Posted on November 4, 2000
Israel in Sinai
Predictions in the Torah
Assorted flops in Gottlieb's opus
The book by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb titled "Living Up..." has been highly acclaimed by his colleagues as a powerful tool in the effort to induce those Jews who have lost faith or have doubts about the veracity of the Torah, to return to their religious roots.
In judging Gottlieb’s arguments we will have to remember what his agenda is and be prepared to wade through convoluted sophistications which might be attempts to avoid real discussion of the Torah’s controversies.
There is no denying that Gottlieb is skillful (or, rather, experienced) in applying that technique. He understands logic and knows how to apply it when it fits his goals, and how to veil the absence of logic when its straight application would work against his contentions. What the reader will not find in Gottlieb’s book is an uncompromising adherence to facts, regardless of where they might lead.
Gottlieb’s goal is to prove, in allegedly rational way, that the Torah is true in every respect, and that Judaism is not only true but has a monopoly on the truth. In proving his thesis Gottlieb offers some good arguments against the claims of other religions, but his insight into the deficiencies of such claims fails him as soon as he turns to Judaism.
Before offering his arguments in favor of the Torah’s truthfulness, Gottlieb spends considerable time on a general discussion of what constitutes proper proofs and valid arguments. This quasi-philosophical discourse, with its convoluted, seemingly sophisticated twists of thoughts, mostly boils down to platitudes like the assertion that the truth is important, or that everybody has desires and goals. Having said many words to that effect, but having not said anything of significance, Gottlieb finally turns to alleged proofs of the truthfulness of the Torah’s statements and stories.
Gottlieb’s overall thesis is that everything the Torah claims is true, whereas the claims of all other religions, such as Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., cannot be trusted since there is no evidence in their favor.
Gottlieb does not offer a comprehensive review of the Torah’s stories and statements, but instead concentrates on a few selected points which, he maintains, can be logically explained and proven on the basis of factual evidence. His idea is as follows: Among the stories told in the Torah, some can be verified through factual evidence while some others cannot. Among the verifiable events, according to Gottlieb, are the miraculous feeding of the Israeli people with manna during 40 years in the Sinai desert and the divine revelation of the Torah to the people of Israel. Among the stories which cannot be directly verified is, for example, the creation of the universe in six days. The approach suggested by Gottlieb is to deal with those parts of the Torah’s story which can be verified through evidence. If we find that these parts are true, this will lend credibility also to those parts of the Torah which cannot be verified directly. However, the main argument in support of the Torah’s reliability is the test of predictions made in it by comparing them with the actual history of the Jewish people. According to Gottlieb, the predictions given in the Torah, unlike those of Christianity or any other religion, were fulfilled with astonishing accuracy thus proving that the Torah is true.
Gottlieb suggests a criterion enabling one, in his view, to verify the veracity of a historical account as follows: if some important event took place in the history of a nation, says Gottlieb, everyone who lived at the time of that event must have known about it. For example, says Gottlieb, such an event as (I am quoting Gottlieb) "the revelation of God to an entire ancestry of a nation is not the kind of event that would be forgotten; and therefore if a person inventing the story is trying to sell it, he will not be able to sell it to his audience. The reason is that he will not be able to explain why no one else remembers that incredible event. That means that the alternative of making it up and selling it is incredible. If that alternative is not credible, we are left with only one alternative, and that is that the event really happened and that people witnessed it."
Then Gottlieb proceeds to elaborate. He starts with indicating that "we have a chain of generations going backwards in time who believed that these miracles took place: Revelation in Sinai, the crossing of the Red Sea, the plagues in Egypt, the manna and others. Today, this group constitutes hundreds of millions of people....The question is: How did this belief originate?"
To answer that question, Gottlieb suggests applying what he calls Kuzari principle.
Here is Gottlieb's explanation of the Kuzari principle. When deciding whether a story is true or false, one has to choose between two alternatives. The first alternative is to believe that the event described in the story did happen, while the second alternative is to disbelieve the story, i.e. to decide that the event in question most probably never happened. To choose either of the two alternatives, Gottlieb suggests we apply the Kuzari argument for which he provides two definitions, one, according to Gottlieb, simplified, and the other, elaborate. Actually, it is hard to see any difference between the degrees of elaboration of Gottlieb's two definitions.
