The Kuzari Proof, part I
[I later found I had a more formal presentation of this idea in Mesukim MiDevash for Yisro.
This post was updated Apr 18, 2007, with a quote of Luis Ginsberg taken from Hirhurim.]
Rav Yehudah Halevi makes a statement in The Kuzari which is usually taught as follows: No one could invent a story that alleges all of the target’s audience’s ancestors experienced some miraculous or otherwise special event. It is implausible that a lie could be consistently retold by millions. And, the audience’s reaction would be one of disbelief, “Why does he know all about this event, and we never heard of it before from our grandparents?”Since Judaism uniquely makes claims of national miracles and national revelations, events with audiences of millions who are the ancestors of nearly all of the target audience (excepting geirim) this gives Judaism a unique claim to authenticity. The commonality of the story amongst so many and the acceptance of the story by their descendents is unique. (In contrast, Jesus’s alleged miracles were only said to be witnessed by at most the 500 attendees of the wedding at Cana, and the target audience isn’t primarily the descendents of those guests.)
I do not believe this is the Kuzari’s point. But for what it’s worth, this argument is flawed for two reasons:
First, there are counterexamples, other cultures that had myths about their origins that they all believed. For example, the Theban origins myth.
Second, and this may explain how the counterexamples emerged, the assumption is made that the claim is made out of the blue, in a single stroke. It doesn’t account for gradual acceptance of a story. Say something starts out as a myth about a subset of the people, and it’s known to be a bed-time story. The next generation it’s “some say”. Over several generations, it can become “official history” about everyone, with no one generation expressing the disbelief that is critical to this argument.
The reason why I doubt that this is Rav Yehudah haLevi’s intent is because he had the king already approach a philosopher as well as a Christian Scholast, and the king already rejected philosophical proof as unconvincing. The Rabbi provides as a counterpoint to his statement (Kuzari I, par 13), “The Rabbi: That which you describe is religion based on speculation and system, the research of thought, but open to many doubts. Now ask the philosophers, and you will find that they do not agree on one action or one principle, since some doctrines can be established by arguments, which are only partially satisfactory, and still much less capable of being proved.”
In other words, the Rabbi’s basis for belief is not one based on “speculation and system”. It’s not philosophical proof. Reducing his words to an argument of the style described above defeats the whole point Rav Yehudah haLevi is trying to make! As he later writes (par 63), “There is an excuse for the Philosophers. Being Grecians, science and religion did not come to them as inheritances.”
The Kuzari can be seen as a response to Rav Saadia Gaon’s “Emunos veDei’os”, “The Guide for the Perplexed”, “The Ikkarim” and other such philosophical text. Rav Yehudah haLevi rejected the entire tendency of placing Jewish belief on Greek Philosophical underpinnings.
Instead, he says that Judaism is unquestionable for the Jew because it is our heritage.
What is being mistaken for the above proof is the Rabbi’s argument to the king, who didn’t yet accept this heritage as his own, and needs to assess that entire choice. But not the approach advocated for a Jew.
I see a kindred — but still very different — approach in existential thought.
One of my signature files, the only one that’s a self-quote, reads, “The mind is a wonderful organ for justifying decisions the heart already reached.” This echoes the King of the Kazar’s objection, that for any philosophical position justified by argument, there are conflicting opinions whose adherents claim equally valid arguments.
The Kiruv Movement is not founded on philosophical dispute. The most effective kiruv tool is the experience of a Shabbos. People do not accept the proofs of G-d and the Divine origin of the Torah and halakhah and therefore keep Shabbos. Rather, they experience Shabbos, get first-hand experience of the power of halakhah, and based on that believe in the authenticity of the Torah and its own claims about its origin.
In addition to the experience of performing mitzvos, Torah study too has this defining characteristic. Torah has an elegance one finds in the most “beautiful” of mathematical proofs despite tackling concepts far less simply defined. A discussion of the laws of theft could explain a seemingly unrelated point in the laws of Shabbos with a single theory (sevarah) uniting both.
I should be clear that I’m not speaking of the emotional reaction of liking Shabbos. Rather the experience of Shabbos, the first-hand but internal to the mind qualia of Shabbos, that that reaction is based upon. It is as real and as objective as the experience seeing a ball. And just as I unquestioningly accept that a ball is red if I see that it’s red. I similarly accept the reality of Shabbos.
To extend this metaphor: What if many of us see the ball as red, but others, perhaps even a far larger group, insist they see it and it’s blue? Would their claims shake my faith in my own group’s perception, or would I trust my own eyes? (Assuming they work in general.) Why would the claims of another faith community (even the community whose faith is agnosticism or atheism) shake my belief in Torah?
Torah is based on first-hand experience of Torah, not on its “principles of faith”. My belief in those principles is because they explain that which was experienced, not the other way around.
Rabbi Prof. Shalom Carmy posted something similar to Avodah:
People who throw around big words on these subjects always seem to take for granted things that I don’t.
The people who keep insisting that it’s necessary to prove things about G-d, including His existence, seem to take it for granted that devising these proofs is identical with knowing G-d.
Now if I know a human being personally the last thing I’d do, except as a purely intellectual exercise, is prove his or her existence.
Since Kant, these proofs [of God’s existence] have been heavily assailed…. Many theologians, nowadays, accept the validity of these refutations and admit that there can be no proof of God in the sense that there can be no proof of a mathematical formula… But they go on to remark that we can be convinced of a thing beyond of a shadow of a doubt by means other than that of mathematical proof. There is no such proof, for instance, of the existence of other human beings beside ourselves, yet we are convinced that they do exist… In other words a distinction must be drawn between proof and conviction — proof is one of the ways to conviction but there are other ways, too…
Many have arrived at this conviction as the result of a personal experience which convinces them that God exists. These men would rule out of court the very discussion of whether God exists, for, they would say, if a man is truly in love he does not ask himself if he is in love. The experience of God’s Presence is sufficient…
Other thinkers, again, hold that though each of the traditional proofs in itself is unconvincing, taken together they are convincing… Granted that the proofs carry no weight as evidence, they are indications and as such have the power of supplementing each other…
What it all amounts to is this, that while the existence of God cannot be proved if we start from the beginning, none of us do, in fact, start from the beginning. We are presented with two alternative beliefs about the ultimate reality and we have to choose between them. According to one view God exists–it is He Who created us, Who fashioned our minds and implanted the moral sense within us so that we are capable of recognising beauty, truth and goodness and fighting ugliness, falsehood and evil. In this view the difficulty is how to account for the existence of evil. According to the other view there is no God… In this view the difficulties are how mind came from matter, how life emerged where there was no life before, how the universe itself came into being, how the good is possible of realisation and how man came to strive for it–how man as a tiny part of the universe came to pass judgment on it?
Judaism neither stands on proof nor ought to be about proof. (In this approach. Obviously R’ Saadia Gaon et al disagreed.) Rather, it stands on our having a relationship with Hashem and His Torah.
This goes back to my position, described in the entry “Emunah Peshutah vs Machashavah“, that emunah is not an intellectual indeavor, but a middah. Emunah is the response to an experience, machshavah is the development of a philosophy based on that emunah to give it enough detail to add further meaning to that experience, aid in decision making, etc…
It also presumes that someone takes experience of the non-empirical to be as strong of an argument as those of the empirical world. A conclusion implied by the first part of “The Troubles of Relativism“.