The "Modern Kuzari" argument is one of the most standard arguments used by modern day apologists in favor of Judaism. While it has its roots in the Kuzari, a 12th century apologetic work, the modern incarnation has really only been popular recently. I'm not sure exactly when it first became formulated, but I do know that it was around 15 years ago when I was religious. Like many thoughtful and religious Jews, I used the argument to defend Judaism. In a sense, the argument was the last plank that I hung on to when my belief in the rest of the religion started falling away all around me. However, after a lot of deep introspection, and a little bit of research, I concluded that the argument was false.
I will only briefly touch on the reasons that I came up with for rejecting the Kuzari argument. There are a lot of posts online, ones that didn't exist fifteen years ago, that essentially make the logical arguments I used at that point. I'll put a list of them at the end. Instead, I want to focus on two specific counter-arguments. One of which, I've seen posted in many places, but never with the level of detail I tend to desire, so I'll shore up that argument to the best of my ability. The second argument is one that I think is entirely new. Or at least, it's one that I haven't seen before. First we need to describe what I mean by the modern Kuzari argument is.
Here is the most succinct formation of the Modern Kuzari that I could find, it comes from Rabbi David Gottlieb:
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.Earlier he applies this to Judaism in the following way:
Again, oversimplifying, (this is only the outline): There are two broad possibilities. One: the event at Sinai took place and people witnessed it, and that caused their belief. Or two: the event did not take place. If the event did not take place, then someone invented the story and convinced the people to believe it.
The Kuzari's argument proceeds by investigating the second alternative, that the event didn't happen, that the story was made up and was sold. The argument shows that the second alternative is not credible. It is not credible to believe that the story was made up and then sold. If you can defeat the second alternative, that leaves only the first alternative, that it happened and was witnessed. That is the structure of the argument.Most refutations, and the one I came up with some 12 years ago, point out that this is a false dichotomy. There are many other alternative paths besides the invention of the argument at a later point. You can read about these in some of the sources below. Some other refutations, like this one, mention that it's actually fairly easy to get people to believe in myths and legends and provides a modern example. There are tons of examples like this, one of my favorite being the Angel of Mons. But this is not what I wish to discuss.
Before we get to the two main points, we need to examine one issue as a preamble.
How Many People?
One of the claims of the Kuzari argument is that its the size of the population at the Sinai revelation that lend credence to its believability. The Torah claims a very large number of people, well over 100,000, experienced direct revelation from God. However, as we've seen here, that number conflicts with every single archaeological survey of the region. In other words, if you are relying on the large number claim as a piece of supporting evidence, you must first explain why that claim is deemed impossible by archaeology.
In that discussion in Parshat Bamidbar, I also noted that most modern apologists seek alternate explanations for the impossibly large numbers quoted in the Torah. If you go this route, but still maintain that the Sinai revelation happened, then you must agree that it's possible to increase the number of people involved in a mass revelation claim. Because, even if you think that the Torah actually is talking about lower numbers, for the next 2000 years afterwards, everyone thought it was talking about large numbers.
The point in this preamble is to show that the large number of people cannot be a prerequisite for acceptance of national revelation. And if you wish to rely on it, you have a lot of work to do with regard to explaining the archaeological evidence. (I recommend not using this argument!)
Refutation One - Wohpe
The first refutation is essentially a counter-example, one that supposedly does not exist according to Kuzari supporters. It's a case where another group of people experienced a national revelation, that was instrumental to their religion and culture. As with Sinai it claimed to involve the entire group, and it includes a large number of parallels. An adherent to the Kuzari argument must also, if they're being honest, conclude that this story must also be true. Either that or the main argument falls apart.
First let's see where this myth comes from. Between 1896 and 1914, James Walker was a US appointed physician to the Lakota Indian tribe. While there he recorded many of the oral traditions of the culture. During one of his conversations, he recorded a discussion from one of the village elders named "Finger" who was about 80 at the time. He discusses the tribe's encounter with Wohpe, the White Buffalo Calf Woman. While I've seen this referred to with respect to the Kuzari in other sites, I've never been satisfied with how it was presented. That's why I dug up the original source as best I could. You can read the full account here, complete with reference. In case you don't want to read the full thing, I'll summarize now.
The story begins with Wohpe encountering two individuals. One of them attempts to capture the woman and is killed. The other is instructed to prepare the rest of the tribe for her arrival. Compare this to the initial encounter between Moshe (Moses) and God with the burning bush.
After the tribe preparation, which is similar in idea to the preparation of the Israelite nation at Har Sinai, Wohpe arrives and teaches the nation important rituals. She teaches them to smoke the peace pipe and informs them that she will protect the tribe as long as they practice this ritual. Compare this to the Sinai story, where the Israelites essentially sign a contract with God.
Finally, after Wohpe finishes visiting the tribe, she instructs all the people to gather together and build a fire, which she vanishes into. At this point the tribe knows that she is Wohpe, a divine god. Here we have a display of supernatural powers, similar to the Sinai narrative.
The story of Wohpe includes all the important ideas described in the modern Kuzari argument. It includes, a national event with the entire tribe, a transference of divine commandments, and a public display of supernatural powers. This represents a perfect example of a Sinai-like narrative at one of the early stages. A legend passed down among a tribe orally, by tribal elders. Had the Lakota tribe lasted another hundred years, who knows what this legend might have evolved into.
Refutation Two - From the Tanach Itself
The Kuzari argument is in actuality a weak argument because it claims that there is no other way for a story like the revelation at Sinai to arise without the event actually occurring in a manner very similar to what is recorded in the Torah. Instead of refuting it by showing one of the many alternate paths, we can instead look at what the Kuzari argument's positive claims are, things that would have to be true for the very premises to make any sense. These are:
- The Sinai revelation story was known to every generation from the original event until the modern day.