Gottlieb's simplified definition is as follows: "The Kuzari argument proceeds by investigating the second alternative, that the event didn't happen, that the story was made up and sold. The argument shows that the second alternative is not credible. It is not credible that the story was made up and then sold. If you can defeat the second alternative, that leaves only the first alternative, that it happened and was witnessed. That is the structure of the argument."
Let us now quote Gottlieb’s elaborate definition of the Kuzari principle: "Let E be a possible event which, had it really occurred, would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence. If the evidence does not exist, people will not believe that E occurred. Let's suppose it is an event which if it had occurred, it would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence. Well, if we don't have evidence, then we will not believe it occurred. That's is what the principle says."
If cleared from its excessive verbiage, both Gottlieb’s definitions of the Kuzari principle boil down to the statement that accepting a story as true requires evidence. This statement is correct but is a platitude. Though the information contained in the so-called Kuzari principle, as rendered by Gottlieb, is correct it is not new and therefore lacks informative value.
Moreover, the information contained in the Kuzari principle, as rendered by Gottlieb, is true only as a statement of a requirement for a rational choice between a real and imaginary events, but it is false if construed as a criterion enabling one to distinguish between actual beliefs that are substantiated and those which are not based on any evidence. It is fruitless in general and for his discourse in particular. The biblical story is not supported by an independent verifiable evidence, hence, according to Gottlieb's own criterion (if that criterion is interpreted in a direct way and freed of its verbose mantle) that story should not be believed.
On the other hand, there are numerous examples of stories not supported by any evidence but which are nevertheless irrationally believed by scores of people. Gottlieb himself provides examples of such stories. He most probably does not believe that Mohammed ascended to heaven and there talked with God, because there is no evidence of that event. However, hundreds of millions of Muslims firmly believe in that story. Such examples can be multiplied endlessly. The alleged evidence of the events that supposedly occurred in Sinai and were witnessed by the entire tribe of Israel is not better than the alleged evidence claimed by Christians or Muslims to support their beliefs.
Gottlieb further discusses limitations of the Kuzari principle, admitting that people may believe all kinds of crazy concoctions, but, he says, there is a limit to people’s credulity. As an example, Gottlieb suggests the so-called Christian "miracles." These alleged miracles, says Gottlieb, were (I am quoting) "by and large semi-private affairs witnessed by no more than a few thousand people." On the contrary, the miraculous events described in the Torah happened in the presence "of the entire ancestry of a nation."
Let us discuss that point. How do we know that the miraculous events described in the Torah did indeed happen in the presence of the entire nation? We know this because it is written in the Torah. There is no other source which corroborates the Torah’s story. Hence, here is the logical sequence according to Gottlieb: 1) The Torah tells us about miraculous events; 2) We must believe the Torah’s story because those events were witnessed by the entire nation of Israel. 3) The fact that the entire nation witnessed the events in question is asserted by the Torah.
Can you imagine a court procedure where a defendant’s story is believed despite the absence of corroboration by independent witnesses simply because the defendant asserts his own veracity?
Let us ignore the fact that each religion tells stories whose alleged veracity could be based on the same grounds as those Gottlieb offers in regard to the Torah (we wouldn’t believe it if it were not true... etc) and review the specific arguments Gottlieb offers to explain the origin of the belief in the Torah’s story.
Gottlieb, in his list of miracles, has lumped together miracles which were and which were not witnessed, in the Torah’s account, by the "entire nation." The miracles witnessed by the entire nation were, for example, crossing the Red Sea and feeding the people with manna. However, the revelation of God, according to the Torah’s account, if interpreted in a straightforward way, was not witnessed by any significant number of people, certainly by many fewer witnesses than the thousands mentioned by Gottlieb in regard to Christian miracles.
Look up the description of those miraculous events in question in the Torah. In Exodus 16 we read how God talked to Moses. Then Moses and Aaron conveyed God’s message to the people of Israel, which indicates that Aaron alone, besides Moses, was privy to Moses’s conversation with God. The "entire nation," according to the Torah’s story, did not directly listen to Moses’s communication with God.
Of course, there are verses in the Torah which, if desired, can be (and have been) interpreted as an indication that God indeed spoke to the entire tribe. Here are the pertinent quotations (in KJV translation):
"And the LORD said unto Moses, Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee for ever" (Exodus 19:9). Unless one wants very much to assert that God spoke to the entire nation, this verse actually only expresses the intention to do so.
Further we read: "And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly. And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice" (Exodus 19:17-19).
