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The Kuzari's argument for the transmission of Torah from Sinai was extremely convincing when I heard it, and I've read different summaries of it by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb and Rabbi Leib Keleman (I must admit that I've never read it inside). It is explained here: http://www.dovidgottlieb.com/comments/Kuzari_Principle_Intro.htm http://www.dovidgottlieb.com/comments/Credibility_Of_Testimony.htm and http://www.dovidgottlieb.com/comments/q-a-on-kuzari-principle.htm

Although I am not immediately aware of serious counter-arguments raised against it, I am seeking information that responds to those arguments, either by Torah scholars or secular philosophers.

So what counter-arguments have been raised and how are they addressed?

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Try this: talkreason.org/articles/kuzari.cfm –  Shimon bM Feb 4 at 22:27
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The raavad attacks the Rambam for bringing up the yediah-bechirah paradox when there is not a clear solution. How can you ask us to do something similar? –  Ish Ploni ViKohen Feb 5 at 1:30
    
what is the five centuries mentioned in the passage? –  Clint Eastwood Feb 5 at 2:56
    
@IshPloniViKohen By relying on the Rambam. –  Double AA Feb 5 at 6:29
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Just a minor quibble. Even though this is called the Kuzari argument, it doesn't actually appear in the Kuzari. However it is mentioned by R. Saadya Gaon, in relation to the miracle of the Manna. –  avi Jun 5 at 12:19

5 Answers 5

(Note: this answer does not exactly answer the question that was asked. The question was for counter-arguments against the Kuzari's argument attempting to prove the transmission of the Torah from Sinai. This answer addresses why one could possibly refute The Kuzari's claim that the national revelation is more believable than a single prophet giving over the revelation.)

This question piqued my interest, so I asked over on Islam.SE how they would respond to this argument. I got a few answers that (in my opinion) do not really address the issue; however, one of the answers (at least in my opinion) gave a pretty nice answer. I will summarize his answer below.

  1. Mohammad had nothing to gain from lying. After he began spreading Islam, most of his relatives turned against him and he lost his status as a member of the dominant caste.

  2. Mohammad was known as an honest man. That, combined with the previous point, makes it unlikely that he would simply invent a "divine revelation"

  3. Mohammad stayed true to his beliefs in the face of persecution.

  4. As an uneducated person, it is difficult to believe that Mohammad could have invented a holy book written with such poetic language. This is itself a miracle which can be witnessed by an entire nation. Furthermore, since the book lasts indefinitely, the miracle can be witnessed over and over again, which could possibly be considered even more convincing than relying on oral traditions (even if, as the rabbi of The Kuzari points out, there are multiple, corroborating oral traditions).

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didnt he spread islam by the sword? i.e. you accept me or die. many jews including the rambam had to flee for their lives from the islamists –  ray Jun 3 at 8:57
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@ray - Rambam lived 400 years after Muhammad died. Muhammad first tried convincing the Jews to convert. When they refused, then he tried forcing them. –  Shmuel Jun 3 at 9:41
    
@ray Mohammad did spread Islam by the sword. I don't see how that detracts from this answer. –  Daniel Jun 3 at 9:53
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@ray It doesn't take away from the idea that he was a prophet. One could say that he spread the religion by the sword in order to "save their souls" in the same way that Christians did it over the years. I don't think it sounds inherently dishonest. (Of course, I don't personally believe that Mohammad is a prophet. I'm just pointing out a potential hole in the argument of The Kuzari, as the question requests.) –  Daniel Jun 3 at 11:01
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@ray Furthermore, suppose he hadn't spread the word of Islam by the sword and it remained a small group of people. Then your argument would fall away and mine would still be valid. Therefore, it is still a hole in the argument of the Kuzari. –  Daniel Jun 3 at 11:03

A quick Google search results in many articles which attempt to refute the Kuzari Argument, as posited by R' Gottlieb. For example, this website (which I have not yet reviewed) presents multiple comprehensively sourced refutations.

