Sunday, January 15, 2006

Debunking the Kuzari (?)

{Revised- Summary and Discussion Below}

It seems the Kuzari principle (that revelation at Sinai must have happened since so many people claim to have witnessed it and were it a fraud would have been scorned by their peers) keeps hanging around those dusty beis medrashim. And some dusty blogs as well. I have a response to the Kuzari which I haven't heard elsewhere, although I'm sure it's out there somewhere. Here it is:

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, seperate 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 aplogetics 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. That would be a difficult admission for those zionists who claim continuous Jewish presence in israel since Joshua entered there.

Here is the relevant chapter from Nehamia:

8:13 And on the second day were gathered together the chief of the fathers of all the people, the priests, and the Levites, unto Ezra the scribe, even to understand the words of the law.

8:14 And they found written in the law which the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month:

8:15 And that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written. [It appears that the purported Oral Law tradition of the Esrog being the "fruit of a beautiful tree" was totally unknown to them!]
8:16 So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the street of the water gate, and in the street of the gate of Ephraim.

8:17 And all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under the booths: for since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness.

8:18 Also day by day, from the first day unto the last day, he read in the book of the law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day was a solemn assembly, according unto the manner.
[It is worth noting that this seven day public reading/refresher course would have been an excellent time to mention there was a so-called "Oral Torah" as well and start studying up on it. Ah well, the Oral Torah isn't mentioned anywhere in the Torah/Tanach, so I guess that shouldn't surprise anyone. And it doesn't make it any less divine, or binding, got it? And the 39 melachas... And tefillin were really worn back then, even though they aren't mentioned here, right? By the way, it's strange that given the supposed importance of wearing tefillin, that after reading the whole Torah, they, including Ezra and Nehamia, all found it far more important to get the lulavim and succos set up rather than make tefillin. I guess that way they could avoid machlokess about whether to wear tefillin during chol moed... :D]

To read the entire chapter 8 and how they wept at hearing the torah for the first time, read from the beginning:

Nehamia 8

Summary and Discussion:

Well, this post started with some heated debate, mostly prompted by my less than obsequious reference to the subject matter. It benefitted much more from S. , Jewish Atheist, and Chardal than from my input. There were other assorted commentators who really added to the discussion, so thank you. (And no, happy- you were not one of them).

So, here's how I would summarize:

1. S. rightly points out that Kuzari as a work is not refuted by this post. It seems to me to be an excellent disproof of Rabbi David Gottlieb's "proof" called the Kuzari Principle. His proof is disproven by this post in a simple fashion: we cannot rely on the testimony as "witnesses to Sinai" of our "bubbes and zaydes" if their bubbes and zaydes (Ezra and his contemporaries) had not observed Succos themselves for a very long time. S. and Chardal made the excellent point that the phrase "since the days of Joshua ben Nun" could have been idiomatic and therefore not an automatic admission that Succos had not been observed since Joshua. However, even they must admit to a broken chain, and thus my disproof of the "Kuzari Principle" still stands.

After all, if a zecher l'tzius mitrayim (a rememberance) was forgotten, then how much more so was the thing being remembered. Think of a string being tied to your finger to make sure you remember something. 40 years later, the string has long fallen off and someone asks you why you had that string on in a photograph. If you say "I have no idea" how likely is it that you'd remember the thing the string was to remind you of?

Even if this doesn't work for you, the Torah itself is a zecher of many things, but especially Sinai. If the scroll had been lost until the time of Josiah, again, the chain of transmission of the Sinai story/event/myth is clearly broken as well. Thus, it is clear that when the Jews prostrate themselves and mourn after hearing the torah read aloud, they are clearly mourning the loss for so many years of their cherished history. They clearly mourn the loss of all the mitzvahs they had not performed and had violated unwittingly. They are absolved of this and told just to be rejoice, but first things first- to observe Succos properly.

2. Nehamia perek 8 is also problematic for the oral law concept, in that the rabbis claimed to have an oral tradition that the esrog was "the fruit of a beautiful tree" mentioned in the Torah. The problem is that Ezra and the rest begin gathering several types of sticks and foliage, half of which are in common with rabbinic tradition, and also olive branches which clearly are not. They also make no mention of an esrog or even any kind of "fruit," whether from a beautiful tree or not! Now some angry commentators tried to snag me by saying Mordechai and Ezra and Nehamia clearly knew the real traditions, just not the people of Jerusalem. However, why then didn't Nehamia, Ezra, or Mordechai say "hey wait a second, folks- there's an oral tradition that goes with this- you don't use olive branches at all, and you need to use an esrog." They didn't say that, because they didn't know differently from what they had just read.

3. My tefillin comment was off the cuff (pun intended) and yet generated intense discussion, most of which was very interesting, and again most of the interesting discussion came not from myself. First, we can all agree that tefillinwere worn for a very long time. We agree that there were several versions (this is all in the gemara). However, I think that tefillin fit in in the following way: tefillin were not universally worn and were subject to a lot of doubt. I will post on this in the future, but see the last comments for my basic take.