The problem with proofs is that they convince only the believer. The upside, is that proofs can provide an innovative out-of-the-box way of thinking. I will get to Yehuda Halevi’s proof for the authenticity of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai…. But first my favorite example of an unconvincing proof which gave birth to innovative, nay, paradigm-shifting thought.
Saint Anselm (1033 – 1109) proved God’s existence in the “ontological proof” as follows:
Agreed that God is a being of which nothing is greater. So …. since to exist is profoundly greater than not to exist…. [Think 1 million imaginary dollars as compared to 1 million real dollars] … It follows that … God must exist.
Not convinced? Want to construct a similar argument for unicorns or based on a crazy person’s imagination? It’s all in St. Anselm’s mind, you say? Well, according to the history of ideas, there’s a direct link between St. Anselm’s proof and the birth of the modern Cartesian philosophy of René Descartes who famously opined “I think therefore I am” …. All we can know is that we know….. Which gave birth to Phenomenology and Existentialism where all we can intelligently talk about is not any “real” world, but only experiences and phenomena as we perceive them, and on a higher level, patterns, perceived conflicts within the structure of our own thought. Ontological thinking gave birth to Emanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative and to logical positivism where the only thing that is necessarily true, moral or intelligible is what our minds can conjure up themselves as not dependent on experience or can articulate in a language the mind can produce.
St. Anselm – Not bad for a Medieval Saint!
So, here is Yehudah Halevi’s (1075 – 1141) paradigm shifting proof (also referred to as The Kuzari Principle[i]):
The proof that the Torah was given at Sinai and that Judaism is superior to all other Abrahamic faiths is that you can’t bullshit 1.5 million people. [ii]
That’s it. If 600,000 men plus an equal number of women plus some precocious kids don’t disagree with a text which says they heard thunder and saw lightning from the Mt. and received the Torah, then it must be true. If the Torah, which these million-plus parents are willing to pass down to the next generation, contains prohibitions which make life difficult and opinions which are not popular, all the more reason not to question the veracity of the event that occurred at Sinai and the authenticity of the text in question. [iii]
Halevi is convinced and his literary or actual King of the Khazars is convinced as well. The public nature of the event at Sinai witnessed by a multitude is contrasted to the establishment myths concerning Jesus and Mohamed which were experienced, witnessed and documented by a select few.
Similar to Saint Anselm’s proof this proof is problematic and wouldn’t convert any non-believer. We live in a world where conspiracy theories arise simultaneously with historic events, even if witnessed by billions of humans…. Think of the moon landing, or better yet, 911. Humanity witnessed these events together, but there are millions of us who claim the events never happened, happened differently than meets the eye or that they were entirely fabricated.
Parents don’t pass on to children difficult or destructive character traits, beliefs or practices you say? Try that on any abuser, child of an abuser or anyone caught up in the cycle of generation’s old ethnic conflict perpetuated by hate and bias feeding on hate and bias.
So what’s the Paradigm shift hidden in Halevi’s argument? It is nothing less than a radical new understanding of “tradition” מסורה
If from Anselm we intuit that the individual and his interior mental perceptions are all that we can really know, from Halevy we are lead to conclude that as a social entity, a community, as a people, maybe even as a species, all we really know is our narrative of history, our story, our Tradition (מסורה). As social animals all we really know is what has been passed down to us and which we pass on to our children…. not that it is true mind you… but that it is ours. “we transmit therefore we are”. The activist corollary is that while we cannot create change by changing the “facts” we can own and create change by changing our interaction to those “facts” and to our history. Ultimately, receiving the Torah (קבלת התורה) means taking ownership of what, how and to whom our narrative is transferred. By truly accepting the that which was given at Sinai we become בעל מסורה Masters of Tradition.
