by Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen
The beginnings of all ancient and modern religions have a common thread: one or two people have a revelation and persuade others to follow. Thus, for example, Buddhist writings tell us that Prince Siddhartha Gautama launched Buddhism after his solitary ascendance through the eight stages of Transic insight; Islamic texts tell us that Muhammad founded Islam following the first of many personal, prophetic experiences; Christian writings reveal that Paul first met Jesus in a vision, converted to Christianity, and spread the faith more than three decades after Jesus’ death; Joseph Smith, Jr., and his partner, Oliver Cowdery, launched the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints (the Mormon church) after the two men were visited by angels and long-dead disciples of Jesus; and Sun Myung Moon launched the Unification Church after privately receiving direct orders to do so from Jesus himself. The beginnings of Children of God, Christian Science, Eckankar, Elan Vital, I AM, and Theosophy — in fact, the beginnings of all world religions — are equally unverifiable.
Never does a large, clearly identifiable group of people experience prophecy and live to tell others about it. Moreover, in a handful of cases wherein large groups of people supposedly witnessed miracles, rarely are these witnesses named or identified in any way that would allow for verification; and in the very exceptional cases involving clearly identified groups of witnesses, never more than one or two of the religion’s current adherents claim to have met or descended directly from the named witnesses. In all these cases, the religion’s credibility rests on the credibility of its one or two founders. While it is certainly possible that the beginnings claimed by any of the thousands of sects and cults included in the world’s more than three hundred major religious traditions could be true, it is easy to imagine how charismatic charlatans could have launched any of these movements.
The one known exception to this rule is Judaism. The Torah claims that every Jewish man, woman, and child alive in 1312 B.C.E. — about three million people, according to the Torah — heard God speak at Mount Sinai and survived to teach their descendants about the event. Here we have an easily identifiable group — all of Jewry — who could have verified or denied the story any time during the first two or three generations after the alleged mass prophecy transpired. While it is easy to imagine how most religious mythologies could have been fabricated and spread, understanding how Judaism could be a lie requires more extensive analysis.
Smart Lies and Foolish Lies
Anyone who has studied history will affirm that people are gullible. We consistently find that sufficiently charismatic leaders can persuade people of any lie, even a lie that obligates followers to engage in painful or self-destructive behavior, as long as followers cannot check the lie. Lies that cannot be checked or validated are “smart” lies, insofar as they are maximally seductive. However, claims that can be checked, “foolish” lies, tend to be tested and rejected, especially when the lie obligates followers in unpleasant or suicidal observances.
As an illustration of this principle, consider the case of the California cult known as Heaven’s Gate. The group, led by Marshall Applewhite, included seventeen men and twenty-one women between the ages of eighteen and seventy-two. Applewhite taught his followers that he was an alien who first “moved into and took over” Jesus’ body just prior to Christianity’s founding, and that he again in 1970 “incarnated into” his current human body. In March 1998, Applewhite revealed to his followers a prophecy indicating that an approaching spaceship tailing the Hale Bopp comet was coming to pick up members of Heaven’s Gate, but that they would have to take lethal doses of phenobarbital in order to join him aboard the alien craft. On video, members of the group affirmed their faith in Applewhite’s vision and then commenced committing suicide. Significantly, Applewhite did not tell his followers that “the spaceship that dropped you (or your grandparents) here on Earth is coming to pick you up.” This would be a foolish lie. Applewhite, like all successful religious leaders, told smart lies — lies that couldn’t be checked.
Moses Theory and Fred Theory
The claim that three million people heard God speak appears in every intact Torah scroll ever found. The claim is either true or false. If it is a lie, and no such revelation ever took place, at some time in the past someone must have made such a claim. If we contemplate what the scene must have looked like when a false claim of national prophecy was first launched, we find ourselves locked into one of two scenarios: The person making the claim either told his followers (a) that the national prophecy happened in the present — “You personally heard God speak” — or (b) that the national prophecy happened in the past — “Your ancestors once heard God speak.” We might call the first theory “Moses Theory,” since the Torah records that “Moses” was the name of Jewry’s leader when the prophecy took place. We can call the second possibility “Fred Theory,” since the leader during this post-Sinaitic period need not be Moses — he might as well be Fred.
According to Moses Theory, ancient Jewry’s leader told a foolish lie: “You personally heard God speak, and He said these words: ‘I am the Lord your God. . . .’ ” We can imagine the scene as people first examined the supposedly divine Torah and their charismatic leader tried to explain to Jewry some of the text’s more unpleasant rituals: “Circumcision? Yes, use a very sharp knife and a quick downward motion . . . and it was the God Whom you heard speak Who told me you should do this!” People would probably know if they had heard God speak; and if they hadn’t heard God speak, they might be a little hesitant to accept the Torah’s validity. Because people won’t accept foolish (checkable) lies that demand self-destructive behavior, even critics who posit that the Torah is a fictional, man-made document reject Moses Theory.
Those who view the Torah as a work of human imagination therefore put their faith in Fred. They posit that the initial lie was: “God spoke not to you but to your ancestors. He gave them the Torah. They carried the Jewish tradition for a period but then fumbled, and it was forgotten. Now I, Fred, am returning to you your long-lost religious heritage.”
When would Fred claim the national prophecy took place? If he said it happened recently — to his followers’ parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents — the lie would be checked, discovered, and rejected. Therefore, Fred must claim the national prophecy took place during “ancient times,” five hundred or a thousand years earlier.
This is a smart lie insofar as it can’t be checked. Followers would understand why they have no memory of a tradition supposedly lost hundreds or thousands of years before. However, followers would reasonably wonder how Fred himself recalls this otherwise forgotten tradition. Fred could explain things, again with a smart (uncheckable) lie, claiming that God spoke to him alone and revealed the Torah’s long-lost text and the story of its original revelation at Mount Sinai. Indeed, most modern skeptics gravitate toward a theory like this.
A major problem with this theory is we’ve never heard of Fred or his heroic resurrection of Judaism. Certainly one of the most significant events in Jewish history would have been the fumble, when world Jewry forgot they were the three million prophets, and the recovery, when Fred reminded the Jews about the national prophecy at Mount Sinai. Yet in an otherwise comprehensive Jewish history we find no mention of such a claim. Jewish texts describe myriad historical crises and the heroes who assisted during these difficult times. We know that Moses brought the Torah down from Mount Sinai, Joshua first brought the Jews into the Land of Israel, David slew Goliath, Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, and Ezra brought the Jews back to the Land of Israel after the Babylonian exile. We know that Rabbi Judah the Prince compiled the Mishnah and that Ravina and Rav Ashi compiled the Talmud. We know about Maimonides, Nachmonides, and hundreds of other stars of medieval Jewry and what their respective contributions were. We possess detailed records about every great Jewish personality, except for one. We don’t have any mention of the man who reminded Jewry that they were the only people in human history ever to experience national prophecy, and we don’t have any record of the amnesia Fred rescued them from.
Until two hundred years ago (with the founding of the Reform movement), every Jew and member of a Jewish breakaway group (like the Christians, Sadducees, and Karaites) affirmed that ancient Jewry, their direct ancestors, had experienced national prophecy at Mount Sinai. Indeed, virtually every Jew alive today can trace himself back to Orthodox relatives (usually within five generations) who believed with all their heart and soul that they were links in an unbroken genealogical chain going back to Sinai. Yet not a single ancient or contemporary individual or religious community has any tradition about the man who should have been the second greatest hero of Jewish history: Fred. Why? Calm, unbiased observers will be quick to admit that perhaps there never was a “Fred” who lied about a national revelation; perhaps something supernatural really transpired at Sinai.
(Occasionally people try to pin the title “Fred” on minor players like Hilkeyahu, Shafan, or Yoshiyahu. At best, such attempts are forced and ask the reader to interpret texts with crowbar and mallet in hand. They also require shamefully contrived rationalizations attempting to explain (a) why not one Biblical verse explicitly mentions the key point that the Jews forgot about the Torah and “Fred” reintroduced them to it, and (b) why the name of the second most important Jewish hero (next to Moses) appears in the Bible less often than the names “Pharaoh,” “Yeravam,” and “Haman.”)
Science, History, and the Probability Paradox
The ultimate attack on both Moses and Fred Theories sprouts from the work of physicists and historians. Physicists believe that the laws of nature are constant and can be depended upon, and that therefore natural events will reoccur. Indeed, when faced with a phenomenon that cannot be naturally duplicated, scientists and historians doubt it ever transpired naturally in the first place.