Some of the arguments (more to come):

Arguments by example against the uniqueness of the Revelation story

There are similar stories of public miracles witnessed by many thousands of people, which are believed by certain religions by not by others. Examples include the Feeding of the Masses by Jesus and the death of Husain ben Ali. Thus we see that stories similar to the National Revelation at Sinai can be invented and believed.

  • R' Gottlieb responds to this argument by saying there is a qualitative difference between the several thousand witnesses to the Jesus story and the 600k witnesses to the Revelation, but does not explain why there is such a difference.

  • He also responds that the descendants of the witnesses are not the ones making these claims, ignoring the fact that at least some of the descendants of the witnesses of the Jesus event indeed believe this story.

There are similar stories which affect the character of a nation's culture, such as the multitude of origin stories.

  • Gottlieb responds by saying "If a story places the event so far in the past that no records whatsoever survive from that time, then indeed one can make up stories about one's ancestors... But the revelation at Sinai was accepted at a time when many records existed." He appears not to realize that there are indeed origin stories that appear in many records (such as the Sumerian and Greek myths). Perhaps he means that there are no records from the time the origin story is set in, whereas there are clear records that civilizations existed at the time of the Revelation. This is not relevant, as there are no records (other than the Torah, whose authenticity is precisely what we are trying to prove) that the Revelation occurred.

A similar story appears in Joshua chapter 10, which states that the Sun stood still. This miracle would have been witnessed by the whole world, and surely would appear in other records or traditions had it actually occurred. Since it does not, this disproves Gottlieb's argument that such an event would have been remembered.

  • Gottlieb responds by referring two three online articles, none of which are scholarly or peer reviewed. In fact, two of his links are dead, and the third is a long rambling thing about Jesus. He also says, "We can argue that even so spectacular an event as the stopping of the sun would not necessarily be recorded." He does not appear to realize that he's just conceded the point - if the stopping of the sun would not necessarily be recorded, then many such events may have not been recorded, thus completely shattering his remembrance argument. He then attempts to shore up his argument by saying it would have recorded only by nations which attach historical or cultural significance to it, which is both weak and, I think, a form of the No True Scotsman fallacy. He finally attempts to respond by questioning the record-keeping of ancient nations, which is both incomplete (since he doesn't provide any facts), and an example of Lack of Evidence fallacy.

Arguments from lack of corroborating evidence

The event of the Revelation, and all the details concerning it, are recorded in just a single source, the Torah. There has yet to be found any corroborating evidence, whether records from other nations or archaeological remains. Thus, there is, in effect, just a single witness, not a multitude.

  • R' Gottlieb responds by saying that historical records from that period tend to record only the history of the nation writing it, and thus it is unsurprising that there is no corroborating evidence. This is true, but misses the main point of the argument. In addition, Gottlieb notes that many of the records of the time contain exaggerations and falsifications, without realizing that the exact same argument could be leveled against the Torah.

Straw-Man Fallacy Argument

Gottlieb is arguing against a Straw-Man, that is to say, he's inventing a weak position and the arguing against it. However, he does not address the actual academic theories about the origin of the Torah. Specifically, Gottlieb argues against a single person suddenly inventing the story, but the theories posit multiple people slowly evolving such a story. We have many examples of this type of evolution of stories among ancient peoples, and thus it is not a stretch to posit that a similar evolution took place among the Jews.

In addition, Gottlieb's presentation of the theories against which he's arguing is backwards. The theories do not claim that first there was a story, based on which the people invented religious practices and rituals. The theories claim that the rituals and practices came first, and the story was slowly invented to explain the rituals and practices.

