|Ask Rabbi Simmons|
I am a conflicted jew. I have been practicing all my life, but recently I have had some doubt. How can I be sure that Judaism is not just a way for some elders to control the population? I have unshakeable faith that there is a G-D, but how can I be certain that Judaism is THE religion, without resorting to saying "you have to have faith" or to saying "the Torah says...", because it is an answer that is not an answer. It feels as though one is telling us "Because I said so."
Let's start with a question. To whom did G-d give the Torah on Mount Sinai? Moses.
And what were the Jewish People doing while Moses was getting the Torah? Building a Golden Calf.
Do you remember back in grade school when the teacher would say, "When I give you a book report, all I require is one thing: read the book! Don't rely on the movie, don't learn about it from a cartoon, don't take it from the Cliff Notes. If you're doing a book report, read the book!"
Most people today are walking around with the Hollywood version of "The Ten Commandments." But the filmmaker, Cecil B. DeMille, obviously didn't consult the book - the Torah. Because if he had, the movie would have turned out quite differently. Why? Because "The Book" says explicitly that Torah was transmitted to every single member of the Jewish nation, not to just one person.
The Torah states (Deuteronomy 4:9-13):
(Moses told the Israelites:) Only beware for yourself and greatly beware for your soul, lest you forget the things that your eyes have beheld. Do not remove this memory from your heart all the days of your life. Teach your children and your children's children about the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Chorev (Sinai)...
So you approached and stood at the foot of the mountain. The mountain was burning with a fire reaching the heart of heaven, with darkness, cloud, and mist. God spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you were hearing the sound of words, but you were not seeing a form, only a sound. He told you of His covenant, instructing you to keep the Ten Commandments, and He inscribed them on two stone tablets.
A precise claim is being made here: That an entire nation - the three million men, women and children who came out of Egypt - heard G-d speaking at Mount Sinai, saying, "I am the Lord your G-d."
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YOU CAN'T FORMULATE A LIE BASED ON SOMEONE ELSE'S EXPERIENCE.
Let's pretend you're G-d and you want to transmit a religion to a people. You have two choices: You can either give it to a messenger to give to the people, or you can give it to the entire people directly. Which is the better choice?
The answer is found in this poignant story about an Indian chief:
One day the Indian chief dies, leaving three sons and no will. No one knows who's supposed to become the new chief and all the sons want the position.
The first son says, "I should be the new chief, because I'm the oldest." The second one says, "I'm the strongest warrior, so I should be the new chief." The third son says, " I'm the best choice because I'm the smartest."
There's a lot of campaigning going on and more than a few internal battles, until one day, the second son comes running into the camp, shouting, "Stop! I have the answer! I know who should be the new chief."
Everybody says, "What happened? How do you know?"
"Last night," the second son says, "my father came to me in a dream and told me I'm the new chief!"
Everybody starts dancing and celebrating and congratulating the second son. Until one old man raises his hand calmly and says, "Why should you be believed? If your father really wanted us to accept you as the new chief, he wouldn't have come to you in a dream - he would have come to us."
This story illustrates a crucial concept: If you want a revelation to be accepted by everyone, it's obvious that you would come to all the people, rather than to one person. That's clearly the most effective way to avoid any doubt. Why? Because I can make up stories about myself - and if you like me or trust me, you could choose to believe me. But if I make up a story and say it happened to you, then there's no way you'll believe me unless it really happened.
It's obvious that you can't get away with a lie on the basis of someone else's experience.
So if you're going to start a religion and you want to make sure everyone's going to accept it, the intelligent choice is to tell everyone, not just one person.
If it is true, then everyone in the national group will know it at the deepest level of knowledge, since everybody in the group was actually there. There will obviously be no need to present any additional evidence to anyone of that generation.
Also, the next generation will know that the event occurred, both because their own parents who were direct eyewitnesses told them, and because everyone else in the nation is either a direct eyewitness or the offspring of a direct eyewitness.
What if a large section of the nation were somehow duped - and were convinced to the extent that they actually passed on the lie to their children as if it was their own personal experience? This would not yield a believable, communicable, verifiable national truth, because the next generation would find many amongst them who either denied the universal character of the national claim or were never told about it by their parents.