In the Hebrew original, the expression translated "by a voice" is bekol, which may be understood as "loudly" – and if the people stood at the bottom of the mountain and God spoke loudly, it may mean they heard God’s voice. However, the real gist of that passage remains vague and there is no way to conclude from it whether the people heard actual words, i.e. some message, or simply some thunder-like sound.
We read also the following lines in Deuteronomy: "Did ever people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?" (Deuteronomy 4:33).
It is unclear, however, what exactly the people did hear from God. The Scripture itself gives us good reasons to say that they heard nothing definite, though the later Jewish tradition maintains that the first two of the Ten Commandments God uttered directly to the whole people. (More on this issue may be found in Maimonides’ "Guide to the Perplexed," part 2, chapter 33). Of course, such an interpretation has no confirmation within the Torah itself.
The Torah’s story tells us about Moses listening to God’s instructions several times, but each time he was either alone or accompanied only by Aaron. The rest of the people not only did not listen to God directly, but, on the contrary, were told not to approach too closely the mountain upon which God was expected to descend. All what the "entire nation" could have witnessed, if we rely on the Torah’s narrative, is that the summit of the Mount Sinai was all in smoke, that there was thunders and lightning, and earthquakes (Exodus 19) but nobody except Moses witnessed what happened at the summit. As the story continues, we read how seventy elders accompanied Moses and saw God (Exodus 24). On one other occasion Joshua accompanied Moses to the summit. Finally, Moses again climbed up Mount Sinai alone and stayed there for forty days and nights. Nobody except for Moses himself witnessed what happened at the summit during those forty days and nights. Surely, if gatherings of several thousand people, who allegedly witnessed Christian "miracles," do not qualify, in Gotlieb’s view, to be anything more than a semi-private affair, then the quorum of only seventy elders (not to mention events witnessed by Moses alone) must be viewed as a purely family affair. Nowhere does the Torah say unequivocally that the entire nation heard God speaking directly or saw anything besides lightning and smoke.
Regardless of whether the Torah’s story is true or not, the two observations – the absence of corroboration by any source besides the Torah itself, and the fact that the Torah, contrary to Gottlieb’s assertion, does not say that the entire nation witnessed the miraculous events on Mount Sinai, - invalidate Gottlieb’s argument allegedly supporting the Torah’s story.
Thus, having asked the question: "How did this belief originate" (he meant the belief in the miracles described in the Torah) Gottlieb eschews answering it, indulging instead in a lengthy discussion of the Kuzari principle, which makes little sense in general and regarding the Torah’s veracity, in particular, since there is no independent evidence available which would corroborate the story. As could be guessed from Gottlieb’s discourse, his actual idea is that the veracity of the Torah is to be accepted because its story was believed by many generations going back thousands of years, originating at the time when the whole nation witnessed those miracles; they transferred the story from generations to generation as an account of something the entire community of our ancestors saw with their own eyes.
This argument is not convincing. There is no proof whatsoever that the text of the Torah as we know it is as old as the story implies. Moreover, there are indications in the Bible that the story in question could have possibly been included in the Bible many centuries after Moses. For example, in II Kings 22.8, we read how Hilkiah the high priest said to his scribe Shaphan that he (the priest) found "the book of the law in the house of Lord." A few verses later, in II Kings 23.22 the story continues telling us that "surely there was not holden such a Passover from the days of the judges that judged Israel, nor in all days of the kings of Israel, nor of the kings of Judah." In 23.24 the story continues further, telling how King Josiah "put away" all kinds of people who, in his view, stood in the way of following the instructions found in the unearthed book. These verses indicate that there was a long hiatus in what Gottlieb described as an allegedly uninterrupted transmission, from generation to generation,of the testimony by the Israelites of Moses's time about the miracles they all supposedly witnessed. There are other indications in the Bible that the tradition Gottlieb refers to was not actually uninterrupted.
If we accepted Gottlieb’s argument about the Torah’s story, we would have to give equal credence to many stories of other religions which are supported by a similar alleged evidence, often not more unreliable than the Torah’s narrative. For example, the stories of alleged Christian "miracles," rejected by Gottlieb because they were witnessed by no more than a few thousand people, were written rather soon after the alleged events they describe. Rather than just in one book, like the Torah, those stories, with variations in detail, are repeated in several sources. They refer to historical figures whose real existence can be verified, and contain some specific, verifiable geographical and historical pieces of information. The stories of the New Testament have been believed by many generations going back about two millennia. If the Kuzari principle were indeed a definitive tool, the Christian story, using Gottlieb’s method, would be verified better than the Torah’s story. I would readily agree with Gottlieb that the Christian story is nothing more than an unsubstantiated and utterly implausible legend. However, the Torah’s story has no advantages over the New Testament if the so-called Kuzari principle is utilized.
