Sunday, March 18, 2012

Question About the Kuzari Principle

One of the proofs that is commonly given to the authenticity of the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai is the Kuzari Principle, as outlined by R. Yehuda HaLevi in his book HaKuzari.

The crux of the proof is (in oversimplified short form) that the story of the  Revelation was witnessed by millions of people and the knowledge of that information was transmitted from parent to child, generation after generation.  Anyone trying to invent such a story anywhere along the way would have been proven a liar, hence the story must be true.

There are a number of problems with the Kuzari Principle, which I don't really want to get into in this post.  Instead, I want to address one particular point in the argument -- the transmission from parent to child.

This transmission is vital to the proof.  Implicit within the argument is that the child hears about the from their parents... or, in other words, that the parents/teachers are the transmitters of the information.  This differs from, say, reading information in a book which could have been written by anyone and may or may not contain the truth.

However, I've got to wonder if we haven't reached the stage where most people's primary knowledge about the Revelation isn't from their parents but is, in fact, from the Torah itself.  If their knowledge of the Revelation comes from having read the Torah and not from their parents, then how is it different than anything else read in a book?

Or am I making some sort of a logical error here?

The Wolf


mlevin said...

Couldn't disagree with you more. Yes, we are taught about the Matan Torah from the Book, but we are also taught that our parents and our parent's parents and our parents' parents' parents... have been learning it the same way since the time the book was first written down with all the witnesses. As it stands, the Kuzari principle is valid. (At least to me it seems valid).

The problem I have is where it says in the Tanakh that Jews forgot everything about the Torah, and it all got reintroduced to the masses via one person one book. To me it sounds like there was a break in the link. To me it sounds that transmission from father to son via story telling or via book reading was somehow interrupted and that throws the whole Kuzari principle out the window.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

The problem with the Kuzari principle is that it is simplified and misused which makes it easy to refute.
For example, the Kuzari principle is used to prove that Judaism is true while Chrisianity and Islam are not because we rely on public revelation and they don't. It's useless against atheists because it assumes you believe in God and that He revealed His will to somebody. A person who doesn't accept that won't be convinced by the proof.
The second thing is to note when the proof would actually have mattered. During First Temple times it wasn't so important because there was an unbroken chain of settlement and hegemony by our ancestors. When it would have first mattered is when the exiles returned to rebuild the Second Temple. Many Jews at that point had no education in Torah so the leadership had to reintroduce such basic things as Rosh HaShanah, Shabbos and Sukkos to people. Yet if you loko the idea that God gave us the Torah at Sinai and this revelation was the source of all those rules is never contested. Given the text's willingness to expose the ignorance of our ancestors there's no reason to suspect it would cover up such resistance.
As a result the proof is valid in certain times and circumstances.

Shilton HaSechel said...

Agreed (though I am skeptic so dunno if my opinion counts :P )

The basis of the knowledge of Matan Torah is a recorded text which was transmitted. In theory a person could pick up that text, without ever talking to his father etc. and accept the story BY READING THE TEXT and NOT from an unbroken Mesorah.

Menachem Lipkin said...

Anyone who has played the children's game "telephone" knows how absurd this idea is as a "proof". Your thought is just one aspect of how circular the whole thing is.

Beyond that, one need look no further than the geopolitical situation in the middle east today. The Palestinians have created a narrative in front of an entire, media-savvy world that has already become part of their "mesorah". Let's say they get their state or, God forbid, wipe out ours. Imagine what the story will look and sound like just a few generations later.

The "Kuzari principle" is fine for simple minded people who are pre-disposed to believe. It doesn't stand up to the slightest scrutiny.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure where I stand on this, and Menachem's point about the Palesitinians is a good one. But I would just like to say that the telephone analogy irks me because it is misrepresentative.

When you play telephone, the point is to say it quickly and quietly so no one else hears it. You also know that it will be more fun if the person doesn't hear right, which is why most people are intentionally unclear when they play. The Torah however, is more like playing telephone and saying that you better repeat the information accurately because our existence depends on it. If someone told you that you can repeat the word, when playing telephone, as loudly and clearly as you want to, as many times as you want to, and that everyone would be killed if the last person did not hear what the first person in the chain said - you bet it would be transmitted well.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Yes, you're making a logical error. The proof is not based on individual parent-to-child transmission. It is based on the fact that the community traditionally accepted this report as an accurate account of its history.

Menachem Lipkin said...

A community is just as capable of making transmission errors as are individuals. Cults are based on this. (Not that I'm saying Judaism is a cult.) Charismatic leaders can get groups of people to believe just about anything, especially when what they're being asked to believe is highly self-flattering and pretty much puts them at the center of the universe.