- The Sinai revelation was considered "foundational" for every generation until the modern day.
It's pretty clear why if the first is false, the Kuzari argument falls apart. If it could be shown that a generation did not know the Sinai revelation story, then it must have been introduced later regardless of the actual truth of the event. If the second statement is false, that the event was not foundational to Judaism, the Kuzari argument also fails. This is mainly because the "foundational-ness" is what is generally used to reject similar mythical stories of other cultures. In actuality, this winds up being weasel words. However, what we're getting at here, is that every generation would consider such a thing so important that they would have expected to hear about it from a previous generation. For example people might believe a myth, such as the story of Samson or Hercules, without actually having an oral tradition because these are not foundational. This foundational nature of the myth under discussion is at the heart of the Kuzari argument. If it could be shown that the Sinai narrative was not foundation for any given generation, then it's easy for anyone, even staunch adherents to this argument, to see how a myth could have been generated.
How do we go about attacking these arguments? The answer is to look at the Tanach itself. Specifically we will look at the Nevi'im (prophets). Here I mean the actual writings of the prophets, Yishayahu (Isaiah), Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah), Yehezkel (Ezekiel) and the 12 minor prophets. I'd normally remove Yonah (Jonah) from the twelve, since it's a different type of book, but we'll see that it's not relevant.
I think looking at the prophets is a good approach because they're the best witness to the Israelite culture in the latter half of the first temple period and the exile. They are attempting to persuade the Israelites to worship God properly, and in doing so, they use everything at their disposal. For example, a great many of them describe a sojourn in Egypt, or a time in the desert. Some reference stories about the patriarchs. From the great many references to an Egyptian exodus, we can conclude that this was a well known origin story to the Israelites. If a prophet said, "remember when we left Egypt," as many of them did, all the population would presumably know what he was talking about.
So, the question is, what do the prophets say about Sinai? The answer is, nothing. They don't even mention the word. Yishayahu mentions it zero times in his work. Yirmiyahu mentions it zero times in his "jeremiad". You might think that Yirmiyahu, when trying to convince people not to worship other gods might say something like, "Hey, remember that time where you head God specifically tell you not to do worship idols?" But he doesn't. Yehezkel, despite talking a lot about the exodus from Egypt and the desert sojourn, and despite describing a great many laws like those of festivals and sacrifices, somehow fails to mention Sinai even once. There are no references to Sinai or its alternate name Horeb in those major prophets or, in fact, in any of the minor prophets until a single mention in the very last sentence in the very last prophet, Malachai. But it's even worse, some of the prophets seem to even know the contents of the "ten commandments" (Amos 4:2)
Swearing and lying, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery! they break all bounds, and blood toucheth blood.
yet, Amos makes no attempt to tie these laws to any sort of Sinai revelation. The closest we get to anything resembling Sinai is in Yehezkel (a late prophet, we should note) who says (Ezek 20:10-13):
10 So I caused them to go forth out of the land of Egypt, and brought them into the wilderness. 11 And I gave them My statutes, and taught them Mine ordinances, which if a man do, he shall live by them. 12 Moreover also I gave them My sabbaths, to be a sign between Me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD that sanctify them. 13 But the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness; they walked not in My statutes, and they rejected Mine ordinances, which if a man do, he shall live by them, and My sabbaths they greatly profaned; then I said I would pour out My fury upon them in the wilderness, to consume them.
But even here, Sinai is not mentioned by name. All that exists is a vague claim that God gave his ordinances somehow. No mass revelation described. No mention of Sinai or Horeb. This account doesn't even align with the Torah since there is no description of the Israelites desecrating the "Sabbaths" as a nation.
What to make of this? Here are some options. Neither the prophets nor the people knew about the Sinai revelation. In this case assumption 1 above is false and the Kuzari argument falls. Another option: the prophets knew about the Sinai revelation but the people didn't, in which case both 1 and 2 are false and Kuzari falls. How about: the prophets knew about it, but didn't think it was important, in which case assumption 2 is false, the revelation just wasn't all that important and Kuzari falls, Perhaps you can salvage something by saying that both the prophets and the people knew about it, and thought it was foundational, but the prophets didn't mention it for some ulterior motive. For example, they didn't want to encourage people to think that they too could experience prophecy, so they just elided this mass revelation idea from their narratives. To save the Kuzari, you throw the prophets under the bus. But if you go this route, you lose far more in Judaism than you gain from the Kuzari. Furthermore you still have to explain why the prophets didn't decide to focus on a revelation at Sinai but only to a specific prophet, like Moshe. What other options are left? How to explain this glaring absence of this purportedly foundational event in every one of the prophets?
To conclude, while this isn't the best refutation of the modern Kuzari, it is at least one that I don't think has been mentioned before. If you want additional refutations, I've cataloged some below.
List of some of the Kuzari refutations that I've come across throughout my days on the internet. If only these had been around fifteen years ago.
Larry Tanner's refutation (multiple parts, link is to index)
Avi Norowitz's refutation (comparison to Irish myths)
Martin Winer's refutation (the fallibility of mass experiences)
Naftali Zeligman's refutation (Judaism has no mass revelation tradition)
Alter Cocker's refutation (multiple-parts, link is to first one)
Baruch Pelta's refutation (Uses Aztec revelation mythos)
Some criticisms from religious Jews
Eliyahu Fink's critique (Argument only useful if you believe in God in the first place)