Gottlieb offers what he views as the most compelling evidence of the Torah’s veracity, the alleged fulfillment of a number of predictions given in the Torah. Unfortunately, the discussion of that notion contains a number of statements that are by far imprecise and often quite arbitrary and even factually wrong. Let us review some of those allegedly fulfilled predictions.
True to form, Gottlieb resorts to truisms like the statements "To make a decision opportunistically without attempting to base it on the truth is irresponsible," or, "The search for the truth means to be prepared to reject falsehood." Thanks, Rabbi, for the revelations. We erroneously thought that one could search for truth by accepting falsehood. Now we know better.
As the convincing example of a fulfilled prediction, Gottlieb discusses at length the history of the Jews. He refers to the book of Deuteronomy where in a speech attributed to Moses, a warning of the terrible consequences of the Israelites’ disobedience of God’s commandments is given in frightening detail. Gottlieb asserts that the actual fate of the Jewish people was precisely predicted in Moses’s warning words. This, says Gottlieb, is a very powerful proof that the word of the Torah is true. Since no other religion, in Gottlieb’s view, has such a record of fulfilled predictions, a belief in Judaism’s teachings is the only one justified by verifiable evidence.
Of course, the assertion that the fate of the Jewish people was precisely predicted in the Bible was not Gottlieb’s original contribution to the dispute. This statement has been a part and parcel of uncounted discourses on the topic in question. Gottlieb has actually contributed little new to the subject. He has just attempted to look at the same argument from a slightly different angle. Before discussing Gottlieb’s version of the discourse, let us first look at what exactly was predicted in the book of Deuteronomy.
The prediction in question is made in Deuteronomy 28. It starts with Moses promising the people of Israel that if they obey all the commandments God conveyed to them via Moses, they will be blessed in every respect. Their cattle will be blessed, and "the fruit of their bodies" (whatever this means) will be blessed, and the "fruit of their cattle" will be blessed, and that all other people on earth will be afraid of them (isn’t that lovely, to have everybody afraid of you), and they will "lend onto many nations and not borrow," and many other nice things will be in store for them. All that was needed to earn all those blessings was to scrupulously fulfill all the rules and regulations dictated by God. These rules, listed in detail in Deuteronomy 6 through Deuteronomy 27, instructed the people of Israel what to do in all kinds of circumstances. Some of those rules were important steps in the development of a system of justice aimed at the common good of the community. Others related to sanitary precautions. Certainly, those rules signified an important step in the development of the civilization. Some of those rules exceed in their humanity anything achieved today even in the most democratic and advanced states. On the other hand, they obviously reflected the social environment of the Israelite tribes of that remote period of history. What significance can the prohibition against plowing with an ox and an ass together have today?
From our contemporary viewpoint, the regulations given by Moses are a mix of instructions greatly differing in their importance and in their effect on society. Along with the rules aimed at the protection of women’s dignity, obviously important for the health of the community, some other rules, for example forbidding the wearing of clothes made of both wool and linen, seem to lack significance. Probably, this prohibition made some sense under the conditions of ancient tribal society, but its importance was hardly the same as the rules regulating marriage and the conduct of war.
In Deuteronomy 28 Moses warned the Israelites that if they disobeyed the long list of instructions he had delivered,a terrible punishment would result. Unfortunately, Moses did not discriminate between different levels of disobedience. Would all those cruel blows of fate befall the people if they disobeyed the commandments in their entirety? Would disobeying only one of them (for example wearing garments made of a mix of wool and linen) suffice to cause the mass murder of Jews by their enemies? The answer to this question is not found in the text of Moses’s alleged speech, so it was left to future commentators.
However, discussing the fulfillment of predictions made in the Torah, one needs to determine exactly what the predictions were. Hence, when Gottlieb asserts that the predictions of the Torah have come true, he must first establish what the Torah predicted. To be subjected to murders, expulsions, the loss of the statehood, etc., Jews, according to the Torah, had to disobey God’s commandments. Until the extent of the disobedience necessary to earn the punishment on the one hand, and the extent of the disobedience the Jews had indeed exercised, on the other, have been determined and compared, it is meaningless to talk about the fulfillment of the prediction.
Furthermore, the actual history of the Jewish people, which in many respects indeed looks like the description of punishments in Moses’s speech, also differs from it in certain respects.
For example, in Deuteronomy 28 we read several times that in case of disobedience, the Jews, after suffering severe punishments, would be destroyed (see Deuteronomy 28:22, 28:24, 28:48, 28:51; the verbs used in the Hebrew original are hishmid and abad in grammatical forms which mean destroyed or annihilated and lost). Fortunately, this has not happened despite the efforts to the contrary by many enemies of Jews. These statements seem to be contrary to some other parts of Moses’ speech (for example Deuteronomy 30:1-2) which indicate that after all the sufferings "will still remain Jews who will return to God." This inconsistency allows for various interpretations of Moses’ predictions, and ignoring either the predictions of the destruction of Jews or those of their return to God means to arbitrarily choose whichever part of the Torah fits a preconceived conclusion.
Moreover, the return of Jews to their land and the rebirth of their state, according to the Torah, would be predicated on their repentance and complete return to the faithful obedience to the rules explained by Moses. Watching the history of Zionism with its predominantly secular character makes it rather untenable to see the resurrection of Israel in our time as the fulfillment of the Torah’s prediction. The contemporary Israeli society is overwhelmingly secular and by and large disobeys Moses’ instructions day in and day out. The majority of Israelis turn on lights and drive on Saturdays, miss services in synagogues, adorn their dwellings with sculptures and paintings, sometimes of naked men and women, and eat non-kosher food without compunction. Not only regular citizens of the Jewish state, but also its government violate the Moses’ instructions every day, and on a large scale. It is hard to understand why the behavior of contemporary Israelis is forgiven by God to the extent that they are again allowed to have their own state and to defeat their Arab neighbors each time those neighbors try to destroy the Jewish state, while their remote ancestors were punished so severely for transgressions which probably occurred on a much smaller scale. In view of that, Gottlieb’s contention that the history of Jewish people has fulfilled the Torah’s prediction seems rather tenuous.
In discussing the history of Jews, Gottlieb emphasized the uniqueness of that history which, in his view, is one more argument in favor of the truthfulness of Judaism. It is hard to disagree with Gottlieb in regard to the uniqueness of the history of Jewish people. Yes, the long history of Jews is unique in many respects. But so are the histories of many other peoples, each in its own way. Certainly, Gypsies may claim that their history is unique. So may the Chinese, Japanese, and Hawaiians, and many other nations and ethnic groups. Would Gottlieb deny that the USA’s history is unique in many respects? The histories of many countries and nations have been unlike any other in some way, while having, on the other hand, some features in common with each other. Also the history of Jews, unique in many respects, nevertheless has also some features in common with many other nations and ethnic groups. Resorting to the use of Gottlieb-style quasi-philosophical hair-splitting definitions, we could say that although the histories of many nations are unique, that uniqueness is not at all unique.
In his discussion about the uniqueness of Jewish experience andthe alleged fulfillment of the Torah’s predictions, Gottlieb has even conducted an excursion into the calculation of probabilities. He tries to prove that the events of Jewish history had an extremely low probability and therefore must be attributed to God’s guiding hand.
The calculations in question are based on a rather rudimentary understanding of what a probability is, what its value can tell and how it must be properly estimated. The quantity called probability has meaning only if certain conditions are met. Normally, probability implies a competition between many possible events which all have to meet the definition of random events, and be characterized by certain quantities called random variables. The events discussed by Gottlieb do not meet that requirement. The destruction of a nation by a conqueror or expulsion of the country’s population are by no means random events. These events have political reasons which can be understood and explained, even if imperfectly. The term random events implies the competition of many equally possible (not necessarily equally probable) events, whereas we have no knowledge of what causes this or that alternative to occur instead of all the rest of them. In order to calculate probability, we have to possess some knowledge of what the possible alternatives are. In the examples discussed by Gottlieb, he tried to apply the calculation of probability to events which are not random, hence his exercise has no real meaning. Actually, he arbitrarily assigned certain values of probability to arbitrarily chosen events, thus allegedly calculating the probability that the history of Jewish people, as it indeed transpired, was due to mere chance. His estimation is about one in five thousand. Hence, says Gottlieb, the fate of Jews was not due to chance but signified the fulfillment of God’s will as predicted in the Torah.
Let us review how Gottlieb arrived at his estimate. First he estimated the probability that the conquest of a nation by an alien invader would be accompanied by "destruction of population and resources and exile of the majority of population," as 25%. The number – 25%, has no real probabilistic interpretation. The disaster that befell Jews had historical/political causes which by no means could be viewed as random. Next Gottlieb tries to estimate the probability that the conqueror would speak a language unknown to the population of the conquered land and chose it to be 70%. Again, the number in question has no real probabilistic meaning. Then Gottlieb estimates the probability that a conquered nation would be scattered all over the world as 5%. Finally, Gottlieb estimates the probability of the exiled nation to subsequently return to their ancestral land and chose it to be 5%. The overall probability of the events of the Jewish history is then, as per Gottlieb’s calculation, about one in five thousand. (Actually, multiplying his alleged probabilities, Gottlieb made an arithmetic mistake. The correct number following from his assumptions is one in about forty eight thousand rather than in five thousand).
To show his objectivity, Gottlieb tries to choose exaggerated numbers for constituent probabilities, and thus avoid possible accusations of deliberately cooking the figures to get a very small probability. However, the entire exercise is void of meaning, because probabilities of events which are not random have no meaningful interpretation.
In order to form some understanding of the actual meaning of Gottlieb’s probabilistic exercise, let us discuss the events he subjected to his pseudo-probabilistic discourse.
The first event whose probability Gottlieb estimated was "destruction of population and resources and exile of the majority of population." Obviously, that "event" is actually a whole enchilada of various events, differing in scope, intensity, duration, and manners of execution. Estimation of probability for such a complex conglomerate of events is by far not a trivial task, even were they random. The probabilities of components of that complex combination of events cannot be multiplied because each of the components is not random.
Let us discuss whether or not such event as the destruction of population and resources was indeed as rare as Gottlieb suggested. Recall what the Romans did to Carthage. Had they been more lenient to that state than to Israel? Recall such names as Genghis Khan, Attila, Tamerlane. When Genghis Khan’s horsemen conquered cities in Central Asia (where now the country of Uzbekistan is situated) they indiscriminately killed the entire population of those cities and destroyed every building, every garden and field, without provocation. Tamerlane did the same, but only if a city resisted his warriors (recall that the Jews endlessly revolted against their conquerors). Destruction of population and resources happened in the history of many nations and, contrary to Gottlieb’s contention, was by no means something exceptional or even rare.
Expulsions of population happened in the history of many nations as well. In our time, Stalin routinely moved whole nations from their ancestral lands into remote corners of his vast realm. Crimean Tatars, Meskhs, Chechens, and other ethnic groups who earned Stalin’s displeasure, were mercilessly kicked to Siberia and Kazakhstan.
How often, asked Gottlieb, did the conquered nations not know the language of their conquerors? More often than not, dear rabbi. Who, besides the Mongols themselves, knew their language? None of the conquered people had even heard of the Mongols before the hordes of Genghis overrode their cities. Even today, Mongolian is among the least common languages on our planet. When the Russian empire expanded through "sword and fire," Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Turkmens, Kara-Kalpaks, Kabardins, Balkars, Uigurs, Buryats, Circassians, Bashkirs, Karels, and many other conquered people did not know a word of Russian. When Spanish conquistadors conquered the countries of Central and South America, the aboriginal population of those countries had no knowledge of Spanish and no knowledge of Spain. Therefore Gottlieb’s reference to the Torah’s prediction that the conqueror of Israel would speak a language unknown to the people of Israel in no way indicates an exceptional event.
Further in his discussion Gottlieb refers to the return of Jews to their long lost country as to a unique event. However amazing the rebirth of Israel is, even this event is not really unique. In our time, Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Meskhs and other deported nations, after having spent dozens of years in exile, returned to their lands. What is indeed unique in the history of Jews, is their survival as a distinctive group for two millennia, despite enormous pressure from the hostile environment. However, the text of the Moses’s speech is actually ambiguous in regard to the survival of Jews in case they disobey the commandments.
As it was already mentioned, in some parts of his speech Moses predicted the destruction of Jews as punishment for disobedience rather than mere suffering. While some other words ascribed to Moses (see Deuteronomy 30) can indeed be interpreted as a prediction that Jews will ultimately survive the punishment, these words did not predict when would the Jews redeem their country. Moreover, since various parts of Moses’s speech seem to contradict each other in regard to the nation’s survival, it is a dubious proposition to view the rebirth of Israel as fulfillment of the Torah’s prediction.
Gottlieb’s opus, so highly acclaimed by his cohorts, contains a multitude of small and sometimes not so small flops which should be sufficient in themselves to dismiss his creation as the dream of a person indoctrinated to the extent of not noticing the obvious misconceptions. At the beginning of his booklet, Gottlieb warned potential readers that they must approach his discourse "with open mind." Otherwise, wrote Gottlieb, a reader would not be able to comprehend the alleged indisputable truth revealed by Gottlieb. Reading the book in question leads to the suggestion that Gottlieb himself should have approached the subject of his discussion with an open mind. Actually Gottlieb was rather far from such an approach, viewing his subject through a veil of a preconceived conviction which eliminated any chance he would weigh the evidence in an impartial way. It is obvious that for Gottlieb there was no question of whether or not the Torah tells the truth. His approach testifies to his iron-clad belief (which may be either real or only professed) that the Torah is the depository of ultimate truth and his task was not to discuss the arguments both for and against that view but rather to search for any arguments, however shaky, which seemed to confirm his beliefs. In doing that, Gottlieb offered some points which are very far from being convincing, thus making his work vulnerable to rebuttals and sometimes even to derision.
Here are just four examples of easily rebuffed points in Gottlieb’s book.
1. Gottlieb’s narrative is speckled with references to scientific facts. Some of them reveal that Gottlieb’s familiarity with science is rather approximate. One example of such an approximate understanding of scientific data is Gottlieb’s assertion that quantum mechanics "contradicts relativity." The way this statement is offered reveals Gottlieb’s dilettante’s comprehension of the topic. Most probably he based his statement on some popular sources, of which a book by Stephen Hawking "A Brief History of Time" (Bantam Books, 1998) may be the most widely known. What Hawking states, justifiably (page 53) is that the hot Big Bang theory (BBT), in its part dealing with the initial singularity, is compatible with the general theory of relativity (GTR) but seems to be incompatible with the quantum theory (QT). This specific statement has been unduly generalized by Gottlieb. In Gottlieb’s rendition, QT "contradicts relativity." The term "relativity" is vague since it encompasses several theories. The original quantum mechanics, as formulated by E. Schroedinger and W. Heisenberg in 1928, did not account for relativistic effects, but that did not mean it contradicted the theory of relativity. It took just a few years until P. Dirac succeeded in combining Quantum Mechanics with the special theory of relativity – STR (which led, among other things, to the theoretical substantiation of the concept of electron’s spin). This combination was necessary because quantum mechanics and special theory of relativity, which is essentially the mechanics of inertial systems, cover overlapping areas. Contrary to Gottlieb’s assertion, "relativity," if understood as STR, not only is compatible with QT but the latter is essentially, in its full form, inherently relativistic. If we turn to GTR, which is the theory of gravitation (or, also, the mechanics of non-inertial systems) it can be viewed separately from QT and in its main body does not necessarily require accounting for quantum-mechanical effects. The theory of Big Bang was originated neither from GTR nor from QT, but rather as an interpretation of observational data, although some elements of GTR were referred to in that development. It includes a very obscure point of the initial singularity, which so far could not be clarified by the existing theories. It has transpired though that the singularity element of BBT is compatible with GTR but seems to be incompatible with QT. This observation does not at all mean that QT and GTR contradict each other in their fundamental concepts. Those concepts cover two fields which are not overlapping in their main components and therefore the fact that some phenomenon extraneous to both theories is compatible with one and not compatible with the other does not signify their mutual incompatibility.
The concepts of contradiction and of incompatibility, while partially overlapping, are essentially two different notions. If A contradicts B, then necessarily B contradicts A. However, if A is incompatible with B, the latter can still be compatible with A. In other words the compatibility can be directional, while contradiction cannot. For example, I am writing these lines using Word 2000 processor. If I try to use Word 6 processor, it will not be able to read these lines. Hence, Word 6 is incompatible with Word 2000. However, using Word 2000 I can open and read my old files made in Word 6. Hence, Word 2000 is compatible with Word 6 despite Word 6 being incompatible with Word 2000.
There are numerous examples in geometry. Consider three geometric figures A, B and C. Their shape is such that, say, the right side of A is fully congruent with the left side of B but not congruent with the left side of C. On the other hand, the right side of B can be fully congruent with the left side of C. Hence, A is compatible with B but not with C, while B is compatible with both A and C. The fact that B is compatible with C while A is not, does not prevent A and B being compatible with each other.
Recall that in apartment buildings or in hotels, the keys to apartments or hotel rooms as well as the door locks are incompatible with each other, but all keys and locks are compatible with the same master key.
Gottlieb asserts that names like Joseph, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Lavan were common in the patriarchal period but ceased to be common after the patriarch’s time. This is why, he asserts, these names appear only in Genesis. This, in his opinion, supports the view that the Torah’s story is true.
First, his statement is not correct. For example, the name Joseph appears in Numbers 13:7, describing a much later time than that of the patriarchs. Second, the names of the patriarchs were their personal names and their use in Genesis by no means indicates that those names were common at that time. Likewise, if names Abraham or Jacob are not mentioned anywhere besides Genesis, it does not mean they dropped from use.
2. Gottlieb’s other arguments are similar to that with the names. For example, his explanation for the complete absence of any record of the exodus of Jews from Egypt in any Egyptian sources is that the event in question was a defeat for Egypt, and therefore the Egyptians simply did not want to mention it. No, dear rabbi, when a nation suffers a defeat, some historians will try to give the story a spin favorable to the nation while some other historians will report on it objectively aiming at deriving from the defeat lessons useful for the country in the future. The suggestion that chroniclers would keep complete silence about an important event in their history is hard to believe. The fact is that archeological research has not yet unearthed any evidence whatsoever which would confirm the Torah’s story about the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, about their sojourn in Sinai, or about their conquest of Canaan. Of course, the historical accounts in the Torah, while embellished with tales about miracles, nevertheless may partially reflect the real history of those remote years, but there is no proof other that the Torah itself, which would corroborate the tales in question, even if only their non-miraculous parts.
The more plausible guess (but still only a guess lacking corroboration) in regard to the tale of the Exodus is that if the event indeed occurred, it was not something of importance from the Egyptian viewpoint. The number of Jewish slaves who reportedly escaped from their Egyptian masters (or were released for whatever reason) could have been insignificant from the standpoint of the Egyptian administration, not deserving mention as an event of historical importance, while for the slaves it certainly would be a matter for poems and heroic sagas.
Gottlieb referred to certain details in the Torah’s story which, he asserts, are historically correct. Among such details he mentions the correct price for a slave in the story about Joseph and his brothers, the report on sleeping in beds in Egypt, and the like. These details, however correct, do not prove anything either.
The fact that the writers of the Torah story used specific realistic details such as the correct price of a slave etc, can be understood if we surmise that these writers based their narrative on more ancient stories but it in no way proves that the stories themselves are not fictional or at least not a mix of facts and fiction.
Authors of historical novels as well of other genres of fiction routinely try to use correct details of real life in their imaginary world, including prices for goods, details of fashion, common names, etc. Here is an example to the contrary. Once I started reading a novel by some American writer named Muir, in which the action partially took place in the Middle East. Somewhere around page 3 the author introduced a hero, supposedly an Israeli, whose name was a typical Arabic Islamic name whereas the writer wanted readers to believe it was a Hebrew name. Having realized that the writer had very limited knowledge of his subject, I at once lost trust in the plausibility of his story and closed the book to never open it again. Unless they explicitly present a fairy tale, all writers are aware of the necessity of imitating reality to the best of his/her ability if they wish to keep readers’ attention. Nonetheless, however faithfully the particular details are reflected in a novel or a story, they never convert a work of fiction into a chronicle of history.
The overall impression given by Gottlieb’s book is that of a piece of wishful thinking in the disguise of a quasi-philosophical treatise. Gottlieb routinely tries to present platitudes as insights and obvious truisms as fine definitions. His argumentation has little to do with an unbiased analysis of his subject, while his most common method is to substitute the desired for the actual.
The matters discussed by Gottlieb belong in the realm of faith. Gottlieb is entitled to believe anything he chooses. Nobody can argue against beliefs unless they are offered as something supposedly supported by rational discourse. In the latter case, rebuttals and denials are legitimate. If Gottlieb limited himself to the expression of his faith as a matter of his personal emotionally justified choice, there would be no critical discussion of his writing. Unfortunately, he chose to justify his beliefs via rational, quasi-scientific approach. After having read Gottlieb’s opus, one can only regret that an educated man has wasted so much of time and effort to produce something having no value.
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