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NUMBERS OF FOLLOWERS
Perhaps we can better appreciate the tremendous disparity between different types of claims by imagining the following scenario:
A man is walking along the beachfront, followed by a single line of 100 blindfolded men, each with one hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him. Should we view this group as a collection of independent thinkers, each deciding for himself which direction to walk in, or is it really one leader followed by 100 followers?
Imagine ten men each walking independently. Do they not represent a stronger statement about which way to go than the 100 men being led by one leader?
If the chain of blindfolded men behind the one leader grew to one thousand or even one million, it would still be no more impressive an occurrence. Why? Because each is not independently choosing which way to go, but is rather relying on the man in front of him in line, who in turn is relying on the man in front of him.
What emerges from all of this is that in evaluating the relative strengths of various types of historical claims, the key number to keep in mind is not the number of people who at some later date came to accept this claim as true. Rather, the significant factor is the number of people it is claimed were direct participants or eyewitnesses.
Does it make sense that G-d would allow the most important issue in our lives - i.e. His purpose or plan for us - to be undertaken without proper evidence for us to make a logical decision?
Moreover, why would G-d establish His entire relationship with a nation through one man, without any possibility of verification, and still expect this nation to obediently follow an entire system of instructions, based only on blind faith?
Of course not. And that's why Judaism is based squarely on national revelation.
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WHY DON'T OTHER NATIONS MAKE THE CLAIM OF NATIONAL REVELATION?
Of the 15,000 known religions in recorded human history, how many stake the foundation of their belief on the idea that G-d spoke to their entire nation?
Isn't that strange? If a national revelation is the best way to go, why has no other nation ever tried it?
The answer is that this is one lie you can never get away with.
Human events fall into two basic categories: legend and history. Legend - though it may be true - is unverifiable, due to a lack of eyewitnesses. History, on the other hand, is verifiable because of many witnesses.
Let's take George Washington as an example. The fact that George "chopped down the cherry tree" is legend - it may or may not be true, but we'll never know. Though the fact that George Washington was the first president of the United States is verifiable historical fact. Why? Because there were many eyewitnesses.
Now let's apply this to religion.
If someone claims "G-d spoke to me," then other people have a choice to believe the claim or not. Some people will choose to believe the claim - and from there could start a whole new religion.
But if someone claims that "G-d spoke to all of you," he'll never get away with that if it didn't really happen. Because if an event never happened to someone, you surely cannot convince him that it happened to him!
And that's exactly why no other religion in history has ever made the claim of national revelation.
The point is not to denigrate other religions; the point is merely to strengthen our belief in Judaism. So it's worthwhile to investigate just how many people claimed to see Jesus rise from the dead (about a dozen), or how many people accompanied Joseph Smith when he received the Book of Mormon (none).
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THE ROLE OF MIRACLES
It's important to note that specifically Judaism, among all of the world's major religions, attributes no significance whatsoever to "claims of miracles" as a basis for establishing a religion.
Maimonides states this emphatically in his codification of Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah (Foundations Of Torah, ch. 8):
...The Jews did not believe in Moses, our teacher, because of the miracles that he performed. Whenever anyone's belief is based on miracles, he has lurking doubts, because it is possible to perform a miracle through magic or sorcery. All of the miracles that were performed by Moshe in the desert, he did because they were necessary, and not as a proof of his prophecy.
What then was the basis of their (the Jewish people's) belief? The Revelation at Mt. Sinai, which we saw with our own eyes, and heard with our own ears, not having to depend on the testimony of others... and therefore it says, "Face to face, God spoke with you (the Jewish people)..." The Torah also states (Deuteronomy 5:3): "God did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us - who are all here alive today."
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ORIGINS OF THE TORAH
For the sake of illustration, let's imagine for a moment there was no revelation at Sinai. Moses, the leader of the Jewish People, created this myth with the intention of pulling off the greatest hoax in history.
Picture the scene: Moses goes up the mountain and comes down a few days later. The people say, "Moses! Welcome back! Where have you been?"
"I've been hanging around on Mount Sinai..."
"What were you doing there, Moses?"
"G-d was teaching me Torah."
"Torah? What's Torah? We never heard of that before."
"Oh, it's a wonderful thing. The blueprint for living. It's great!"
"That's nice, Moses. Where'd it come from?"
Moses doesn't want to say that he made it up himself, because nobody will be that interested. So he says, "G-d gave it to us! Don't you remember 40 days ago? There was this great revelation and G-d spoke to all of us. It says so right here in the book!"
