I promised an essay on matters of faith in Orthodox Judaism. This is the first of a mini-series (within a series) on faith.
To the ancient Greek philosophers and medieval theologians, God’s existence was taken for granted. There was no debate about whether there was a God. They had two primary areas of dispute: the nature of this God, and the proper way to demonstrate God’s existence. Thus, we have many interpretations of how God acts and what He wants from man. We also have many arguments demonstrating to Believers that there is a God.
English is a confusing language. For example, take the word “proof.” In mathematics, proof A can prove X and therefore X is irrefutable. More often, a proof does not demonstrate objective truth. Usually, a proof is an argument in favor of X and it can be sufficient, insufficient, accepted, rejected, argued against, and teamed up with other proofs for X.
This creates a problem when we moderns discuss the existence of God. Torah literate Jews are accustomed to seeing the word “proof” in the context of demonstrating God’s existence, and there is a tendency to assume a”proof” is objectively determinative. But no God-proofs make an irrefutable point. They were not intended to function that way, and unsurprisingly, neither do they accomplish it.
We should stop using the word “proof” when we are making arguments in favor of the existence of God. I propose we use the word “argument” instead. The proofs for God in Torah literature are arguments in favor of believing in God. They are not proofs of irrefutable, objective truth. We believe they are true, but that does not make them mathematically proven.
These days, the most popular “proof” for God’s existence and the Truth of Torah is a version of what is called the Kuzari Principle, derived from The Kuzari by Rav Yehuda HaLevi. The principle assumes that it is necessarily impossible for a fictional narrative to be widely adopted as historical, divine truth. In the book, this argument is not being used to prove anything about God qua God. It is really about the veracity of the Torah and Judaism, not God.
I don’t believe Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi intended the modern argument that is made by Orthodox Jews in 2014. The Kuzari Principle is a throw-away line or two hidden in the text. It’s almost impossible to “find” the Kuzari Principle in The Kuzari! I imagine Rav Yehuda HaLevi would be surprised by the new versions of the Kuzari Principle presented in books like Living Up to the Truth. Further, this argument in The Kuzari is not being made to a true skeptic with modern sensibilities. It is being made to a fictional medieval Believer king whose skepticism is selectively determined by the author of the book. The laundry list of assumptions necessary for the Kuzari Principle to function is long and easily rebutted. One cannot argue that the Kuzari Principle proves the existence of God or the truth of our Torah is irrefutable. This is a certainty.
It’s easy to write about the Kuzari proof and its flaws and the flaws in its flaws. The Kuzari was attempting to make an argument from logic. He already believed in God. Everyone believed in God. The sole issue on the table was whether Judaism is correct, and the dialogue included the idea that if many people agree about something historical, it’s almost certainly true. It’s not a bad argument if you’re trying to persuade a Believer that Torah is true, but it’s a terrible argument if you’re trying to persuade an atheist or agnostic that the Torah is true. It doesn’t really work. If it does work, it’s willful blindness or involuntary confirmation bias. Neither are helpful, yet that is precisely what we do. We need to stop making the Kuzari Principle into what it is not.
We should use the Kuzari Principle for what it is, though. It’s part of a longer conversation about whether it is reasonable for Believers to accept the Torah’s claims. Beyond that, I think we are doing ourselves a disservice and setting people up for failure.
I’ve witnessed the havoc wrought by misappropriation of the Kuzari Principle. There are plenty of people who base their belief and observance on proofs and are convinced that these proofs are irrefutable. I take no issue with those people. But teaching these proofs as a kiruv tool is destructive. It’s simple enough to Google dozens of academic level rebuttals of the Kuzari Principle, and the teacher could seem like a gullible fool or a liar. Asking intelligent people to choose between their teachers and the evidence is a recipe for disaster. Eventually people figure it out, and if they have based their belief on a false proof, things fall apart.
It is important to note that the Kuzari Principle is dependent on the assumption that people are skeptics. If not, the Kuzari Principle would fall apart because it wouldn’t be anomalous or noteworthy for a fictional story to be accepted as truth by a large group of gullible people.
To me, this is the greatest lesson of the Kuzari Principle. We are expected to be skeptics. We are presumed to question things that we are told. That’s the axiom that gets the Kuzari Principle off the ground. So isn’t it ironic that we use a proof for God and Torah that builds skepticism into its logic but requires suspending disbelief and falls apart under the meager force of the tiniest shred of skepticism? Yes, it is. This was the irony I pointed out when a few dozen of my Facebook friends fell for another hoax.
It wasn’t about The Kuzari of Rabbi Judah HaLevi. It was about us. It was about our healthy skepticism and lack thereof. I apologize to those who thought I was mocking Rabbi Judah HaLevi or attempting to dismantle the faith of others.
There are no proofs that can irrefutably demonstrate that there is a God or that this God wrote the Torah. Yet, we believe. There are many arguments that can be made to persuade people to believe in God and the truth of the Torah. I don’t think the future of Orthodox Judaism will depend on our ability to articulate logical arguments of philosophers and theologians from ancient and medieval history. It depends on other things. But, if we are going to teach arguments of Ancient Greeks and medieval rabbis, imams, and priests, we must be honest about their utility and include them in a much broader discussion about faith and God. That discussion must make space for skeptics and skepticism as well.
The next essay in this series will further discuss skepticism, faith, and God.