but Ezra restored it (Suk. 20a).

An Unbroken Tradition?

These examples do not describe a nation that was familiar with the Torah because of a national tradition going back to original events. The national scale of the Jewish tradition, then, doesn’t even claim to extend past the gaps and all the way to the events described in the Torah. Despite this, proponents of the Kuzari argument must insist that Torah was something that the people were familiar with even before King Josiah, suggesting that the text does not describe ignorance of the Torah, but just that they had adopted other gods and Canaanite religion in addition to what is prescribed in the Torah.

This would be an uneasy reading of the text, however, given that if this is the case King Josiah would have already known that idol worship should be prohibited, and about the Passover festival, since those are two of the fundamental lessons associated with the narrative of the exodus from Egypt and the covenant at Mt. Sinai, and the discovery of a new Torah scroll would not elicit so much surprise and action.

In reality, the historicity of many narrative details in Tanach is disputed by historians. And the Book of Judges and its cycles of idolatry and repentance is considered to be a history composed long after the alleged events and may have served to persuade the Jewish people that “returning” to the Torah is in their best interest. As such, these textual examples do not necessarily provide a fully accurate way to identify when and how contents of the Torah were introduced to the Jewish people. What these examples from Tanach do demonstrate, however, is that even if a person wants to believe in Judaism and the Tanach, they would have difficulty accepting the Kuzari’s basic premise of an unbroken national tradition.

In Summary

At best, a proponent of the Kuzari argument would have to say that the straightforward meanings of these portions of Tanach significantly exaggerate the level of ignorance among the Jewish people, but this would amount to a dubious assumption (that narratives of the general populace of Ancient Judea ever being unfamiliar with the Torah are absent from Judaism) upon a dubious assumption (that the Jewish people would never have accepted false myths of early national events).

Either way, these examples are not even necessary for the Kuzari argument to fail, as the argument fundamentally suffers from the logical fallacies described above. In short, not only does the Kuzari argument inherently lack logical strength, but by conflicting with the narratives in Tanach it is a no-win even for its proponents.

Traditions of Other Nations

The Argument

Another argument occasionally added onto the Kuzari argument, in an effort to contend with suggestions of natural ways the mythology could develop, relates to the inherent reliability of national traditions. This argument is notably promoted by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb with Ohr Somayach and Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen with Aish HaTorah, though different rabbis have their own particular variants of the argument. Broadly, the idea is that national traditions should be regarded as inherently reliable, with the reasoning being that even if natural scenarios for the development of the tradition could be proposed, the absence of any examples of false national traditions from other cultures is itself an indication that national traditions are reliable.

Problem: The Bible Tells A Different Story (As Above)

This argument is mistaken for a few different reasons, however. First, as laid out above, the Tanach does not actually describe a tradition going back to a national event, rather it appears to include details about gaps in the tradition and restoration by religious leaders, so it could be argued that Judaism merely has a national tradition of leaders presenting new ideas to the nation.

Problem: A Weak Claim

Second, even if it were the case that the Jews have a tradition that their ancestors reliably passed on this knowledge through each generation, and it were the case that no other nation had a false tradition of national events or miracles, that would not itself be enough to demonstrate that natural mythological development, or a particular set of religious and political conditions, would never produce such a myth.

(For an exploration of what the religious and political conditions may have been that produced the Torah, scholars such as Richard Elliot Friedman in Who Wrote The Bible? and archeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman in The Bible Unearthed are relevant resources. For more, see our Recommended Reading list.)

Problem: It’s Not Unique

A third failing of this argument is that there actually are numerous cases of mistaken national traditions that can serve as counterexamples to the fundamental elements of this argument. From the mythological early Sumerian dynasties (as well as Chinese, Roman, and other nations whose early kings are of dubious historicity), to the myth of how the Gales came to Ireland, to even modern cases like incorrect belief that there was mass panic across America from the 1938 War of the World’s broadcast by Orson Welles, among various such examples, national tradition alone is frequently incorrect.

Regarding beliefs specifically of national or widespread miracles, there are various examples of this as well, including the Aztec’s miracle-filled migration from Aztlan, a magical land where people never grew old, White Buffalo Calf Woman (here’s a first hand account through Lakota oral tradition that mirrors important parts of the Sinai revelation), the revelation of the Great Spirit to the Sioux, and Our Lady of Zeitun, a mass (albeit not national) Marian apparition. Even using the national revelation within the Torah itself, Samaritanism serves as a counterexample, as the Samaritans believe that it is their ancestors, not the ancestors of the Jews, who got the Samaritan Torah from God, proving that a nation can adopt a false belief about their own national history.

When faced with such counterexamples, proponents of the Kuzari argument may downplay or dispute the similarities of these traditions to those found in the Torah. However, whether or not these beliefs are in all ways parallel to the Torah’s narratives, they nevertheless refute the crucial assertion that a tradition about a national event is sufficient to demonstrate the historicity of the event. Since mass and national traditions are not inherently reliable, true national traditions are only confirmed as true when supported by additional, more reliable evidence. And Judaism does not have such evidence on its side. To the contrary, the available archeological, textual, and scientific evidence (see “Arguments Refuting Judaism” below) reveals facts that deeply undermine Judaism’s belief in Torah’s narrative veracity and divine authenticity, leading to the mainstream academic analysis that the Torah’s narratives are largely non-historical.

In Summary

Ultimately, the Kuzari argument may have enough of a surface appearance of logic to appeal to those who are looking for some justification for their faith. But when looked at carefully, it lacks any actual persuasive power. With an understanding of the natural ways that myths develop, the myth of millions of people seeing miracles during the exodus and at Mount Sinai can likewise be understood as having developed completely naturally.

Other refutations of the Kuzari Argument:

Related threads on /r/exjew: