recently i saw a book written by a rabbi lawrence kelleman, called permission to believe, written in english. he makes the argument that all other religions state that one man had a vision/spoke to god and told others to believe him. he said judiasm is the only religion where god speaks to a multitude of people at har sinai.. he then states that if the torah were written by men hundreds of years later, the people of that time would have been very sceptical of it and would have asked other family members or friends if they had heard such a story. since it is impossible to create such a ‘lie’, it must be, according to kelleman, that the origional story is true. i have a ‘gut feeling’ that his logic is specious, but i cannot express logically why i feel that way. can you help me with this?
There are, in fact, two specious points in Kelemen’s argument. First, it is wrong to assume that when presented with a new story, of religious or any other content, most people would try to find alternative sources of information to check whether the story is true. Even in our post-modern, information-laden society, which educates its young to think critically, people are all too eager to embrace baseless stories if they fit some previous expectation of theirs – hence the spread of a large number of urban legends (see < ahref=http://www.snopes.com>http://www.snopes.com). In ancient times, with few sources of information accessible even to those who were literate (a small minority in any ancient society) and no cultivation of critical thinking in education, hardly anyone would bother to check something which he was told by religious authorities, especially if that something did not imply a radical change in his ways of life and thought.
And here we come to the second flaw in Kelemen’s argument: it rests on the assumption that if the story of God’s revelation on Sinai to the entire people of Israel was invented, it was invented out of a whole cloth, at a single point in time. Of course, this need not be so and probably was not so. There could have been some ancient sanctuary on Mt. Sinai (or Mt. Horeb, where the book of Deuteronomy places the revelation; these are two different mountains). As it happens with sanctuaries, stories would circulate about individuals who received there a revelation from the deity venerated in the sanctuary (for the sake of our example, let us call him YHWH). One of such persons (for the sake of our example, let us call him Moses) could come to be perceived, with time, by a certain population, as the religious leader of their ancestors. Then, after a few generations, this population could come to believe that their ancestors were present at the mountain when Moses received there the revelation from YHWH. And after a few generations more, the population in question could well be told that actually not only Moses but all their ancestors had heard YHWH speaking at that revelation, and those who would be told this would have no reason to doubt.
Indeed, in the Bible itself we find mentions that commandments pertaining, in principle, to everyone’s conduct on certain days of the calendar, were entirely forgotten by the Israelites and introduced anew after many generations. The first example is the well-known story of the centralization of cult under King Josiah of Judah (2 Kings 22-23) – an event datable to 622 BCE, when all the cultic places in the kingdom of Judah outside the Jerusalem Temple were destroyed by the king’s order. Alongside with this destruction, Josiah is credited with ordering a nation-wide celebration of Passover, obviously with sacrifice in the Temple: “Then the king commanded the whole people: ‘Celebrate the Passover to the Lord your God as it is written in this book of the covenant.’ Indeed, such a Passover had not been celebrated from the days of the judges who judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel and of the kings of Judah; only in the eighteenth year of King Josiah was this Passover celebrated to the Lord in Jerusalem” (2 Kings 23:21-23).
“Such a Passover” – celebrated in accordance with the cultic precepts of the “book of the covenant” discovered in the Temple, evidently Deuteronomy – was thus an innovation in the traditional life of the kingdom of Judah (the only remnant of the Israelite people after the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 720 BCE). This is not to say that no Passover celebrations and sacrifices were conducted before Josiah; probably there were. But the celebration in accordance with Deuteronomy’s precepts – including, most importantly, offering of the Passover sacrifice in only one sanctuary (see Deuteronomy 16:1-8) – was an innovation of Josiah, which did not prevent it from being attributed to Moses, as the rest of Deuteronomic law.
Another example of a commandment allegedly forgotten by the whole people and re-introduced centuries later is that of dwelling in booths on the festival of Sukkot: “Then on the second day the heads of fathers’ (households) of all the people, the priests and the Levites gathered to Ezra the scribe to get insight into the words of the Torah. They found written in the Torah that the Lord had commanded through Moses that the children of Israel should live in booths during the feast of the seventh month. So they proclaimed and circulated an announcement in all their cities and in Jerusalem: ‘Go out to the hills and bring olive branches, oil-tree branches, myrtle branches, palm branches and branches of leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.’ So the people went out, brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the House of God, at the square of the Water Gate and at the square of the Gate of Ephraim. The entire community of the returnees from the captivity made booths and dwelled in them. Indeed, the children of Israel had not done so from the days of Jeshua (Joshua) the son of Nun to that day; so there was a very great joy” (Nehemiah 8:13-17).
Whether or not the commandment to dwell in booths on Sukkot (Leviticus 23:41-43) had been really given by God to Moses, for the Jewish religious and cultural tradition at Ezra’s time it was an innovation, unknown at least since the long-gone days of Joshua the son of Nun. Nevertheless, when Ezra claimed that dwelling in booths was a commandment given by God to Moses, it was embraced by the Jewish people – at least, according to the book of Ezra-Nehemiah.
So, the Holy Scriptures of Judaism do not see any impossibility in promulgation introducing a commandment, pertaining to the whole people’s conduct, without there being a continuous tradition of that commandment. Kelemen’s argument that promulgation of a commandment under such circumstances would be impossible shows that he professes a religion quite different from that of those people who wrote the books of Kings and Ezra-Nehemiah.
See also our answer to the questions Belief in a Divine Revelation and How can an entire community be wrong?.
I will close with a question: Islam and Christianity have convinced billions of people with their stories and your accept that these people believe in falsehoods and delusions. But you are willing to consider that the Jewish story of a Divine revelation to an entire nation may in fact be historical. Is it not just for cultural reasons that you are willing to accept the story of the community from which you have sprung?