The people say, "Listen, Moses, you're a great guy. You're handsome, you're strong, you look like Charleton Heston. You brought us out of Egypt, you split the Red Sea. But come on, don't insult us, for heaven's sake. Don't tell us that G-d spoke to three million people and expect us to believe it. That's ridiculous."
National revelation is the one lie you can never get away with. Moses can't tell them that G-d spoke to them if it never happened. No one's going to buy it.
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WAS THE TORAH INTRODUCED LATER?
Let's consider the possibility that the idea of national revelation wasn't started at the time of Sinai, but at a later point in history, as some Bible critics have claimed. Let's say the Torah was written by Ezra, for example, 1,000 years after the Sinai experience was said to have occurred.
Here's the scene: It's the year 400 BCE. A Jewish leader by the name of Ezra goes down to his basement and writes the Torah, including all the parts about national revelation.
One day, he walks into the synagogue. "Ezra, where have you been?" the people say. "We haven't seen you for a while."
"I've been in my basement, working on some projects..."
"What are you holding there? What is that?"
"It's a Torah."
"What's Torah? We never heard of that before."
"Oh, the Torah is terrific. A best-seller. It's law, history, stories. Take a look, you'll love it."
"Tell us, Ezra," they say, leading to the big question. "This wonderful book - where'd you get it?"
"Where'd I get it?! It says right here in the book: 'A thousand years ago, the entire Jewish nation stood at Mount Sinai and heard G-d speak to them.'"
The people look at Ezra and say, "That's a very strange story. Why haven't we heard of this before?"
"Well, of course, it was a long time ago."
"Well, wouldn't someone have at least mentioned it over the years? Maybe Grandpa or Great-Grandpa? Wouldn't a story as momentous as this have gotten passed down?"
"Well... umm... people forget things, you know."
" G-d spoke to three million people and everybody forgot about it?!"
"Yah, I guess that's what happened."
One problem. The Torah itself clearly states in Deuteronomy, 31:21 - "This song shall testify for them like a witness, because lo yamushu mipicha - it will never be forgotten by the mouths of their descendants."
So they look at Ezra and say, "Come on now. This sounds like a Jackie Mason routine. 'Where'd you get the Torah from?' 'We got it at Sinai a thousand years ago.' 'How come we don't know about it?' 'You forgot about it.' 'What does it say in the Torah?' 'You'll never forget it!'"
At no time in Jewish history would it have been possible to perpetrate a fabrication. It's obvious that the Author put this verse in to preempt such a supposition.
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TWO FINAL POINTS
There is a very powerful verse in the Torah (Deuteronomy 4:32-33):
"You might inquire about times long past, from the day that G-d created man on earth, [exploring] one end of heaven to the other. Has there ever been anything like this great thing or has anything like it been heard? Has a people ever heard the voice of G-d speaking from the midst of the fires as you have heard, and survived?"
The Torah goes out on a limb and declares that nobody else will ever even attempt such a claim of national revelation! How could the author know such a thing?!
Furthermore, let us assume the Torah was written by a human author, who was forging the document, claiming to be G-d. Why predict that no other nation would make the claim of national revelation? He himself knows it's the best claim, and if he could fabricate it, why wouldn't he expect others to do the same?
Understand what we are saying here. The Author of the Torah would need foreknowledge of all of world history in order to make the claim that none of the other 15,000 religions would ever claim national revelation.
How could the Author know that? Because you can't formulate a lie based on someone else's experience. And that's why no other nation will ever make the claim of National Revelation.
Furthermore, it is interesting to note that the other major religions of the world - Christianity and Islam - both accept the Jewish revelation at Sinai. They both include the Five Books of Moses in their Bible, and hold the Sinai revelation as a key component of their religion.
Why, when starting their own religions, did they build upon the Jewish claim? Why didn't they just deny the revelation ever happened?
The answer is that they knew that if national revelation can never be fabricated; so too, it's validity can therefore never be denied.
The revelation at Sinai is the foundation of Jewish evidence to know that the Torah is true. It is what sets Judaism apart from the claims of every other religion. It is what makes Judaism's claim a logical one (since it makes sense for God to have revealed His instructions in this manner), and it is what gives only Judaism the possibility of historical verifiability. This has been the basis of Jewish loyalty to the Torah for the past 3,300 years.
With blessings from Jerusalem,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons