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April 9, 2013 9:37 am

Judaism and Revelation

avatar by Adam Jacobs

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Moses and Aaron Speak to the People, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot.

We’ve all heard the sensible saying that history is written by the victors, but on second reflection it should seem clear that it’s not the history itself that is written but rather the victors’ feelings about that history.  For example, in the late 18th Century the British had taken to calling our national hero – George Washington – a “mad man” and libeled our storied Minute Men as “terrorists.”  Which was it – as we said, or they?  Obviously, the answer is both -depending solely on one’s interpretation of the events.  Nonetheless, what’s one facet of the general disagreement that the Colonists and their former patrons across the pond could readily agree on?  That the war occurred, the generals led, the battles raged and that the United States was born as a result.  No sane person ever suggested that it was all just an elaborate hoax, or a myth.

The reason this is, is due to the fact that when large groups of people experience an event together (details and feelings not withstanding) it becomes part of the collective conscious of that people, or groups of people and is passed on as what we later call “history.”  It’s why we believe what we do about what has previously occurred.  Sticking with the Washington example – would it be possible to suggest that the general had not in fact been selected as our first president, but rather someone named Jedidiah Harrison (for instance) who had proven such an unmitigated incompetent that they just quietly scrubbed him from the records and let it be known that Washington would hence forth be known as the first (and only first) president?  The answer is no.  And the reason is that there would simply have been too many people aware of poor Harrison’s appointment to casually sweep it under the rug.  In other words, upon entering into the awareness of a sufficient mass of people, an event of national scope will be impossible to delete from the collective national “hard drive.”  A critical corollary of this fact is that it would be equally impossible to introduce a false event (one that had never actually occurred) into the national consciousness.

There are many ways to start a religion, but the best – based on its overwhelming abundance – seems to be a single-person revelation.  In fact, a quick survey of the world’s major religions (or a longer one of the hundreds of extant religious systems and their thousands of offshoots) reveals that it’s the only method – with one notable exception.  Unlike what was depicted in “The Ten Commandments,” Moses was far from alone when hearing those classic maxims on the mountain.  As the Torah says “…and the entire people that was in the camp shuddered.  Moses brought the people forth from the camp toward God.”  (Ex. 19:16-17)  And “These words God spoke to your entire congregation on the mountain, from the midst of the fire, the cloud and the thick cloud – a great voice, never to be repeated…” (Deut 5:19).  In other words, this was a national event – the kind you can’t trick people into believing.

So here we have a people (who have doggedly clung to the belief in this occurrence and its consequent behavioral implications and lifestyle choices) for more than three millennia – often at the risk of life and limb.  Just how did they come to hold the impression that the Infinite – the Creator of pollination, the Krebs cycle and the weak and strong nuclear forces, etc – directly communicated to several million of them?  It’s one thing for an impressive and charismatic figure to stumble in from the desert and claim “enlightenment” or prophecy, perhaps perform a few feats of wonder and then announce that he is channeling God’s will.  That’s the way to do it – in as much as it can’t be confirmed or denied.  But it’s quite another for that same guy to inform the crowds that they themselves heard the voice of God!  Just how would that work?  So again, the fact is that the vast majority of Jews have (at least until very recently) always accepted the revelation as fact.  What are the possibilities of how this came to pass?  How did the first believers arrive at their belief?  Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb (a former professor of mathematical logic at Johns Hopkins) outlines the possibilities in his treatise “Living Up To the Truth.”

1.       The event did not take place.  Rather, someone invented it and sold it as true.  This sale could have occurred at two theoretical junctures, a) around the time when the event was said to have taken place or b) long after the event was said to have taken place.  Most would agree that a) is just not going to close the deal, but what about b)?  As Rabbi Gottlieb correctly explains “it is simply not credible to tell an entire nation that their collective ancestors witnessed such an earth-shattering event and that it was forgotten.  It would be impossible to explain why the memory of the event disappeared.”  Even more so since the Torah says its contents will never be forgotten.  Finally, if such a hoax was indeed possible, we should expect to have a legendary “hero” figure that was credited with reintroducing this incredible information to the populace and no such figure exists in Jewish history.

2.       The event took place. “Oh please rabbi,” I can hear many agitated readers saying.  “Doesn’t the fact that the Holocaust took place just a few decades ago and is already denied by millions prove that you can convince people of anything?”  No, I would say.  It just proves that it’s possible for anyone to deny true history if they are sufficiently motivated to do so.  In fact, just how do we know that the Holocaust occurred?  Pictures of mass graves and crematoria?  I doubt that those photos contain more than a few thousand bodies – and who’s to say they’re even pictures of Jewish bodies?  Nazi records?  Better, but records are easily falsified.  The real way we know is as I do – my great aunt Muncie was in Auschwitz and told me about her experiences directly.  I have told her story to my children and they will tell it to theirs.  When many thousands corroborate these events and pass them on as fact then we know with certainty that the event was real.

Many religious systems have borrowed various concepts from Judaism – from Sabbath observance to dietary laws to moral code.  If it is so easy to scam the masses, why wouldn’t they borrow our revelation narrative?  After all – millions of people simultaneously hearing the voice of God seems a lot more impressive and authoritative than just one.  I posit to you that they don’t because they can’t.  Their founders weren’t fools and knew full well that they couldn’t possibly convince a whole nation to accept a hoax as their national history.  Conversely, the only reason the Torah is able to make such an outlandish (and historically anomalous) assertion is because it actually happened.

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  • Kobi

    The event did not take place. But millions of people, a few years after the supposed event think it happened and that their suffering is thus explained. Scholars have written thousands of words about this event, with different commentaries about it. This event forged a disparate mass into a people with demands and aspirations.

    Am I talking about Sinai? No. The Palestinians

  • The problem is treating revelation like a binary issue. There’s plenty of room in between “the event took place” and “the event did not take place”. It could’ve taken place but written down later by someone who wasn’t an eye-witness. Or details could’ve been added, changed, or embellished over time. Your example is telling: “When many thousands corroborate these events and pass them on as fact then we know with certainty that the event was real.” Notice your shift from “events” to “event”. Many individual accounts prove the Holocaust happened, but doesn’t prove the truth of every account. That’s why Holocaust scholars spend time fact-checking survivors’ accounts. Plenty of errors slipped in and it’s been less than a century. They’re only reliable in a general sense.

    At most, your argument proves the existence of a revelation. But the mere fact of revelation doesn’t do very much for us because it doesn’t prove the Torah’s *account of revelation*. And that’s all we really care about.

  • julie cable

    I love this article. Small things can be denied and later forgotten but not large events like the holocaust or revelation. But…w/re to Moses and the word of God, isn’t it at least possible that a trick could have been played to fool the ancient masses. That is, Moses had clout! He may have used various methods to convince those ancient peoples that it was indeed God they were hearing. In a less dramatic example (due to small number of people involved), Jesus rising from the dead (leaving his tomb) was most likely faked as part of an ancient mystery cult. In non-religious experience also, there are many things that are forgotten and then must be reinvented…people in the middle-ages thot their Roman aquaducts brought wine into the city! And, cement had to actually be reinvented in the 19th century! Ah, but great masses of collective experience is impossible to erase…or invent.

  • Anonymous

    There is also a third possibility…

    3. The event took place, but what was believed to be “God’s voice” simply wasn’t. Maybe it was a big storm, maybe there was thunder and lightning, and maybe at the time the people believed that was how God was communicating with them. Maybe it was an earthquake that shook the earth and made a loud noise that was interpreted as God speaking to them.

    A history is what a collective people believe or remember happened, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that what they believe happened is what actually happened.

    In any case, interesting article. I am Jewish but there are stories in the Torah that I am skeptical about simply because I believe stuff happened back then that people didn’t necessarily understand at the time.