The most forceful modern-day thinker to articulate this conception of Jewish faith as reaction and action triggered by communal experience is Emil Fackenheim who wrote God’s Presence in History: Jewish Affirmations and Philosophical Reflections 1970. Fackenheim is most famously known for his 614th commandment which exhorts us to continue Jewish life and deny Hitler a posthumous victory. But what lies behind this one-liner is a complex and multidimensional philosophy of God as or in History מסורה
For Descartes and Kant, the surest belief is not what we experience or perceive but that we experience. If for the phenomenologists and existentialists the only certain process that we can discern is the dialectical processes of the mind as filtered through the categories of our mind. For Fackenheim the faith that constitutes and energizes us as social beings is not based on any historical event per se, but rather on the reaction to that event in the past, present and future and the action caused by that reaction.[iv]
Fackenhiem bases his thesis on a Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus 15:2 “this is my God, and I will glorify Him” זֶה אֵלִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ
In a well—known Midrash it is asserted that what Ezekiel once saw in heaven was far less than what all of Israel once saw on earth. Ezekiel, and indeed all the other prophets, did not see God but only visions and similes of God; they were like men who perceive a king of flesh and blood surrounded by servants of flesh and blood, and who are forced to ask, “which one is the king?” In the sharpest possible contrast, the Israelites at the Red Sea had no need to ask which one was the King: “As soon as they saw Him, they recognized Him, and they all opened their mouths and said, “This is my God, and I will glorify Him’ “
Fackenheim coins a term he calls a root experience which he attributes to Martin Buber. For the Jewish people, root experiences include the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah at Sinai and the holocaust.
What is decisive with respect to the inner history of Mankind . . . is that the children of Israel understood this as an act of their God, as a “miracle”; which does not mean that they interpreted it as a miracle, but that they experienced it as such, that as such they perceived ” it.. . .
The concept of miracle which is permissible from the historical approach can be defined at its starting point as an abiding astonishment. The . . . religious person . . . abides in that wonder; no knowledge, no cognition, can weaken his astonishment. Any causal explanation only deepens the wonder for him. The great turning-points in religious history are based on the fact that again and ever again an individual and a group attached to him wonder and keep on wondering; at a natural phenomenon, at an historical event, or at both together; always at something which intervenes fatefully in the life of this individual and this group. They sense and experience it as a wonder. This, to be sure, is only the starting—point of the historical concept of wonder, but it cannot be explained away. Miracle is not something “supernatural” or “super historical,” but an incident, an event which can be fully included in the objective, scientific nexus of nature and history; the vital meaning of which, however, for the person to whom it occurs, destroys the security of the whole nexus of knowledge for him, and explodes the fixity of the fields of experience named “Nature” and “History.” . . . [Highlighting here and throughout by ed]
The divine Presence thus far considered is a saving Presence. Salvation is not here, however, what it might be in a different religious context. It occurs within history, not in an Eternity beyond it, nor for a soul divorced from it, nor as an apocalyptic or Messianic event which consummates history. … At the same time, the divine presence requires the self and its freedom in the very moment of its presence. There is no abiding astonishment unless we exist who can be astonished; moreover, the divine Presence – saving as well as commanding – remains incomplete unless human astonishment terminates in action.
Like Halevi (who surprisingly along with Saadia Gaon is never cited) Fackenheim requires the public nature of a root experience. He writes:
At the Red Sea, however, the whole people saw, the lowly maidservants included, and what occurred before their eyes was not an opening of heaven but a transformation of earth – an historical event affecting decisively all future generations. … Moreover, as regards private, authoritative experiences, no Jewish believer could ever stake much on these. Ezekiel’s vision may have been an experience of this kind. What happened at the Red Sea and Sinai, in contrast, were public events, accessible even to the maidservants to the extent they were accessible to all. (pp 10 and 42)
Where Fankenheim goes beyond The Kuzari Principle is with regard to authentication and validation. Fackenheim and Buber imply an open invitation for nondoctrinaire and heterodox reactions to the root experience. For Fackenheim the root experience implies a challenge to participate and includes a risk of commitment. Fackenheim compares the multiplicity of reactions to the root event to the multiplicity of reasons a hypothetical Jew might participate in a Passover Seder:
… whereas as a historian he may and must suspend judgment, he cannot do likewise as a man and Jew, if only because every Passover Seder constitutes a challenge to participation. How can he participate? No longer in a religious immediacy which has never thought of stepping outside the Midrashic framework. Not at all in a stance of critical reflection which stands outside only and merely looks on. Nothing is possible except an immediacy after reflection which is and remains self-exposed to the possibility of a total dissipation of every divine Presence, and yet confronts this possibility with a forever reenacted risk of commitment.
Fackenheim’s essay is primarily focused on the Holocaust and the possibility or impossibility of God in history after that root event… hopefully my extensive quotations of his poetic and profound writing will entice you to read the original. But the final element that Fackenheim introduces to Halevy’s “proof” paradigm is the fragmentary nature of any root experience, least of which being the experience at Sinai.
For Halevy the proof of Sinai is in the fact that everyone at Sinai not only shared an experience, but that they shared the same experience. For Fackenheim the greatest threat to the root experience is reflective philosophical thought which would have us believe that the experience is uniform; general, unchanging and abstractable from history. (p16). In contrast God’s presence in History requires Midrashic thinking which reflects upon root experiences but (i) is not confined to their immediate reenactment, (ii) becomes aware of the contradictions in these experiences, (iii) refuse to destroy the immediacy of these experiences even as it stands outside and reflects upon them, (iv) is conscious of the contradictions and fragmentary nature of these experiences and (iv) these experiences can only be expressed in story, parable and metaphor. For Fackenheim we must retell the old Midrash – or create a new. (pp 20-21).
A contemporary scholar at Machon Hadar; Rabbi Jason Rubenstein has recorded a wonderful 3-part lecture on Revelation with the third and final part titled: Between “Mosaic Authorship” and “mosaic composition”: Hearing Conflict in Revelation and Revelation in Conflict (see here). What Rubenstein argues, quite compellingly is that while in prior generations, the concept of truth and value was inherently connected to the concept of uniformity, consistency and harmony. With the emergence of science and the internet of ideas, our concept of truth and value is rather associated with dissonance, multiplicity and a cacophony of ideas, images and sounds. When describing what could be described as Yehudah Halevi’s concept of 1 million plus people all hearing the same message a Sinai, one of Rubentstein’s students exclaimed… if it were so “it would become flat, it would become dull ”
The truth is that pre Internet-of-ideas, this same confluence of passionately argued and differing opinions and visions was always present in the Midrash and Talmud and I would argue…. also at Sinai.
When all is said and done, our reading of Halevi through the lens of Fackenheim produces a radical new conception of what happened at Sinai (Mesorah) and for that matter our concept of God… which it turns out is God in, through, and by, human history.
“ ‘Ye are My witnesses, saith the Lord, and I am God’ (Isa. 43:12). וְאַתֶּם עֵדַי נְאֻם-ה’, וַאֲנִי-א-ֵל That is, when ye are My witnesses, I am God, and when ye are not My witnesses, I am, as it were, not God?“ (p23)
The concept of God in and as history is ultimately that we need to live a life… as individuals but more so as a society… where we are and become the Proof itself. What lies implicit in the giving of the Torah is an imperative on the part of the recipient to receive and transfer. Implicit in the giving of the commandments is the underlying command to become the proof of the giving and transmission itself. … to prove it….
[i] For the Kuzari Principle see here and for critiques see here, here , here and here….
[ii] Kuzari Book 1:9
- The Doctor: Is not our Book full of the stories of Moses and the Children of Israel? No one can deny what He did to Pharaoh, how He divided the sea, saved those who enjoyed His favour, but drowned those who had aroused His wrath. Then came the manna and the quails during forty years, His speaking to Moses on the mount, making the sun stand still for Joshua, and assisting him against the mighty. [Add to this] what happened previously, viz. the Flood, the destruction of the people of Lot; is this not so well known that no suspicion of deceit and imagination is possible?
- Al Khazari: Indeed, I see myself compelled to ask the Jews, because they are the relic of the Children of Israel. For I see that they constitute in themselves the evidence for the divine law on earth.
- The Rabbi replied: I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, who led the children of Israel out of Egypt with signs and miracles; who fed them in the desert and gave them the land, after having made them traverse the sea and the Jordan in a miraculous way; who sent Moses with His law, and subsequently thousands of prophets, who confirmed His law by promises to the observant. and threats to the disobedient. Our belief is comprised in the Torah — a very large domain.
- The Rabbi: Surely the beginning of my speech was just the proof, and so evident that it requires no other argument.
- The Rabbi: In this way I answered thy first question. 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. For Abraham was well known to the nations, who also knew that the divine spirit was in contact with the patriarchs, cared for them, and performed miracles for them. 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. Now in the same style I spoke to thee, a Prince of the Khazars, when thou didst ask me about my creed. I answered thee as was fitting, and is fitting for the whole of Israel who knew these, things. first from personal experience, and afterwards through uninterrupted tradition, which is equal to the former.
- 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 ail 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.
- 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 anyone 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.
- Al Khazari: Let us now return to our subject, and explain to me how your belief grew, how it spread and became general, how opinions became united after having differed, and how long it took for the faith to lay its foundation, and to be built up into a strong and complete structure. The first element of religion appeared, no doubt, among single individuals, who supported one another in upholding the faith which it pleased God should be promulgated. Their number increases continually, they grow more powerful, or a king arises and assists them, also compels his subjects to adopt the same creed.
- The Rabbi: In this way only rational religions, of human origin, can arise. When a man succeeds and attains an exalted position, it is said that he is supported by God, who inspired him, etc. A religion of divine origin arises suddenly. It is bidden to arise, and it is there, like the creation of the world.
- …. they came to the desert, which was not sown, he sent them food which, with the exception of Sabbath, was crested daily for them, and they ate it for forty years.
- Al Khazari: This also is irrefutable, viz. a thing which occurred to six hundred thousand people for forty years. Six days in the week the Manna came down, but on the Sabbath it stopped. This makes the observance of the Sabbath obligatory, since divine ordination is visible in it.
- The Rabbi: I do not maintain that this is exactly how these things occurred; the problem is no doubt too deep for me to fathom. But the result was that everyone who was present at the time became convinced that the matter proceeded from God direct. It is to be compared to the first act of creation. The belief in the law connected with those scenes is as firmly established in the mind as the belief in the creation of the world, and that He created it in the same manner in which He–as is known–created the two tablets, the manna, and other things. Thus disappear from the soul of the believer the doubts of philosophers and materialists.
- … The prerogative of Isaac descended on Jacob, whilst Esau was sent from the land which belonged to Jacob. The sons of the latter were all worthy of the divine influence, as well as of the country distinguished by the divine spirit. This is the first instance of the divine influence descending on a number of people, whereas it had previously only been vouchsafed to isolated individuals.
[iii] See: Saadia Gaon: The Book of Beliefs and Opinions Introduction, part VI pp 29-30. Both Yehuda Halevi and Saadia Gaon cite the Manna as a proof to the existence and requirement of observing the Shabbat… and as the best example of a miracle, viewed by many, occurring multiple times and over time whose acceptance by subsequent generations is proof to its veracity.
When, furthermore, He says: And ye are My witnesses (Isa. 44:8), [Fear ye not, neither be afraid; have I not announced unto thee of old, and declared it? And ye are My witnesses. – הֲלֹא מֵאָז הִשְׁמַעְתִּיךָ וְהִגַּדְתִּי, וְאַתֶּם עֵדָי ] He alludes to the marvelous signs and the manifest proofs witnessed by the [Jewish] people. These [were revealed] in many forms, such as the visitation of the ten plagues and the cleaving of the [Red] Sea and the assemblage at Sinai. Personally, however, I consider the case of the miracle of the manna as the most amazing of all miracles, because a phenomenon of an enduring nature excites greater wonderment than one of a passing character. Aye it is hard for the mind to conceive of a scheme whereby a people numbering something like two million souls could be nourished for forty years with nothing else than food produced for them in the air by the Creator. For had there been any possibility of thinking up a scheme for achieving something of this nature, the philosophers of old would have been the first to resort to it. They would have maintained their disciples therewith, taught them wisdom, and enabled them to dispense with working for a livelihood or asking for help.
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. Such [proof] suffices, then, as the requisite of every authentic tradition. Besides, if they had told their children: “We lived in the wilderness for forty years eating naught 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.
[iv] See also: Fackenheim’s Jewish Philosophy: An Introduction Michael L. Morgan, and review by Michael Zank here especially:
According to Morgan, the early Fackenheim’s conception of the manner in which human agency is transformed into a religious response to revelation is reminiscent of the neo-Kantian conception of “self-fashioning.” It is within human consciousness that the contents of Jewish history, literature, folklore, and custom are elevated to the level of absolutely binding commandments. This transformation of the products of human inventiveness into the contents of revelation is also similar to what we might find in other mid-twentieth century hermeneutical theologians, especially Paul Tillich. But there is also a Barthian (or Rosenzweigian) element entailed in it, namely, when the condition of the possibility of any human response to revelation is seen as implicit in revelation itself. Without the “event” of revelation, no answer to revelation would be possible. Revelation remains initiated by God (though possibly eclipsed by the acute absence of God in the face of human suffering), which may be another way of saying that we are conditioned and embedded beings rather than absolute selves.