The invention and believability of such stories can be demonstrated from our own (Orthodox Judaism) history. The traditional explanation for Dreidels on Chanuka is that the Jews in Roman times used to play them to hide the fact that they were learning Torah. However, it has been well established that "spinning tops" started as a secular game in Europe, and a "traditional" explanation was later invented to authenticate and Judaize the practice. (Source)


Argument from Lack of Multiple Traditions

Assume, as Gottlieb does, that there hundreds of thousands of witnesses to the Revelation. Each witness, being human and thus subjective, would have had a slightly different experience at the Revelation. More importantly, due to flaws in human memory and differing educational abilities, each one would have told a slightly different story to their children. Even with periodic corrections, over time, this should have led to many different (but similar) versions of what occurred at Sinai, which should be represented either in our records or our tradition. However, a single version of the events is recorded and universally believed by traditional Judaism. This indicates, even given Gottlieb's assumptions, that at some point all the variant traditions were eradicated or forgotten, which raises serious issues on the integrity of both the parent-child tradition which Gottlieb bases his argument, and on the Torah, which records but a single version of the events, thereby eliminating the "multitude of witnesses."


Argument against the Logic presented by R' Gottleib

What about the logical proofs offered by Gottlieb to explain Kuzari? These also wither under scrutiny. Let's look at Gottlieb's main syllogism:

(1) Let E be a possible event: Why are we assuming that an event--any event--actually happened? Whether the event really happened is what we are trying to figure out! We also need to clarify the parameters of "possible," as I don't grant automatically that a god appearing to the multitude is itself a possible event. Finally, notice how we begin here with an event, something empirical, but then move in #2 to something that could be empirical or subjective, and end up in #3 with a purely subjective belief. With every step, the reasoning takes us away from the empirical.

(2) had it really occurred, would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence: What is meant by evidence? If I tell you something and you tell your brother, is your tale considered "evidence"? What's meant by "enormous" and "easily available"? I am not engaging in sophistry by asking that the vital terms of an important argument be made with the utmost clarity and specificity. I have little problem with the phrasing of the principle on its own, but when we apply the principle to Sinai, we need to have the key terms mapped unambiguously to details of the story. When we're talking about Sinai, the fact is that we don't have good evidence and we don't have enormous and easily available evidence. We basically now have only the Torah. If the only evidence is testimony and/or social memory, then the evidence is poor: it doesn't bring us to the truth of what the event might actually have been.

(3) If the evidence does not exist, people will not believe that E occurred: This is ultimately the money statement of Kuzari, the assertion that people won't believe just anything. Some claims are so extraordinary that people will demand to see the evidence, the assertion says. In this way, Jewish belief is supposed to be proof of Jewish belief--hence, we go around in a circle. But the big flaw in much Kuzari-based reasoning on Sinai is the assumption that the story appears suddenly, as if the story itself were specially created by a god and placed in a culture that also was largely static. Claims evolve and societies evolve--both are dynamic.

The evolutionary nature of both stories and societies thus undermines Kuzari's premises. This evolutionary development is extremely plausible and very well attested. I am not here proposing that a band of actual pre-Jews were stupefied before a real volcano (for instance), and that this event was the true and singular origin of the Torah's revelation story. Indeed, if Kuzari were right, then the Torah would the one and only instance in human history of a cultural text emerging fully formed and never, ever changing across the centuries. I am instead proposing that the existence of the Torah report and that the traditional Jewish interpretation are not and never were necessarily credible as evidence.


Argument from Occam's Razor

Let's assume there were 600k Jews in the wilderness, and they witnessed some kind of great event there, with thunder and lightning and earthquakes and whatnot. Claiming that they witnessed a miracle - Divine Revelation - which is entirely unique is the most extraordinary explanation one could give for such an experience. It is far more likely they witnessed a natural event.

In addition, contrary to Gottlieb's claims, it is far more likely for one to believe a mundane explanation than a fantastical one. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.


Argument against the integrity of our chain of tradition \ Refutation via forgetting "national unforgettables"

In Nehamia, 8th Perek, it is clear that the Jews of the second temple era hear the torah for the first time in many many years, and weep because of their sense of loss.

What happens next is amazing: They learn for the first time about Succos! Now, Succos is supposed to be a remembrance of the exodus.

Moreover, it states clearly that Succos had not been observed since the days of Joshua ben Nun! Since he took over from Moshe, and I don't believe Moshe observed Succos, that would mean Succos had never been observed until the days of the second temple! (I could be wrong about Moshe not observing succos, but it wouldn't affect this refutation of the Kuzari, btw).

Now, if they didn't remember the "remembrance", how exactly did they all collectively (from their "bubbes and zaydes") remember the Sinai experience itself?

And another question, separate and apart from this (and there are lots of opinions that address this question in the gemara and the commentaries, so it is not my main refutation): why didn't the Jews remember where Sinai was?! That would seem to be an important place. The apologetic answer is because God didn't want them to worship the mountain itself. Why, then, do we essentially worship the temple mount and the kotel? Some say the temple mount was sinai. Some say, the location was lost during the initial dispersion.


Refutation by Demonstration of Circular Argument

How do we know that there were 600k witnesses to the Revelation in the first place (or any of the details, for that matter)? From the records in Torah, the authenticity of which is precisely what we are trying to prove. This a circular argument, for it assumes its own conclusions.

If you claim that we know that there were 600k there via tradition, then why don't we know the other details via tradition, such as where Mt Sinai is, or the names of (y)our ancestors who were present, and presumably transmitted their testimony throughout the generations. Fact of the matter is that the only details we know about the Revelation are those that are recorded in the Torah, making the integrity of our tradition on this issue very suspect, and leading to the logical conclusion that our only source is the Torah itself.


Sources:

Additional arguments and examples can be found at

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I have found most online refutations of the so called "Kuzari argument" to be missing the point of the argument. However there are quite a few holes in it.

  1. Questionable assumptions. The Argument has a few assumptions which are not proven. For instance, what evidence do we have that if a large number of people denied the story, that we would accept their denial? We have Samaritans, and Kaarites, and Muslims that claim that we do not currently have the correct Torah, or that we don't correctly understand the law etc. However, we as a rule reject their point of view. Many people have family members who no longer practice halacha or don't pass on Judaism. Again, those people are rejected and their opinion ignored. It's possible that Judaism today was passed on by the original gullible few who did not have ancestors at sinai, and yet believed the story anyways. I would rather argue that while we know of samaritans and Muslims and Kaarites who argue the details of the law or details of the Torah, we don't have any religion or ethnic community or culture, who argues that Moshe did not go to Sinai and reveal the law to the Jewish people. I.e. Those who comment on the story agree on some basic premise to the story, but only deny various details... which leads us to the second flaw in the argument.

  2. There is no reason to believe that just because a tradition is passed down, that the tradition is true. We do not believe the fall of the Romans because millions of people witnessed it. We believe the fall of the Romans because there is evidence of the rise and fall of Rome. Multiple written stories, artifacts, archaeology. Human testimony is actually irrelevant. However, we do know about many traditions and stories which are false, even though they are passed down. For example, America was not actually founded on July 4th, the deceleration of Independence was only finally signed and ratified by all members in August. In this regard, some people are willing to blindly follow the leading sage of the generation, and assume if that sage says something it must be true. For many practicing Jews today, the religion really is based on the say so of a single person. For others, Judaism is true for them because of their own study, and their own investigations. These people also, do not rely on some unbroken chain of personal testimony, but rather recognize that multiple times in our history the chain of Torah was nearly broken, and rather believe based on their own reasoning, of which no two people will have the same argument.

  3. Lastly, the argument works off the assumption that the content of the Torah was directly applicable to the lives of the people who are being convinced. If the laws of the Torah were only taught to the people after or during the first exile, that most of the arguments fall apart. There was no shmittah, and they were already a protected minority in bavel with semi-independence.

In summary, we do not base our religion , or other facts in life based on the testimony of the nation. We only listen to those we trust, those we feel teach words that fit what we know of the tradition, and those facts and reasoning that appear reasonable to ourselves. The so called Kuzari argument may be convincing to those who allready believe and can give them some sort of Chizuk, but it should not convince anybody who doesn't already agree with the premises, and / or conclusions of the argument.

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My other answer addressed specific issues raised in the Kuzari Argument. This one will attack the basic assumption. (The following is my reading of the verses; I'm not convinced it's correct, but it is compelling. Aside from the Rambam (see below), none of the commentators address this issue as a whole, but their comments do support various parts of my reading.)

According to the text of the Torah, there was no National Revelation at Mt Sinai.

According to Shemot 19:9, God says He will speak to Moshe, and the people will overhear the conversation, and will therefore believe. This implies that God will not address the nation, but will only speak to Moshe.

Verse 11 states that God will descend and appear to the whole nation. However, this is not what occurs. In verse 21, God warns the people not to look upon Him, and in verse 24, He states that only Moshe and Aharon will be permitted to ascend the mountain, whereas the masses are prohibited.

In chapter 20, verse 1, it says

וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים אֵת כָּל-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה לֵאמֹר

which is followed by the '10 Commandments.' However, it is not clear if God spoke to the people, or just to Moshe. (Similar verses state who the speaker is speaking to. This one does not.) Verses 4-5 imply that God only spoke to Moshe, for the people become frightened and request that God not speak to them. In addition, the verses state they saw the thunder and smoke and lightning, but not that they saw or heard God.

(According to the Gemara & Midrash, the people heard at most the first two statements, not "Everybody at least heard Aseret Hadibrot" as asserted by @Daniel in the comments. The Rambam goes one step further, and asserts that they did not comprehend what they were experiencing.)

Verse 17 states that the people stood at a distance, and only Moshe approached God. In verse 18, God tells Moshe to tell the people that what they had just experienced was God speaking to them. Thus, it appears so far that there was just a Single Revelation, of God to Moshe, and not a national revelation, of God to the whole people. God tells Moshe to tell the people that the thunder and smoke was God, but they themselves do not experience Him, and on top of that, are very frightened by the whole thing.

The story resumes in chapter 24.

God invites Moshe, Aharon, Aharon's sons, and the 70 Elders to approach Him, and specifically prohibits the masses from ascending and approaching. Moshe, Aharon, and the 70 Elders ascended, and in verse 10, it is explicitly stated that they "see the God of Israel." It is thus clear that the only people who are confirmed as experiencing God is a small group of leaders, and therefore, the Revelation was not National.

In verse 17 we are told what the nation saw. They saw the "glory of God" as a fire and smoke, but as verse 18 tells us, the only person who enters the smoke and actually experiences God is Moshe.

The events of the Revelation are recapped in Devarim. Whereas Shemot is written from the perspective of the omniscient narrator, and was presumably composed contemporaneously to the events described therein, Devarim is written from Moshe's personal subjective perspective, 40 years after the events occurred, and is addressing the children of those who were present at Mt Sinai. (In other words, the people Moshe is speaking to weren't actually there, or if they were, they were young children.)

In Devarim chapter 4, verse 12, Moshe says that God spoke to the people. The people heard sounds, but they did not see God. Verse 36 reiterates that they heard "God's voice," but only saw a "great fire." (Note that this is Moshe telling the people what they experienced, and may not be a description of what they actually experienced; see Shemot 20:18 above.)

Chapter 5 contains more crucial details. Verse 4 states that God spoke to the people "face to face" (in contradiction to all that has been stated above, and in contradiction to other verses, such as Shemot 32 and Bamidbar 12); however, in verse 5 Moshe clarifies and states that he "stood between" the people and God, and relayed to the people what God said. The following verses contain the '10 Commandments.' This clearly indicates that God only spoke to Moshe, and Moshe relayed the statements to the people, which again demonstrates that the Revelation was not National.

To recap, we see from the text of the Torah itself that the Revelation only occurred to a small select group of leaders. The masses are explicitly and continually prohibited from directly experiencing God, and at most experience a frightening display of thunder and fire. They are then told that this experience was God, but the text does not state that they themselves come to this conclusion.

(Finally, it should be noted that in 1 Kings ch 19, God is described as not being present in the fire or thunder, but as a "small thin sound." Thus, according to Tanach, it is possible that the fire and thunder the nation saw at Sinai was not God, for He was only present as a 'small thin sound' in the midst of the smoke, which only Moshe experienced.)


Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim, 2:33

It is clear to me that what Moses experienced at the revelation on Mount Sinai was different from that which was experienced by all the other Israelites, for Moses alone was addressed by God, and for this reason the second person singular is used in the Ten Commandments; Moses then went down to the foot of the mount and told his fellow-men what he had heard. Comp., "I stood between the Lord and you at that time to tell you the word of the Lord" (Deut. v. 5). Again, "Moses spake, and God answered him with a loud voice" (Exod. xix. 19). In the Mechilta our Sages say distinctly that he brought to them every word as he had heard it. Furthermore, the words, "In order that the people hear when I speak with thee" (Exod. xix. 9), show that God spoke to Moses, and the people only heard the mighty sound, not distinct words. It is to the perception of this mighty sound that Scripture refers in the passage, "When ye hear the sound" (Deut. v. 20); again it is stated, "You heard a sound of words" (ibid. iv. 12), and it is not said "You heard words"; and even where the hearing of the words is mentioned, only the perception of the sound is meant. It was only Moses that heard the words, and he reported them to the people. This is apparent from Scripture, and from the utterances of our Sages in general.

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@Daniel: This should address all your comments from the deleted answer. –  Shmuel Jun 6 at 4:40

The Kuzari argument has never been refuted, only misunderstood. Lots of strawman arguments have been raised against it.

There were millions of witnesses to the fall of the Roman Empire. That is how we know how the Roman Empire fell. Similarly there were millions of witnesses to God speaking to the Jews at Mount Sinai. That is how we know that the Jews received the Torah.

If you refute the Kuzari argument, then you refute the fall of the Roman Empire and every other historical event.

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-1 Details, sources... Saying something is true doesn't make it so. If you can conclusively prove (in a logical\mathematical fashion) that this argument is true, then I'd believe you. Simply saying "No one's refuted it yet"** doesn't make it absolutely true. || **According to Google, many people claim to have refuted it...) –  Shmuel Jun 1 at 5:22
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Your analogy is flawed. The Roman Empire fell over a long period of time, thus allowing the news of its status to spread. In addition, the Roman empire,had a vast influence and a good information network, and was witnessed by many different peoples spread throughout the world. The Revelation was a one-time event, that took only a few minutes, in the middle of nowhere, that was witnessed by just a single group of people. Finally, it has been well established that the Roman Empire existed. It has not been established that there ever were millions of Israelites in the desert. –  Shmuel Jun 2 at 20:12
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Your analogy is the same as saying "The entire town of Roswell NM saw an alien spaceship for a few minutes in the middle of the desert. If you refute that, it's like refuting Napoleon conquering most of Europe." –  Shmuel Jun 2 at 20:18
    
Shmuel, so you must not believe that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, because it was a one-time event that took only a second, in the middle of nowhere (at that time America was in the middle of nowhere) witnessed by just a single group of people (Americans). –  Craig Feinstein Jun 2 at 20:55
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@CraigFeinstein - Claiming that Washington DC and the literal middle of the wilderness is the same is ridiculous. || I believe Lincoln was assassinated because it was widely reported, without any objections to the fact that he shot, and because, if necessary, I could exhume his body and check for bullet holes. Revelation at Mt Sinai is reported in exactly one text, with no corroborating records, and with no physical evidence to support the claim. –  Shmuel Jun 2 at 23:22

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