Also, the telephone analogy is not really apt for "modern" times when everything is pretty much written down and codified. However, the very fact that it was felt that the Talmud needed to be committed to writing is a strong indicator that the oral message was degrading.

ItcheSrulik said...

You're right. You just hit on one of many problems with this proof, one of which is that it is m'zuyaf mitocho from the text of the tanach itself. As Garnel said, our tradition was broken and reestablished by Ezra so the proof no longer holds if it ever did, and when it did hold it didn't matter.

I just came across another very disturbing problem with the "perfect mesorah" argument (related to the Kuzari principle) today. I'm learning safrut and my teacher was trying to impress on me the importance of careful copying. He told me about a sefer torah which he refurbished years ago. It had several serious spelling errors along the lines of מעשי ידי אדם . It also had a note on the back dated over 100 years prior saying "I so-and-so have examined this sefer and certify it to be free of errors, accurate according to the Mesorah and kosher to read and to copy from." It takes just one of these scrolls to break the perfect mesorah

Anonymous said...

Logical error. An indirect transmission, i.e. affirmation of the veracity of the contents of the Torah, is no less compelling than a direct transmission.

Anonymous said...

James Kugel touches on this on p. 231-2 of "How to Read the Bible."

It’s a pretty straightforward thesis – just one possibility.

As he shows how the Bible looks and acts like a chopped up text, he also posits that the Exodus could be one small group’s account.

King David, seeking to unify his various subjects under one national story, could have borrowed it and, with the imprimature granted him by his position, applied it to the whole people.

A royal decree. An all knowing king – tapped into the divine by title – makes a story a staple of collective history and national identity.

James Kugel compares it to the idea in our American national consciousness that our forefathers were seeking religious freedom.

We all now believe (wrongly) that our history is built on this quite sturdy idea, among others. We collectively own this tale.

Only it is not true. One small, particular group in a land strewn with different groups had this as one of their objectives. They were close to the center of power. And so it was “seeded” into our collective understanding.

Meanwhile, if you asked remote-from-power southern colonists about why they were in America, they would not have mentioned religious freedom.

But it does not matter. We are all the progeny of our contrived history. The seeding took, the tree grew, the story of our national origins are cemented (mixed metaphor, sorry) in text books and social studies classes in every corner of our country.


JRS said...

<< Given the text's willingness to expose the ignorance of our ancestors there's no reason to suspect it would cover up such resistance.
As a result the proof is valid in certain times and circumstances. >>

The 'text’s willingness to expose' acts of great sinfulness, ingratitude, etc. has also been used as proof of the truth/divinity of Torah, but...

A. it’s nothing of the sort. It’s interesting, maybe, that it doesn’t always portray the Jews as perfectly righteous, but that does not prove the accuracy of any given story, flattering or not.

B. As usual, rabbonim try to have it both ways: The Torah is “the only” ancient “historical" document that unflinchingly tells it like it, w/o sugarcoating our sins (I don’t think that’s even true, but whatever)---but then they go right ahead and do just that, constantly shoehorning explanations & justifications into the text---Kayin was jealous of Hevel, because he (Kayin) was ‘on such a high madrega’ he felt real pain at not having achieved the same kedusha as Hevel....
.....Yakov Avinu was the classic tzaddik: wise, pious, perfect in every way... and so, he accepted Leah as his wife even tho he was tricked into the marriage, because he “knew” it was Hashem's Will---yet he failed to hide from his first wife the fact that she was the “despised” one. So if he chose to go along with it, is it really fair for Leah to always be aware that she’s the “senuah”?
Ditto with his sons where he allowed--no, caused--a situation where all the [temperamental] brothers know Yosef is the most-loved one. Superlative relationship skills? I think not.

...the Sh’vatim were incredibly strong, wise, handsome, cool--and, most notably righteous & just---never mind that they seemed to constantly become embroiled in some pretty ugly situations, specifically marked by hotheaded, temperamental behavior, not cool, wise decision-making.

“We” modern folk aren’t holy enough to understand all that, we’re told---actually, the brothers made a bais din, and very carefully and objectively “paskened” that Yosef was deserving of death, that the actions of Shechem needed to be avenged collectively.....

If all this isn’t spinning, what is? The idea that the Torah’s allegedly “objective” way with a story strongly supports the likelihood of it’s historical accuracy simply doesn’t hold water---much less so the way rabbonim present it to us--edited, spun, cleaned up and re-touched with a heavy hand.