As an illustration, imagine someone exhibited a brick of solid gold and claimed that it was once wood, but that he had used a natural chemical process to convert the wood into gold. Imagine further that twenty thousand chemists were handed a description of the process supposedly used, but that in fifty years of trials not a single experimenter succeeded in duplicating the effect. What would the scholarly community conclude? Precisely because we believe that natural events will happen more than once, we would deduce either that wood never really became gold, or, if the phenomenon really took place, that it transpired supernaturally.
The axiom that natural events reoccur is translated by historians into the principle “History repeats itself.” Since history is the story of natural creatures interacting according to natural laws, we expect and do find the same sort of human experiences and responses happening over and over again. Hence religions throughout history and across the globe have produced a strikingly limited set of claims of how they began: individual founders of religion have interacted with the gods, sun, moon, stars, oceans, trees, animals; individuals claim to have been visited by the dead or by aliens from outer space; and individuals claim to be incarnations of divinity. Although the details of theology vary, all of the general claims about how the world’s religions began fit neatly into a handful of general categories. There is only one categorically unique claim in mankind’s religious history: only the Torah claims that a large, easily identifiable group heard God speak and survived to tell about it.
The Torah is aware of its uniqueness and unabashedly offers this challenge to every Jew who has lived since Sinai:
You might inquire about times long past, going back to the time God created man on earth [exploring] one end of the heavens to the other. See if anything as great as this has ever happened, or if the like has ever been heard. Has any nation ever heard God speaking out of fire, as you have, and still survived? (Deuteronomy 4:32–33)
Crucially, the Torah’s claim about national revelation isn’t esoteric. If a religion claimed to have started when a centipede metamorphosed into a gorilla who, falling into a river, exploded in flame and disintegrated into ashes before rising in the form of a great human prophet, we would understand why such a claim might never be repeated. It is unlikely that two people would independently dream up identical stories with such intricate and nonintuitive details. Yet the Jewish claim is obvious and simple: God spoke to a group of people. This is the sort of claim that would occur to anyone.
Moreover, the claim of mass revelation was needed by other religions. Because Jews believed that millions of people — all of their ancestors — received the Torah directly from God, they were hesitant to accept just Jesus or Muhammad’s word that the Torah had been annulled. If God changed His mind, Jewry reasoned, why didn’t He let us or any other large group of people know? Furthermore, intelligent pagans might have wondered why, if God really intended to reveal an equally acceptable alternative to Judaism, He didn’t do it in front of a few million non-Jews. By hesitating to claim a mass prophecy, early Christians and Muslims thus lost an opportunity to raise their credibility, even in the gentile world.
Skeptics who would construct apparently reasonable scenarios explaining Judaism’s beginning are thus faced with a paradox: as they become more convinced of any scenario’s plausibility, they become increasingly incapable of explaining why no other group seized the obvious, simple, and valuable claim of national prophecy. Maybe one generation of Jews was unusually wily and succeeded in forming and maintaining a national conspiracy. Maybe one generation of Jews were exceedingly gullible and incorporated the whole story without checking their older relatives. Maybe the Jews were developmentally disabled or on a massive drug trip. Maybe thunder sounded like “I am the Lord, thy God. . . .” Whatever scenario we formulate, we face the challenge: if it’s natural for an entire people to think they or their ancestors heard God speak, why didn’t it happen more than once in history? Just as thousands of failed trials would persuade us that wood cannot naturally be transformed into gold, so too the total absence from history of the most basic religious claim — national revelation — should tell us that people don’t naturally come to the conclusion that they or their ancestors experienced prophecy.
We understand the beginnings of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and modern cults. We can envision how such faiths started. But how do we explain Judaism’s genesis? What rational, natural explanation describes the events leading to the only claim of mass revelation in four thousand years of recorded human history? The proposition that God indeed spoke to the Jewish nation seems at least as probable as the alternatives.
LAWRENCE KELEMEN is the author of Permission to Believe: Four Rational Approaches to God’s Existence (Targum/Feldheim, 1990) and Permission to Receive: Four Rational Approaches to the Torah’s Divine Origin (Targum Press, 1996). He studied at U.C.L.A., YU of Los Angeles, and Harvard University. He was also a downhill skiing instructor on the staff of the Mammoth Mountain Ski School in California and served as news director and anchorman for KMMT-FM radio station. Currently he teaches medieval and modern Jewish philosophy at Neve Yerushalayim College of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. This article is taken with permission from Jewish Matters: A Pocketbook of Knowledge and Inspiration.
by Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen