PROHIBITION TO THINK
By Mark Perakh
Posted on March 23, 2000
BREAKING THROUGH AN OPEN DOOR
In this article I will discuss two books by Lawrence Kelemen, one titled Permission to Believe (Targum Press, 1990) with a subtitle “Four Rational Approaches to God’s Existence” and the other titled Permission to Receive (Targum Press, 1996) with a subtitle “Four Rational Approaches to the Torah’s Divine Origin.”
At the very beginning of his first book Kelemen says (page 12): “First,
many people would believe in God tomorrow if only their intellect would allow
them. These people intuitively
suspect the existence of an Almighty. Yet
the admirably high value our society places on reason, combined with the
unfortunately widespread misconception that belief in God is necessarily
irrational, squelches their potential spirituality.
These individuals should be permitted to examine the case for God. They
should be granted permission to believe.”
Reading the above sentences leaves one wondering whether Kelemen expects that his potential readers will swallow any statement regardless of its meaning provided it is delivered with sufficient solemnity, or he himself is a prisoner of delusion.
Consider the alleged prohibition to believe. Is there invisible “intellectual” police watching the beliefs of every individual and forbidding him to believe? How can Kelemen assert that “many people” (who are not believers) “intuitively suspect” that there is God? Did he conduct a survey of unbelievers who admitted that they “intuitively suspect” the existence of “an Almighty”? (Note that in his assertion Kelemen mentions not just God, but “an Almighty,” hence attributing to the object of the alleged suspicions of many non-believers a certain characteristic – omnipotence).
In Kelemen’s view, adherence to reason “squelches one’s potential spirituality.” Reason itself, in Kelemen’s view, is alien to spirituality.
Furthermore, according to Kelemen, the view which asserts that belief in God is irrational, is unfortunate. Note that in this point Kelemen does not seem to be concerned with the question about whether or not the belief in God is indeed rational. He is simply unhappy that many people view such a belief as irrational, regardless of any arguments that might confirm such a view. (We will discuss this question a little later in this review).
Overall, the above quotation defines the parameters of the discussion as being set on a false foundation.
There is no such problem as an absence of permission to believe either in the existence of an Almighty God or in the divine origin of the Torah. Indeed, there are in our world many more believers than agnostics and especially than atheists. The latter are a rather rare breed but Kelemen’s effort is aimed precisely at that minority. To give more weight to his discourse, Kelemen depicts agnostic and atheistic views as allegedly being prevalent (at least among intellectuals) and owing their existence to a mythical prohibition to believe.
There is a Russian adage “Breaking through an open door.” If a door is open, there is no need to break through it. The quoted adage relates to a situation in which an action is undertaken to achieve a result that actually requires no effort because it is already available. Kelemen’s effort to ensure “permission to believe” is breaking through a door which is anyway already wide open for anyone wishing to believe.
Denying the spirituality of non-believers, and falsely assuming that many non-believers are somehow prohibited to believe, Kelemen actually is arguing not for permission to believe, as he pretends, but rather for a prohibition against thinking.
this review, I will expand on the latter statement by discussing the particular
arguments forwarded by Kelemen to support his appeal to believe.
IRRATIONALITY OF OPPOSITE VIEWS
Chapter 1 in the first of the two Kelemen’s books is titled “Atheism is Irrational.” To either agree or disagree with that statement, we need first to agree on a definition of what is rational and what is irrational. Unfortunately, Kelemen does not offer any such definition. The absence of a definition of a concept utilized by Kelemen makes his discourse rather vague. In order to rationally discuss Kelemen’s books, we have to introduce the definition in question ourselves, since without it we will lack criteria enabling us to distinguish between rational and irrational attitudes. Of course, introducing such a definition, we will have to make sure it will not contradict the concept of rational vs irrational which seems to be implicitly (possibly not always consistently) used by Kelemen.
For the purpose of this discussion, we will formulate the following definition of a rational attitude to controversial issues. In order to be viewed as rational, the attitude must meet the following requirements: 1) It must clearly distinguish between facts and the interpretation of facts. 2) It must clearly distinguish between a) undeniable facts proven by uncontroversial direct evidence, b) plausible but unproven notions, c) notions agreed upon for the sake of discussion, d) notions that are possible but not supported by evidence, and e) notions contradicting evidence. Also, when saying that the above situations must be clearly distinguished in a rational discourse, they must be also accordingly judged in regard to their veracity, so a rational conclusion is such that is based solely on undeniable facts proven by uncontroversial direct evidence. Statements and notions arrived at without meeting the above criteria we will view as irrational, regardless of how many adherents they may have. A conclusion or view can be accepted as rational only if it is based on a careful analysis of the matter with regards to its meeting the above points. Note that our definition does not contain any criteria designed to assert that a notion, conclusion, or view in question is true. In other words, our definition of rational not necessarily coincides with a definition of what is true, although in many cases (but not necessarily always) that which is rational has a good chance of being true as well.
With the above definition in mind, we can now discuss Kelemen’s assertion that of three possible views, that held by believer in God, that held by an atheist, and that held by an agnostic, only two (the believer’s and the agnostic’s) are rational while that of an atheist is irrational.
In view of our definition, we must agree with Kelemen’s statement that atheism is irrational. It is irrational, as per our definition (but not necessarily untrue) because there is no direct incontrovertible evidence that there is no God. Note, that the last statement actually requires we first define the notion of God. Since this paper is not a theological tractate, I am not trying to provide such a definition. For the purpose of this discussion, it seems sufficient to state that Kelemen’s God is the God of the Torah.
We can also agree with Kelemen that the views of agnostics are rational. Agnostics do not adhere to any notions that are not supported by direct uncontroversial evidence, so agnostics’ views do not contradict our definition of rationality.
It is the third part of Kelemen’s triad of statements which is contrary to our definition of rational vs. irrational. According to that view, religious beliefs are rational. It is easy to see that such a statement clearly contradicts the above definition of rational.
There is no direct incontrovertible evidence of God’s existence. What believers do offer as evidence is not facts but the interpretations of facts. These interpretations may be true or false, or partially true and partially false, but interpretations are not facts and therefore religious beliefs, like atheism, are irrational, according to our definition. If, though, Kelemen is dissatisfied with our definition of rationality, he should offer his own definition, but that would, of course, completely alter the parameters of discussion.
To substantiate his assertion that religious beliefs can be rational, Kelemen describes two possible ways the religious belief can be acquired rationally.
One way, according to Kelemen, is that God may just “introduce Himself to you” (page 15). He continues: “Although we have a right to view such claim with extreme skepticism, we must also admit that someone could come to possess absolute certainty about God’s existence through such an event.”
That assertion is by no means compelling. If we accepted the quoted statement, we would have to legitimize hallucinations which may result, say, from drug abuse or from a mental illness if such a hallucination features God introducing himself to a person. If a person believes he is Napoleon or Jesus, we justifiably view this as fully irrational and keep that person in a mental ward. If, though, a person believes God introduced himself to him/her, then, according to Kelemen, this may be viewed as a rationally substantiated belief. While some people may firmly believe God spoke to them, we hardly can refute such a claim, but this belief is no more rational than the belief of being Napoleon or Jesus, or Mother Teresa, or one’s own mother.
The second way to acquire faith rationally, says Kelemen (page 16) is “through indirect evidence, that is, through circumstances and phenomena that cannot be explained without positing God’s existence.”
Obviously, in the latter statement Kelemen sees no distinction between facts and the interpretation of facts, and therefore, according to our definition of the rational attitude, the second way, suggested by Kelemen for acquiring faith, does not meet our definition of rational.
How can it be asserted that there is no way to explain a phenomenon other than to posit the existence of God? If such an alternative explanation is not evident it does not mean it is impossible. Therefore, accepting the existence of God as the only possible explanation of a phenomenon is by no means a rational act, as it is not based on direct incontrovertible evidence and hence contradicts our definition of rational. Both of Kelemen’s ways to acquire faith through a rational path turn out to be irrational emergences of belief substantiated not by factual evidence but only by a certain interpretation of facts.
To support his assertion that firm knowledge can be rational even in the absence of direct evidence, Kelemen gives an example: “How do we know that there was once an American president by the name of Abraham Lincoln? We know not because we ever met Lincoln but because there is no other reasonable way to explain the existence of a universally accepted tradition that he lived.”
The fallacy of this pseudo-analogy is obvious. Kelemen’s example would be more plausible if, instead of Lincoln, he mentioned some person whose existence is indeed not fully certain, for example some ancient king whose name is known from legends but whose historical existence cannot be asserted as undeniable fact. Some biblical personalities come to mind, but I don’t want to be accused of being unfairly critical of the biblical account. Therefore I would suggest some semi-historical personality like some Egyptian pharaoh whose name allegedly appears in some inscriptions. Since there cannot be absolute certainty that the inscriptions in question have indeed been interpreted correctly, or that if they were, they indeed reflect reality rather than fantasy of those who made them, the consensus that this or that ancient pharaoh did live is built upon an argument similar to that offered by Kelemen. It seems most reasonable to interpret the inscriptions in question in a certain way and therefore there is a consensus that the person in question did indeed live so many thousand years ago. This consensus is though not as compelling as direct evidence, such as obviously exists about Lincoln. We possess numerous documents, testimonies, and generally an enormous wealth of evidence about Lincoln’s life, activities and death. To know that Lincoln lived, it is not necessary to have personally met him. There is not even a shadow of such direct evidence about the existence of God. Rather then factual evidence, the alleged evidence of God’s existence is just interpretation of facts. None of those interpretations is compelling enough to exclude alternative explanations and therefore to accept the interpretation attributing certain facts to God’s existence is purely irrational (which by itself does not signify that the ensuing belief is wrong).
Furthermore, it is easy to give examples contrary to that with Lincoln. There are quite often situations when there is compelling evidence of some events but nevertheless there are people who doubt or even deny the occurrence of those events regardless of the evidence. One well-known example is the Holocaust. There is overwhelming and undeniable evidence that the Nazis systematically murdered millions of Jews and Gypsies. Nevertheless, there are, so far not very numerous but rather noisy groups of people who fanatically deny those undeniable facts. Why is then this unusual or surprising that many people doubt the existence of God, for which there is no clear and unambiguous evidence but only particular interpretations of facts, which never exclude alternative explanations?
As the matter stands now, Kelemen’s opinion that only atheism is irrational while agnosticism and religious belief are rational, seems unsubstantiated. A more reasonable notion seems to be that both atheism and religious beliefs are irrational, while only agnosticism is rational. Again, rationality or irrationality in themselves do not determine what is true and what is false, as either beliefs in God or atheism must be true despite being irrational.
The last portion of Chapter 1 in Kelemen’s book is devoted to a discussion of the allegedly strongest argument atheists can suggest against the existence of God. According to Kelemen, this argument boils down to the question: why do bad things happen to good people?
Of course, this question is by far not the first that comes to mind when discussing the existence of God. This question would be legitimate if the discussion were not about the existence of God, but rather about the existence of a specific God who possesses particular characteristics. Namely, it would deal only with a God who is supposed to be, first, interested in humans, and, second, benevolent. The question of God’s existence is, though, quite apart from the question of what kind of God he is.
If we assume that God exists, it still leaves open a number of alternatives as to what kind of God he is. God may have created the world and then left it alone, to proceed according to the laws he established. God may also be watching the world and sometimes interfering with its functioning, but remaining utterly indifferent to humans. God may have created humans just for fun, to see how they would behave and what they would do. God may relate to humans in the way similar to how we relate to animals. God may even be enjoying some cruel games with humans. All these possibilities are not substantiated by any rational evidence, but they cannot be excluded, as cannot be excluded the existence of an invisible God itself. An observation of the history of humankind makes the assumption that God loves people least plausible, even though that is what Kelemen’s question seems to imply.
For an agnostic or an atheist, the questionable assertion is, first and foremost, whether or not an invisible God who has created the universe exists, or the universe’s existence is spontaneous. The question of God’s benevolence seems to be somewhere lower on their list of priorities.
formulates his assertions in regard to which parts of his triad are rational and
which are irrational, in a rather categorical way, without trying to
substantiate them. It leaves an impression that he expects the readers to accept
these assertions uncritically. If that is true, it means he does not want to
permit the readers to think
ARE MORALS PRESCRIBED BY GOD?
Chapter 2 in Kelemen’s first book is titled “The Moral Approach to God’s Existence.” In that chapter Kelemen asks the following question: ”Why is murder wrong?” Testing a number of possible answers to that question, Kelemen finds all of those answers unsatisfactory and concludes that the only possible answer is that murder is indeed wrong because God said so. The alternative explanations include reason, a decision by some extremely influential human law-giver, the decision made by the majority of people in our country, common opinion of the majority of all people, and, finally, murder being unnatural.
Reason, according to Kelemen cannot explain the notion that murder is wrong because murder can easily be rationalized as being useful for achieving certain goals.
Decision by some influential person cannot explain the notion in question because no individual is powerful enough to impose his/her view on the society as a whole, and, moreover, even the most influential person lives only for so many years so his/her decision cannot serve as a permanent principle agreed upon by the society.
The decision by our society as a whole cannot explain the notion in question because it will not have any effect on many other societies, including those that will eventually replace our society.
Decision by the entire community of nations cannot explain the notion that murder is wrong because the community of nations is always in the process of change and whatever seemed right at a particular moment of time, may be viewed as wrong just for the next generation.
The notion of murder being unnatural cannot explain why it is wrong because for many individuals, groups and whole countries some forms of murder may seem quite natural.
Hence, concludes Kelemen, the only remaining option is to view the notion that murder is wrong as having supernatural origin.
The described puerile quasi-philosophical discourse by Kelemen makes one wonder, what kind of readers he had in mind? The above discourse may impress first-graders but otherwise it is a glaringly primitive and factually unsubstantiated discussion.
What does Kelemen mean by his question? Facts are abundant showing that murder is too often viewed as not wrong at all. Most of the US states execute men and women for various crimes, and the overwhelmingly religious people of the country equally overwhelmingly ardently support death penalty. When Russian troops prepare to fight the Chechen guerillas, Russian Orthodox priests perform solemn prayers asking God to help in murdering Chechens. In their turn, when Chechen guerillas and accompanying them international mercenaries and fanatical Muslim volunteers embark on murderous raids into towns and villages, they ask Allah for help in murdering Russians and those Chechens who do not want to die fighting Russians. Therefore the very question – why is murder wrong – is formulated in a wrong way. The Tutsi and Hutu murdering each other, or Muslim rebels in Phillipines, or Marxist gangs in Latin America obviously do not think at all that murder of those who do not share their views is wrong.
The proper question should be different and twofold. First, why ten commandments include prohibition to murder and, second, why murder is a crime under the laws of most of the countries unless it is performed with a legal approval. The answer to that question does not require any reference to supernatural source of morals. Unregulated murder is prohibited by law for the same reason a legally regulated murder is permitted, namely because it is viewed as advantageous for the majority of the population. It is well known what happens when law and order break down in a country. Nobody is safe and the life becomes extremely hard. Prohibiting arbitrary murder and approving legally authorized murder both are meant to make life more comfortable for the overwhelming majority of the population.
There is no need whatsoever to look for a supernatural source of the notion that the murder is wrong, because, first of all, there is practically no such absolute notion in existence. The inclusion of prohibition to kill into ten commandments may be explained by the same reason murder is considered a punishable crime in most of the law systems. If arbitrary murder were allowed, it would make life hell-like in any society. Society protects itself by proclaiming murder a crime and instituting punishment for it, often in the form of murder. Ten commandments can be viewed as a human-generated precursor of legal systems whose main purpose was to reasonably regulate the society to the advantage of the majority.
book by Kelemen is aimed at proving the divine origin of the Torah.
Therefore it is natural to expect that asserting the divine origin of the
moral imperatives, Kelemen would support his thesis by referring to the
pertinent elements of the Torah. Strangely, discussing the morals and
attributing the high moral principles to a supernatural source, Kelemen
completely avoids any discussion of the moral lessons one can receive from the
Torah. May it be that the reason
for such an omission is his reluctance to delve into the stories telling about
not very commendable behavior of many biblical personalities?
One of the beloved heroes of the Bible, whose ancestry was supposed to
produce the future Messiah, king David treacherously took by force the wife of
his faithful servant and soldier Uriah and arranged for Uriah’s murder. One of
David’s sons raped his half-sister, thus aggravating rape by incest.
Discussing such examples, which are abundant in the biblical story, Kelemen
would encounter an unrewarding task of explaining how to reconcile all those
occurrences of crime, betrayal, incest and cowardice with the high moral
principles allegedly stemming from a divine source of the Torah. Having eschewed
such a discussion, Kelemen demonstrated a rather imperfect devotion to the
entire chapter 2 in Kelemen’s first book is void of any real analysis of
morals and of their origin but boils down to an irrelevant discourse not based
on any factual foundation. If
Kelemen expected the readers to accept his discourse uncritically, it means he did
not want the readers to think.
PSEUDO-SCIENTIFIC PROOFS OF GOD’S EXISTENCE
Chapter 3 in Kelemen’s first book is titled “The Cosmological Approach to God’s Existence.” Unlike the preceding chapters, where Kelemen mainly dealt with generalities, in this chapter he embarks on a journey through scientific data and theories, attempting to enlist those data as evidence indicating the hand of God. There is nothing original or new in that chapter where Kelemen repeats the same arguments heard hundreds of time before from the proponents of the Bible’s inerrancy, both of Jewish and Christian persuasions. All those references to science have been shown many times over to be either irrelevant or misinterpreted, but apparently no number of rebuttals, however well founded, can persuade the adherents of the Bible’s inerrancy to listen to reason.
Of course, there is nothing surprising in such an attitude. In my local newspaper there is a regular section titled “Faith and Values.” It prints numerous letters from readers, some of them in favor of faith (overwhelmingly in its Christian variety) and some in favor of science. More then once, in letters from believers an unequivocal opinion was expressed that if there is a contradiction between science and the Bible, then science surely is in error.
In view of the above, I have no intention to discuss in detail the alleged scientific proofs of God’s existence borrowed by Kelemen from the books by his fellow defenders of the biblical story. I will make only a few brief comments.
In the chapter in question, Kelemen tells the story of how science came to the theory of the Big Bang. His narrative is more or less correctly following the chain of events that culminated in the above theory, with only some minor inaccuracies. He provides the same endlessly repeated quotes from scientists allegedly supporting the biblical story about the creation of the universe. Of course, the factual side of the theory of the Big Bang in itself has nothing to do with the question of whether the universe was created by God or emerged spontaneously. The theory of Big Bang, which is today the most widely accepted theory of the universe’s origin, cannot and does not answer that question. Equating the Big Bang theory with the creation of the universe by God according to the biblical story is just an interpretation of the theory in question in a way fitting the agenda of the creationists. The theory itself provides no clues whatsoever to the mystery of the universe’s emergence. It is worth mentioning that when a scientific theory seems to contradict the biblical account, one of the arguments often used by the adherents of the Bible’s inerrancy is that “it is just a theory.” For example, this argument is common in discussions of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Of course, Darwin’s theory is just a theory, and it does not pretend to be anything more than that. This is true, though, for every scientific theory, including that of the Big Bang, but in the latter case the defenders of the Bible’s inerrancy readily forgive its being just a theory and refer to it as to a highly reliable proof of their beliefs.
Generally speaking, there are multiple points in the Bible which obviously contradict scientific data. Some other points seem to jibe well with such data. The defenders of the Bible’s inerrancy treat these two types of items differently. Those few points in the biblical story which seem to be in agreement with science are touted as rational proofs of the veracity of the Bible. The Big Bang theory is an example in point. However, those, much more common points, which obviously are contrary to scientific data, are either not mentioned, or subjected to a mental acrobatics to explain them away. Examples are well known and include such stories as the six days of creation, Noah and his ark, the order of creation of plants, animals, and man, and many others.
If Kelemen expects readers to accept uncritically his contention that the modern cosmology proves the existence of God, it means he wants to prohibit his readers to think.
BIOLOGY OR TELEOLOGY?
Chapter 4 in Kelemen’s first book is titled “The Teleological Approach to God’s Existence.” This title is somehow misleading since actually it simply continues the theme of the preceding chapter trying to prove God’s existence by utilizing results of scientific exploration. Like in the preceding chapter, Kelemen again provides no new or original arguments repeating instead the arguments heard countless number of times before from the defenders of the Bible’s inerrancy. This time argumentation relates to biological sciences and to calculations of probabilities. Kelemen repeats the references to the amazing complexity of the universe and of the living organisms, which allegedly must have been a creation of a divine Creator. He refers to the very small probabilities of a spontaneous emergence of complex biological structures ignoring the arguments showing that those small probabilities are irrelevant. Without naming them, he uses the so-called strong anthropic principle and argument from design, both discussed many times before. Both arguments have failed to make any skeptic change his/her opinion and to both arguments many strong counter-arguments had been suggested before. In this web site, both types of arguments together with rebuttals have been discussed in several articles and therefore I see no reason to repeat that discussion once again.
Kelemen expects the readers to accept his assertions uncritically, it means he
wants to impose on the readers a prohibition to think.
THE CHOSEN PEOPLE ARE THE PROOF, OR ARE THEY?
Chapter 5 in Kelemen’s first book is titled “The Jewish History Approach to God’s Existence.”
Kelemen started with repeating in a condensed form the biblical story about the Jews who were slaves in Egypt and then, some 3,300 years ago, miraculously escaped from bondage while all other ethnic groups enslaved in Egypt perished. Then he continues to tell us that the escaped Jews arrived, less than half a century later, at the border of what would become their God-promised land.
Apparently feeling that repeating the biblical story and providing no additional evidence would not make his position convincing enough, Kelemen tries to provide some independent evidence. Unfortunately, his references are either misleading or unreliable. The indisputable fact is that there is no archeological or documentary evidence that would support the biblical story. Extensive archeological exploration of the Sinai peninsula and in Israel have so far failed to unearth any evidence in question.
For example, the
exodus of the Jews from Egypt, according to the Torah, is assumed to have
happened some 3,300 years ago. There is a plethora of material evidence from
that time related to the history of Egypt.
There is not a word there about the Jewish slaves, about the ten plagues
of the biblical story, about the exodus of close to 2.5 million slaves, etc. It
is worth mentioning that among Egyptian documents of that epoch there is one
containing a detailed account about the escape of two slaves from their master,
with a description of the path they chose and of their capture.
On the other hand, can we believe that the exodus of 2.5 million Jews did
not merit a single word in any of the documents of that time?
Regarding the number of Jews who allegedly escaped from slavery, the book of Exodus informs us that there were about 600,000 men in their ranks. Since there must have been an almost equal number of women, and there were also children, there is a tradition estimating the total number of Jews Moses led out of Egypt as close to 2.5 million. Since there were many other ethnic groups living on the Earth at that time, the total population of the planet must have comprised many millions. Indeed, in Deuteronomy 7.7 we read: “for you are the fewest of all people.”
We will now discuss the population numbers in terms of orders of magnitude only, since no precise numbers are known. Assume that the entire population of the earth at the time of the Exodus was about ten million, which seems to be a rather conservative estimate if we accept, as per the Torah, that there were about 2.5 million of Jews alone. Assume further that the duration of each generation was about fifty years, which of course is probably an exaggerated number (even in the 17th century the average life-span of men and women, especially of low social status, was still less than 40 years only). In other words, to avoid acceptance of numbers too favorable for my thesis, we will use the term generation assuming that every fifty years a new generation of people, larger than that of their parents, completely replaced the preceding generation. Of course, such an assumption is somehow arbitrary, but remember that we are estimating population growth in terms of orders of magnitude only. If we accept the above numbers, it means that between the Flood and the Exodus, that is during about 1,000 years, twenty generations consecutively replaced each other. According to the Torah’s story, only eight people (Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives) survived the Flood, but one thousand years after the Flood there were already about 2.5 millions of Jews alone which makes our estimate of the entire population of the earth at the time of Exodus as ten million quite conservative. With these assumptions, the rate of the population’s growth between the Flood and the Exodus can be found to be 2.02 per generation. (For those interested in the arithmetic, the formula for the growth rate r is: r equals root of power n of [M divided by m], where r is the growth rate, M is the population size at the end of the period in question, m is the population size at the beginning of that period, and n is the number of generations. With the above assumptions, it yields the rate of about 2.02 per generation). In other words, the assumptions based on the data given in the Torah lead to the conclusion that the population of the earth more than doubled every fifty years between the Flood and the Exodus. Since our estimate of the entire population of the earth at the time of the Exodus (10 million) was deliberately chosen low, the rate of the population growth necessary to fit the Torah’s story must have actually been substantially larger than 2.02 p/g.
Let us see now what happens if we apply the above rate of population growth to the period between the Exodus and our time, i.e. during 3,300 years. If the time span per generation is still estimated as 50 years, 66 generations must have replaced each other, and the earth population must have more than doubled every fifty years. If there were about 2.5 million Jews in Egypt at the time of the Exodus, than the entire population of that country must have included at least as many people. Indeed, according to the archeological data, the population of Egypt about 3,300 years ago was close to 2.5 million people. Assuming the rate of the population’s growth to be the same 2.02 p/g also for the period of time after the Exodus, we find that the population of Egypt should have now reached (2.5 million times 2.02 to the power of 66) which yields an absurdly enormous number of about (3.5 times ten to the power of 27). Of course the actual size of the population of the entire Earth today is still immensely smaller, only about (5 times ten to the power of 9).
The absurdity of the above data shows that something is wrong with the biblical account.
Of course, one can play with numbers, varying the assumptions about the duration of a generation, or about the population size at the time of the Exodus, but there is no way to make these numbers reasonably compatible with the biblical story. For example, decreasing the estimate of the population size at the time of the Exodus to below 10 million would increase the calculated rate of growth for the period of time between the Exodus and our time, however one cannot reasonably assume much less than 10 million remaining anywhere close to the biblical account of about 2.5 million of Jews alone. Increasing the duration of a lifetime of a generation would also increase the calculated rate of growth per generation, but the larger rate of growth would be counterbalanced by the decreased number of generations between the Flood and the Exodus. Furthermore, each variation of the assumed numbers which would make the numbers for the millennium between the Flood and the Exodus slightly more reasonable, would necessarily make the numbers for the millennia between the Exodus and our time even farther from anything reasonable.
Another counter-argument can be offered as follows. Average numbers are often misleading. The discrepancy between the data calculated for the first millennium after the Flood and those for the following 3,300 years could be attributed to the variations in the growth rate in the course of the millennia..
Generally speaking, this is a valid argument. However, it is hardly applicable to the case under consideration, for two reasons. First, while average values are indeed sometimes misleading, the longer the time span over which the averaging is done, the better are the fluctuations of the growth rates smoothened out, and therefore the comparison of average rates for two very long periods of time (in our case millennia) becomes meaningful. Second, to explain away the discrepancy in question by assuming that it is due to the averaging of rates of growth, we would need to assume that the rate of population’s growth during the first millennium after the Flood was much larger than during the next three millennia. Such a suggestion not only lacks any evidence, but it is contrary to the known facts. Over the course of millennia, the advances in medicine and food production resulted in a slow and uneven, but gradual increase in the average duration of human life, hence to a gradual increase of the excess of births over deaths, thereby increasing the average rate of population’s growth. It is actually only a very recent phenomenon that in some European countries (Russia is one example) a considerable drop in the number of births occurs, but even this is more than counterbalanced by an immense population growth in some other countries (like Mexico, and others). To assume that the rate of population growth during the first thousand years after the Flood was much larger than it was for the next 3,300 years is hardly tenable.
These simple calculations, however crude estimates they are, show that the three biblical numbers – only eight survivors of the Flood, about one thousand years between the Flood and the Exodus and about 2.5 million Jews at the time of Exodus -- cannot all be correct. The biblical assertions that there were only eight people alive after the Flood, but about 2.5 million Jews alone one thousand years later, plus the fact that about 5 billion people are living on the earth today cannot be reasonably reconciled and therefore are untenable. Consequently (as well as because of many other inconsistencies) the biblical account cannot be relied upon in discussing the history of the Jews, at least until the time of the Kings. Even the early history of the Kings, including that of the allegedly great states ruled by David and especially by Solomon, has no archeological confirmation whatsoever.
Despite many efforts, no archeological evidence of the Israelis in Sinai has been unearthed. As the recent archeological studies in Israel have shown, there are no archeological traces of the conquest of Canaan by Jewish tribes under the guidance of Yehoshua (Joshua) Bin Nun. There were almost no cities in existence at the time of the supposed conquest like those mentioned in the Torah. The few settlements that really existed were just small villages, usually not protected by any fortifications. There are no traces of the battles that reportedly destroyed those villages.
In view of the above facts, the ancient history of the Jews as told by Kelemen is mostly just a legendary story not supported by any documentary or archeological evidence. Kelemen’s references to alleged archeological confirmations of the biblical account contradict the results of the recent more thorough and more comprehensive archeological studies. There is a widely accepted consensus among Israeli archeologists that their earlier expectations and hopes of unearthing evidence of the biblical narrative related to the Exodus or to the Israelite conquest of Canaan have been thwarted by the practically complete absence of such evidence, and, moreover, by unearthing evidence which is contrary to the biblical story.
When Kelemen switches to the more recent history of the Jewish people, he is generally on much more solid ground (even though his narrative about the story of Jews in historically known Hellenistic and Roman periods has a number of imprecise elements). Overall, his brief description of the endless persecutions the Jews experienced in the course of the last two millennia is unfortunately true. Yes, the Jewish people were subjected to various forms of oppression, murdered en masse, and expelled from various countries. Various forms of anti-Semitism, that extremely stubborn moral plague of which the humankind should be acutely ashamed (but seems not to be) persist to this day. It is a complicated phenomenon whose roots are varied. However unique the history of the Jewish people, it also has features in common with many other ethnic and religious groups.
Ancient Carthage was erased from the face of the earth by victorious Romans and its population largely massacred. The Mongol warriors of Genghis Khan murdered the entire population of the cities in Central Asia they captured. Attila the Hun was hardly much more lenient. While all these events are of the remote past, in our time the monstrous regime of Red Khmers murdered almost half of the country’s population. Tutsi and Hutus engaged in mutual mass murder in full view of the world. Stalin expelled whole nations to remote corners of his realm. This gruesome list could be expanded. Hence, Jews have no monopoly on suffering and persecutions.
Various theories have been offered to explain the roots of anti-Semitism, but none seemed to be satisfactory. This makes it easier for Kelemen to suggest that the history of the Jewish people has been preordained by a supernatural power. While such a supposition cannot be excluded, it has not been supported by any evidence and is no more plausible than a variety of explanations attributing the vicissitudes of the Jews to natural causes. The persecutions of Jews by the Romans can be plausibly explained by the irreconcilable contradiction between the monotheism of Jews versus the Romans’ belief in a multitude of gods, including their very human emperors. The endless revolts by Jews who could not reconcile themselves to the Roman pantheon and to the worship of every next emperor, provoked very harsh reprisals. The persecutions of Jews in the medieval times can be attributed to the traditional hostility of Christian believers to the people who, as those benighted Christians believed, betrayed and demanded killing their God’s human body. Such explanations are by no means weaker than the attribution of the Jewish fate to a divine power.
Kelemen repeats the traditional interpretation of Jewish travails by attributing them to the disobedience by Jews of God’s commandments, as it was allegedly predicted in the Torah. This question has been discussed, in particular in the paper on this website titled “Dreaming Up…” It was shown in that paper that the actual fate of the Jewish people has differed in many respects from what could be expected based on Moses’s prediction in the book of Deuteronomy, and that those predictions by Moses are rather vague and even contradictory. The attribution of the events of the Jewish history to their disobedience to God’s commandments as the latter were listed in the Torah is not very convincing because of the mentioned contradictions.
At the end of this chapter Kelemen sais: “…one who feels dissatisfied with the non-religious responses to the riddle of Jewish endurance can certainly find in the history of this unusual people permission to believe.”
That quotation is strikingly illogical and built on sand. Nobody lacks “permission to believe,” such “permission“ is available for free and without a ration card to everybody. Furthermore, why dissatisfaction with certain theories and explanations must “certainly” be an argument in favor of some other, also unsatisfactory theory or beliefs, is Kelemen’s secret.
Kelemen expects his readers to accept his contentions uncritically it means he
wants to prohibit his readers’ thinking.
GOD’S JUSTICE ACCORDING TO KELEMEN
Chapter 6 in Kelemen’s first book is titled “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.”
The question in the chapter’s title relates to a problem which is beyond Kelemen’s proclaimed topic of his book, namely to provide four rational approaches to God’s existence. The question about God’s justice or injustice is not about whether or not God exists. This question implies not only that the existence of God is accepted but also that we know God’s character. Certainly, accepting the hypothesis that the universe was created by invisible immaterial God does not necessarily mean that the Creator also is interested in humans, or cares about them, or is benevolent to them. Kelemen’s question in the chapter’s title implies, however, that God is supposed to be benevolent to humans and therefore the bad things that obviously happen to good people require an explanation.
Within the framework of a rational discussion, this problem is irrelevant as long as the very existence of a Creator has not been rationally substantiated. Since the preceding discourse by Kelemen failed to rationally substantiate the existence of a Creator, the entire sixths chapter is irrelevant.
Kelemen’s answer to the question in the title boils down to the following statement (page 94): “The fact that good people suffer and evil people prosper thus remains a challenge only to one who would posit God’s existence but reject the existence of a soul and of afterlife.”
Hence, according to Kelemen, the confirmation of the hypothesis of God’s existence is provided by another hypothesis, that of the existence of a “soul” and an afterlife.
A hypothesis supported by another hypothesis, both lacking any factual evidence but rather based only on a convoluted mental exercise, is what Kelemen tries to sell as rational argument in favor of his beliefs.
expects his readers to accept his allegedly rational arguments uncritically, he
actually tries to prohibit his readers’ thinking.
KELEMEN'S TRIUMPHANT CONCLUSION
In the Epilogue to his first book Kelemen triumphantly concludes (page 98): “For the staunch agnostic, prospects are dim. The only remaining option is to posit God’s existence. Worse yet, the theological solution seems to meet the scientific criteria of a good theory. We can account for every aspect of reality by making the one assumption that a moral Creator/Designer chose the Jews and gave them the Torah.”
Well, congratulations to Mr. Kelemen who has so well convinced himself of his thesis. For the skeptical readers, though, the above quotation is preposterously self-aggrandizing and unsubstantiated. In his first book Kelemen failed to prove a single item on his agenda suggesting instead a host of arbitrary, often factually wrong and always at least doubtful contentions. Let us see if he did better in his second, equally popular book.
TWO ARGUMENTS OR FOUR APPROACHES?
Apparently encouraged by the popularity of his first book, Kelemen tried to make his second book to seemingly follow a similar format, again presenting four approaches to determine the origin of the Torah. However, even a perfunctory glance at Kelemen’s second book immediately reveals that his four alleged ways are present only in the book’s title. Kelemen’s actual argumentation is only two-fold, while the book also contains some additional chapters in which material not really germane to Kelemen’s goal – proving the divine origin of the Torah – is discussed.
Of course the task Kelemen encountered in his second book was principally different from that in his first book. In the first book, Kelemen argued about a question to which there is no real answer. Kelemen probably realized that there are no unassailable rational arguments either in favor of or against the belief in God, the Creator of the universe. He correctly indicated that atheism is an irrational belief that cannot be rationally proved or disproved. Of course, with his goal in mind, he refused to admit that faith is equally irrational. I would like to emphasize again that “irrational” is by no means equivalent to “wrong.” Indeed, either there is a God or there is no God. There is no third alternative. If there is a God, then faith, although irrational, is correct. If there is no God, then atheism, although irrational, is correct. Obviously, in making the last two statements, I admit that, as an agnostic, I adhere to a view which is neither true nor wrong, since there are only two possible alternatives. However, since the answer to the question of God’s existence is unknown and cannot be found rationally, I am right in the sense that I limit myself only to rational arguments, and within the framework of a rational discussion agnosticism is, in my view, the only logically justified position.
In his first book Kelemen was relatively safe in regard to the main theme of his discourse. While critics could pounce upon his particular arguments and show their weakness or even evident errors (as I did in the preceding sections) they could not provide any valid rational counter-arguments against his claim of God’s existence.
In his second book Kelemen is on much weaker ground. Now he tries to prove that the Torah was indeed given by God to the Jewish people. Hence, rather than discussing the unanswerable question of God’s existence, here Kelemen had, first, to judge God’s mind and, second, suggest rational arguments proving his thesis. This is an obvious case where the burden of proof is on Kelemen.
While suggesting his alleged proofs of the Torah’s divine origin, Kelemen avoids any discussion of the multiple well-known discrepancies and controversies that plague the text of the Torah. Does Kelemen not know about those preposterous inconsistencies? It is hardly likely. Indeed, in this book Kelemen devoted a good portion of his discourse to a question which is actually extraneous to his topic, namely to discrepancies in the New Testament. Kelemen discussed those contradictions rather aptly, demonstrating that different books of the New Testament tell incompatible stories. For example, the Gospel of Matthew informs the readers that there were twenty-eight generations between David and Jesus. The Gospel of Luke counts instead forty-three generations. The names of Jesus’s ancestors are quite different in the lists provided by Mathew and Luke. Moreover, if Jesus was born due to a virginal conception, why was he considered a descendant of David through Joseph who, according to the Gospels, was not really his father? Another inconsistency Kelemen indicated is the conflicting reports in different Gospels about the appearance of Jesus to his disciples after his resurrection. It is unclear from the Gospels where the resurrected Jesus appear, in Jerusalem or in the Galilee, the two accounts irreconcilably contradicting each other.
Having thus demonstrated his attention to the inconsistency in the religious sources related to a faith Kelemen does not share, he strangely lost all of his inquisitiveness when discussing the Torah. In the very beginning of the book of Genesis, one encounters an irreconcilable contradiction between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 in their respective stories about the order of creation. There are many other inconsistencies in the Torah. Since Kelemen’s goal was to prove the divine origin of the Torah, he would be expected to provide an explanation for the numerous discrepancies and inconsistencies obvious to anybody reading the text of the Torah. Kelemen’s failure to even mention those discrepancies seriously impairs his argumentation.
us see what arguments Kelemen does offer in support of his thesis.
KELEMEN’S “DEDUCTIVE ARGUMENT”
In the chapter thus titled, Kelemen suggests some criteria for distinguishing between revelations from God and man-originated ideas by providing a definition of the features one could expect from a divine revelation.
At the very beginning of that chapter, Kelemen explains that his following argumentation presupposes the existence of God. His task now is to identify God’s message, hence for those readers who doubt the existence of God, the following discourse is moot.
Actually, besides accepting the existence of God, Kelemen makes two more assumptions. One additional assumption is that God is not just the Creator of the universe, but that he is also good. This assumption is suggested without any substantiation. If God indeed created the universe (which is possible) it does not mean that God continues to interfere with nature he created, or that he is interested in the fate of the humankind, or in the fate of each particular individual, or, if he is interested, he is benevolent rather than cruel or just playing games with humans for unknown purpose or simply for fun. Each of the listed alternatives may be possible even though none can be substantiated by incontrovertible evidence. Finally, Kelemen suggests a third assumption (which, in his view, is a consequence of the preceding two assumptions) that God must have wished to communicate with humankind, to reveal himself. Of course, there is no proof for that assumption either.
Having adopted the above assumptions, Kelemen says (page 22): “He (God) must make religion accessible for the sensible and sober-minded. He must provide the components necessary to construct a logical bridge from generic monotheism to a specific revelation.” Kelemen then attempts to identify such components and to assemble such a “bridge.”
The way of reasoning suggested by Kelemen is as follows. There are thousands of religions in existence. However, Kelemen is interested only in reviewing monotheistic religions, since non-monotheistic faiths cannot, by definition, carry a message from an omnipotent God who is the only one Creator of the universe and of its laws. If God, as Kelemen asserted, must have revealed himself to humankind, then at least one of the monotheistic religions must be the depository of God’s revelation. He reviews the principal tenets of a number of monotheistic religions, including Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, and the Bahai faith. Among these faiths, says Kelemen, Judaism has the oldest tradition and was the first to introduce the idea of monotheism, explicitly expressed in the Torah. The rest of the monotheistic religions borrowed the main principle of an omnipotent God from Judaism, and all those monotheistic religions accept the divine origin of the Torah. The difference between Judaism and the rest of the monotheistic religions is in that Judaism preserves the principle that the Torah is the word of God which cannot and will not ever be altered, while all the rest of the monotheistic religions maintain that their founders received an updated message from God superceding that of the Torah. So, the Christian faith adheres to the idea that the Torah is the word of God revealed through Moses, but maintains that the revelation was updated through Jesus whose teachings are given in the Gospels thus superceding the Torah wherever there is a difference between the Torah and the Gospels. One more tenet of Christianity is that there cannot and will not ever be any alteration of Jesus’s teachings, in every word and even a letter. Islam, in its turn, acknowledges that the Torah is the word of God delivered through Moses, as well as the New Testament is an update revealed through Jesus, but maintains that those revelations were updated again through Mohammed and given in the Koran, thus superceding both the Torah and the Gospels. Islam also maintains that Mohammed was the last prophet and his teachings cannot and will not ever be changed. In its turn Sikhism, which originated in the 15th century, accepts the Torah, the Gospels, and the Koran as the word of God, but maintains that God had provided one more revelation through Nanak which supercedes the earlier revelations of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Likewise, the Bahai faith, which originated in the 19th century, accepts the divine origin of the Torah, the Gospels and the Koran, but maintains that the teachings of the founders of that faith, most notably of Bab, supercede the earlier revelations. Hence, concludes Kelemen, there are irreconcilable contradictions between the above monotheistic religions, except for one point they all accept. That point is the divine origin of the Torah. The listed monotheistic religions differ in their view on whether or not the Torah’s revelation was superceded by those delivered through later prophets.
However, says Kelemen, if one accepts the divine origin of the Torah, one has to accept an assertion repeated twenty-three times in the Torah which states that the Torah is the depository of the ultimate truth providing the eternal law for all generations. Therefore, concludes Kelemen, the Torah is the best choice to be viewed as the genuine word of God.
Then Kelemen discusses possible arguments against his conclusion. One possible counter-argument envisioned by Kelemen is the suggestion that maybe assertions of the Torah’s eternal and unalterable truthfulness were inserted by Moses while God actually meant that it would be replaced by the Gospels, the Koran, etc. Kelemen dismissed this argument by referring to God’s omnipotence. If God chose Moses as the conduit for revelations, he certainly knew that Moses would faithfully convey the message.
Another possible counter-argument envisioned by Kelemen is that the very appearance of later supposed revelations which started new mass religions is proof of God’s defeat. Here Kelemen makes an unexpected statement. He says, “We must remember, however, that most people do not select their religion solely for intellectual reason. Of course, religion must make sense, too; but most people affiliate primarily because they were born into that religion, because it validated their (not necessarily intellectually rooted) feelings and/or values, or because they enjoy that religion’s holidays and rituals.”
Excellent. Suddenly there is, among the nebulous verbiage, a simple and reasonable statement of an indisputable fact. One is entitled to ask: “What were the reasons you, Kelemen, affiliated with Judaism? Were you not born into that religion? Don’t you find that it validates your (not necessarily intellectually rooted) feelings and/or values? Don’t you enjoy the Jewish holidays and rituals?” If the listed reasons are sufficient for affiliation with a religion, then all the attempts to rationalize faith are superfluous.
Accepting that statement, we can reasonably view all the preceding discussion of monotheistic religions as based on sand. The fact that Christians, Moslems, Sikhs, and Bahais agree with the Jews that the Torah was a revelation from God, cannot mask the fact that all these religions explicitly deny that the Torah was the ultimate word of God and insist that their sacred books superceded the Torah. Kelemen himself supplies quotations to that effect (page 33). He writes: “..each subsequent religion absolutely denies the current validity of its predecessor(s).” The sacred texts of Christians, Moslems, Sikhs and Bahais unequivocally maintain that they replaced the Torah and even threaten those who still view the Torah as the depository of ultimate truth with disasters and punishments. Hence, the assertion that the monotheistic religions that came after Judaism all agree on the question of the Torah’s veracity is simply contrary to facts. In various ways, all these religions reject the Jewish belief that the ultimate truth is deposited in the Torah. Since Kelemen himself quotes the pertinent verses from the sacred books of Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism, he obviously, not noticing his inconsistency, defeats his own most crucial thesis which in his view proves that the Torah is indeed a direct message from God.
What if, however, Kelemen’s assertions were true, and Muslims, Sikhs, Bahais and Christians indeed fully share with Jews an acceptance of the Torah as the only genuine word of God? What would it prove? It would prove only just that - that many millions of people have certain beliefs. This by no means would signify that the Torah is indeed the direct word of God. Many millions of men and women hold beliefs which Kelemen certainly views as nothing more than superstitions. Millions of men and women firmly believe that a son of a carpenter from a small town in the Galilee created the universe, but Kelemen surely does not share that belief. Millions of men and women firmly believe that a merchant from the city of Mecca ascended to heaven and talked there with God, but Kelemen hardly shares that belief either. Hence, even if Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Bahais indeed shared Kelemen’s belief that only the Torah is the direct word of God, such a belief would not prove that the Torah is indeed that. Since, though, the adherents of the listed religions actually do not share Kelemen’s assertion, his alleged proof has no evidentiary value whatsoever and proves nothing.
As mentioned earlier, discussing the question of whether the Torah is indeed the only one genuine revelation of God, Kelemen pretends not to know about the glaring inconsistencies and contradictions obvious to readers of the Torah. Explaining those inconsistencies would be surely more appropriate when trying to prove the divine origin of the Torah. Since Kelemen avoided any attempts to discuss the inconsistencies in question, his whole discussion looks irrelevant. If Kelemen expected his readers to accept his contentions uncritically, he prohibited his readers’ thinking.
To additionally support his thesis about the divine origin of the Torah, Kelemen suggests what he calls an “external check.” The idea of that particular discourse is to figure out what a “good” God would give his beloved people. In Kelemen’s terms, it is “job” rather than “charity.” Indeed, in a human society, says Kelemn, to get a job is certainly preferable to receiving charity.
Elaborating, Kelemen writes (page 35): “Since we are all God’s children, it follows that one of God’s highest priorities would be kindness and general improvement of the human conditions. His assignment would therefore include performing and encouraging kindness, acting righteously, spreading happiness and peace, and heightening respect for human rights.” Indeed? So far, God seems not to have been very successful in achieving the goals listed by Kelemen. When millions of Jews were led to the gas chambers of Aushwitz and Majdanek, they experienced first-hand God’s kindness, promotion of righteousness and a vast improvement of the human condition, were they not.
Continuing his pious abracadabra, Kelemen conducts his “external check” by reviewing whether or not the Torah does indeed provide people with an “assignment” that corresponds to what allegedly should be expected from a divine source. This “external check” consists of several components, namely ethics, complexity, and individual creativity.
In the section on ethics, Kelemen asserts that the ten commandments of the Torah are the most principal foundations for ethics. If this were the extent of Kelemen’s discussion of ethics, I would readily agree since, indeed, most of the ten commandments of the Torah are very important constituents of ethics. They have certainly played an enormous role in establishing the humane and reasonable rules of conduct for a civilized society. The origin of those ten commandments is though a completely different question. Continuing his discourse, Kelemen reaches beyond the ten commandments. He maintains that the Torah also provides a detailed system of justice, based on high moral principles. On page 37, he lists the ethical guidelines given in the Torah, a total of 18 items, including the prohibition against disobeying court decisions, animal abuse, self-righteousness and many others. Moreover, says Kelemen, the Torah not only prohibits unethical behavior, but forbids even fantasizing about it. For example, “parallel to the positive order ‘Love your brother,’ the Torah enjoins ‘Do not hate your brother in your heart.’” Well, I hope that after having read my comments, Kelemen, fulfilling the Torah’s enjoinment, will not hate me even in his heart, but rather will love me as a brother.
As to the moral imperatives dictated by the Torah, let us recall that the Torah describes, usually without an explicit disapproval, such deeds of the chosen people as conquering cities by means of treacherous subterfuges. (In example, when, in a way of reprisal for a crime committed against them by the inhabitants of a town, Israelites promised mercy if the people of that town convert to Judaism, having no intention to keep their word. As soon as the men of that town were subjected to circumcision, and were temporarily incapacitated, the Israelites massacred them). Time and time again, the Torah tells us how Yehoshua “smote” this or that group of people, these actions apparently in full agreement with the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” The only consolation I find in those stories is that the archeological data seem to indicate that the Yehoshua’s heroic deed most probably never happened, hence the Israelites of that time did not conquer cities by treacherous tricks and did not massacre the inhabitants of the promised land. I prefer to rather doubt the divine origin of the Torah and the veracity of its stories than to believe that my ancestors resorted to treachery and massacres thus negating the ethical imperatives of the allegedly divinely-produced commandments.
In the next two sections (pages 38 through 42) Kelemen’s thesis is that the task assigned the people by the Torah must be complex. Kelemen explains that point as follows (page 35): “God should provide us with a highly detailed project so that we could also be rewarded for our task ‘s complexity.” This definition reminds me of a man I met many years ago in a swimming pool. Having dropped into the water, he started very actively moving his hands and legs. All his movements seemed to be exactly right as would be expected from an accomplished swimmer. However, despite all the energy he invested in his swimming effort, he remained practically in the same spot, moving at best a few inches forward before getting exhausted. Now, reading Kelemen’s discourse about the complexity of the task God should assign people, I have the same impression – all the right moves being made, with no overall movement resulting from it. Looking at Kelemen’s assertion that God is expected to have provided the people with a complex task, I see that all the right words seem to be in place, but no meaning seems to be behind those words. I have taught quantum mechanics, statistical physics, quantum theory of solids, theory of elasticity, thermodynamics etc., to both undergraduate and graduate students. These subjects are commonly acknowledged to be not among the very simple ones. I have had no serious problems in understanding those disciplines and explaining them to my students. Now, however, I stop in puzzlement trying to figure out what is the deep meaning of Kelemen’s thesis of the complexity of the task assigned by God.
Kelemen discusses three aspects of the complexity in question.
The first aspect is what he calls “A Behavioral Index,” (pages 39-40). Let us see if we find in that section a clarification of the necessary complexity of a God-assigned task. He writes (page 39): “First, a job is complex to the extent that it involves many precise actions.” I don’t believe this definition makes sense. If there is a job description in which every step of the job is precisely prescribed, it can be performed by a person with limited intelligence. The complexity of a job is determined by the extent a person performing that job is required to make hard decisions in unexpected and complex situations, which seems to be quite different from Kelemen’s definition. Based on his definition, Kelemen refers to the very large number of detailed prescriptions in the Torah in regard to many situations a person may encounter. Indeed, there are in the Torah 613 categories of “mitzvoth.” To elaborate them, commentators had to compile the “Code of Jewish Laws” which contains 15,000 sections, covering many facets of human behavior. This fact, in Kelemen’s view, points to the divine origin of the Torah as it meets his requirements for the complexity of a God-assigned task.
Besides the obscurity of Kelemen’s assertion about the necessary complexity of a God-assigned task, the factual side of Kelemen’s elaboration is far from convincing. The multitude of regulations of human behavior prescribed by the Torah is by no means unique. Very detailed discussions of behavioral matters as well as of many other subjects, comparable in size to that of the Code of Jewish Laws are not at all uncommon, both in various religious and philosophical systems and in many other areas of human endeavor. Many computer programs contain hundreds of commands (sometimes more than 613) and some manuals explaining these programs run to many hundreds of pages. Commonly used handbooks on physics and chemistry, or on various facets of engineering contain sometimes thousands of entries. Consider just a good dictionary of a language, such as, for example the complete Oxford Dictionary of English with its hundreds of thousands of entries. It prescribes how to interpret and use every word of the language. From the standpoint of complexity these sources substantially exceed the prescriptions and rules given in the Torah. Of course, nobody ever suggested that a good dictionary or handbook is of divine origin. The criterion of complexity (behavioral index) as rendered by Kelemen is irrelevant.
aspects of complexity suggested by Kelemen are what he calls “A Conceptual
Index,” and “Individual Creativity.”
I will avoid discussing those two sections not because I see in them any
convincing arguments but simply to eschew falling into the pit of a very
prolonged discussion of a subject which, in Kelemen’s rendition, does not seem
to deserve such a detailed analysis. Instead,
let us turn to the next chapter in Kelemen’s second book, titled “The
THE INCUNABULAR ARGUMENT BY KELEMEN
The word incunabular stems from a Latin root meaning “cradle.” Books that appeared earlier than 1501 are referred to as incunabula. Another, less specific meaning of that word is an ancient artifact. It is unclear what does Kelemen mean by the title of that chapter. Actually, when we read the chapter in question, we do not find there any argument that could be related to any “incunabular” topic. What we actually find in that chapter is a comparison of traditions that are at the core of various religions and an assertion that the traditions of Judaism is the only reliable and highly plausible ones.
Kelemen first reviews a number of relatively “new” religions such as Mormonism, Eckancar, the Unification church of Rev. Moon, Theosophy etc., all of them based on a claim by only one, or as in Mormonism, according to Kelemen, by only two persons who claimed to get a personal message directly from God and thus founded a new religion. Kelemen’s opinion is that the claims of all those religions cannot be verified because in every case the claims of the religion’s founder(s) are not supported by corroborative evidence from a substantial number of witnesses. Of course, that assertion is true. However, each of those religions has a large number of followers who believe the claims of the founders of this or that version of faith, and Kelemen does not even try to discuss the reasons for the acceptance of uncorroborated beliefs by scores of people. This question is though quite relevant when trying to establish the validity of a particular brand of faith, as Kelemen does with Judaism.
Next Kelemen turns to what he calls “older religions.” He reviews the foundations of Buddhism and Islam and indicates that both religions are based on the claims of only one person, Gautama (Buddha) in one case, and Mohammed, in the other. These stories, maintains Kelemen, are hard to verify. For example, the Koran reports some miraculous events which accompanied Mohammed’s birth and childhood as told by his mother. How could a would-be Muslim know whether or not Mohammed’s mother told the truth, says Kelemen. He writes: (page 55) “Someone who experiences or performs miracles (i.e. inexplicable phenomena) might be unusually talented or wise, but he is not necessarily God’s messenger.” True, and we can add to Kelemen’s epithets “talented or wise” also “skillful in magic” (like the scores of popular magicians performing, for example, in Las Vegas’ hotels).
Switching to Christianity, Kelemen writes (page 55) that it “seems to boast a more credible beginning.” It becomes clear, though, from the following text by Kelemen, that his apparent concession to the “better credibility” of Christianity compared with Buddhism and Islam is made by Kelemen not because he indeed views the claims of Christianity as plausible, but because such an apparent concession is necessary if he wants to give weight to his claims about the validity of Judaism.
As it transpires from Kelemen’s discourse, the “better credibility” of Christianity is due to the fact that its beginning can be traced not to just one founder, but to a group of twelve disciples. It is harder to believe, suggests Kelemen, that twelve people conspired to lie than to suspect a single person of inventing a story about his direct communication with God.
Having thus made the described apparent concession to Christianity, Kelemen then proceeds to convincingly demolish its story. He describes the irreconcilable discrepancies between various Gospels. For example, as we mentioned before, Matthew and Luke provide two irreconcilably different versions of Jesus’s genealogy. In another example, Kelemen indicates the incompatibility of various reports about Jesus’ reappearance after his death and resurrection. Regarding the miracles Jesus reportedly performed in the presence of crowds, Kelemen indicates justifiably that the Gospels fail to provide the names of any alleged witnesses besides the twelve disciples, and, however rarely, but twelve people could have conceivably conspired to lie. (The latter notions sounds rather tenuous. If we believe that the twelve disciples were real people, then, reportedly, none of them had ever gained any advantages from their story, and, on the contrary, all of them had suffered because of their faith). Kelemen repeats again that, even if we accept the stories about Jesus’s miracles, “none of them would prove that he was the messiah, let alone God. Indeed, the Torah tells us about a Jewish prophet Elisha who revived the dead (like Jesus) and poured a vast amount of oil from a tiny vial. Another Jewish prophet, Elija, ascended to the heaven alive. However, the Torah never implied that either of those prophets was a Messiah or God.”
These remarks convincingly demonstrate the implausibility of the Gospels’ story, thus discrediting Kelemen’s earlier bow to the alleged larger credibility of Christianity’s beginning.
Finally Kelemen turns to Judaism.
As long as Kelemen dealt with religions other than Judaism, his vision seemed to be reasonably good, enabling him to discern discrepancies and inconsistencies in those religious doctrines. Now, suddenly, his vision becomes blurred, depriving him of the ability to see even the most glaring contradictions in his own religious system. This sudden change of the sharpness of vision reminds a well-known saying about one who notices a blade of straw in somebody’s eye but not a log in his own.”
Kelemen’s main argument in favor of the Torah’s plausibility is well known since it has been repeated by many predecessors of Kelemen in a more or less similar form. The alleged proof of the Torah’s veracity is found, Kelemen asserts, in the story of the Exodus. The Torah’s account of the exodus must be true, argues Kelemen, because it asserts that the whole nation witnessed the miraculous events described in the Torah (such as the splitting of the Red Sea at an exactly proper moment, the ten plagues which befell Egypt, the miraculous appearance of manna in the Sinai desert on weekdays but not on Saturdays, for forty years in a row etc.). For example, on page 66 Kelemen writes: “The most significant difference between the Christianity’s and Judaism’s founding is not in the numbers - that only a few thousand of Jesus’ followers witnessed his miracles while millions of Jews heard God speak – rather the significance is in the percentages… every Jew experienced the Sinai prophecy – 100 percent of a large and easily identifiable population.”
The quoted statement is an epitome of what a Russian proverb refers to as an argument “pulled in by grabbing ears,” which means an extremely artificial and unsubstantiated claim. Every part of Kelemen’s statement is grounded in quick sand.
First of all, the entire argument is based on the Torah and nothing but the Torah, since no independent corroborative evidence of the Exodus and of the related events has been unearthed. All the valiant efforts of archeologists to find any trace of the Exodus, of the wandering of Israelites for forty years in Sinai, or of any other event described in the Torah produced zero evidence of those events. The alleged exodus of millions of Jewish slaves from Egypt has not been referred to even once in any of the numerous Egyptian sources of that epoch. The sheer number of the slaves – about 600,000 of men alone, who allegedly escaped Egyptian bondage, irreconcilably contradicts other parts of the Biblical story (like the repopulation of the world after the Flood starting with only eight people just 1000 years before the Exodus, etc). Before using the story told in the Torah as the source for his argument Kelemen should have first provided independent proof of that story’s veracity. Of course, he could not do so because such proofs are not available.
Furthermore, even if, despite the absence of corroboration, we accepted the Torah’s narrative as a reliable historic account, Kelemen’s argument still would remain just an interpretation of the Torah’s story, and a rather arbitrary one.
Indeed, if we read the text of
the Torah, we find that nowhere does it unequivocally say that 100 percent of
the Jews witnessed Moses’ communication with God.
The closest to the assertion that the entire nation heard God speak is
found in two verses. One is Exodus
19:9 (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 God’s intention to do so.
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 also read the following lines: “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).
is unclear from the tradition what exactly God had revealed to the People of
Israel at Mt. Sinai. On the one hand, the Torah says, after it lists again the
Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, "These words the Lord spoke to all your
public at the mountain from the midst of the fire, of the cloud and of the thick
fog, with a great voice that did not cease" (Deuteronomy 5:19) – and from
this one may understand that all the Ten Commandments were revealed by God to
the whole people. On the other hand, the Talmud (Makot
24a) says that only the first two of the Ten
Commandments – "I am the Lord your God" and "You shall have no
other gods before Me" – were said by God directly to the people, and all
the others were told to Moses alone. The last view may be supported by the fact
that in the account of Exodus 20, the first two commandments speak of God in the
first person, while the remaining eight – in the third person ("You shall
have no other gods before Me" vs. "Do not bear the name of the Lord
your God in vain").
Nachmanides tried to explain this
contradiction by stating in his commentary on Exodus 20:7 that all the
Israelites heard all the Ten Commandments from the Divine, but they could
comprehend only the first two, and therefore, the last eight were repeated to
them by Moses.
Maimonides in "The Guide for the Perplexed" (part 2, chapter 33)
wrote the following: “It has become clear to me that at the Sinai Revelation,
what reached Moses did not reach all the Israelites, but His word reached Moses
alone…He, may he rest in peace, came down to the bottom of the mount and told
people what he heard [from God], as the Torah said, ‘ stood between the Lord
and you at that time.’(Deuteronomy 5:5), and it is also said, “Moses spoke,
and God answered him through a voice” (Exodus 19:19). And they interpreted it
in [Midrash] Mechilta that each phrase he [Moses] told them as he heard it [from
God]. It is also written in the Torah, ‘that
the people may hear when I speak [with you]…’(Exodus 19:9) – and this
shows that God talked to him [Moses], but they [the people] heard that loud
voice, but did not distinguish the words. And it is also said, “You hear the
voice of speech” (Deuteronomy 4:12) – but not, 'you hear the speech,’
But… they heard the voice, and Moses was that who heard the speech
[of God] and told it to the people – this is what comes out of the Torah and
of the most of the Sages' words.”
(There is also an opinion brought in many places in the Midrash
and even in the Talmud, that when He said “I am [the Lord your God]” and
“You shall not have [other gods] before Me,” they heard it directly from the
mouth of the Glory.”).
according to Maimonides, from the Torah itself one can understand that during
the Sinai Revelation the people heard nothing definite from God, but all the
commandments were revealed to Moses alone, who then told them to the people –
and the story that the first two of the Ten Commandments were told by God
directly to the whole People of Israel is only a view of a minority of the
Sages. Each commentator has his own view, but none of them claims it was from a
tradition he received from his ancestors and rabbis. Everyone of them tries to
form a view, based on what is said in the Scripture, the Talmud and the Midrash.
re-read the Torah’s story ourselves, we find that on each occasion when Moses
communicated with God he was either alone (as when he spent forty days and
nights on the summit of Mount Sinai) or was accompanied only by Aaron, and once
by Joshua (Yehoshua). Also, on one
occasion seventy elders climbed the mountain and saw God.
This story is rather far from the assertion that the entire nation
witnessed anything more than an earthquake, thunder and lightning.
Kelemen’s argument boils down to the assertion that generations of Jews would
not accept the Torah’s story were it not true and not transmitted through
generations, supposedly going back to the time of Moses.
However, the history of various religions demonstrates that scores of
people accept all kinds of legendary stories without a plausible proof of them,
and transmit their beliefs through the generations.
For example, the population of the Khazar empire had been pagans for many
hundred years. In the middle of 8th
century CE the ruler of that empire decided to convert to Judaism, his decision
based on political reasons. Following
his example, a substantial fraction of the empire’s population converted to
Judaism as well. Obviously, these
newly converted Jews had no tradition which could be traced back even a couple
of generations let alone to Moses’ times.
However, only a few generations after the conversion these people had
already completely lost the memory of ever having been non-Jews.
They already viewed themselves as genuine transmitters of the ancient
tradition traced to Moses and believed themselves to be descendants of
Jacob/Israel. In the ancient Slavic legends they were already referred to, to
distinguish them from the rest of the Khazars,
not as Khazars but as “Zhidovins” (Jews).
Obviously, the Slavs would not change the name they used for their
neighbors if that part of the Khazars themselves did not adopt the new name,
which Russian transliterated as Zhidovins. On the other hand, the Slavic tribes
also were pagans for centuries. In
the year of 980 the most powerful warlord of the Slavs, Vladimir, adopted
Christianity, and forced the population of his realm to undergo baptism. Just a
few generations later the national memory of the Russians and Ukrainians lost
any trace of their pagan past, and they became some of the most ardent Christian
believers despite the fact that their religious tradition was of recent origin.
These examples show that traditions can take root very rapidly without
being based on a transmission through many generations and regardless of whether
or not those traditions could be considered by Kelemen as substantiated by
historical evidence. Could not the
tradition of the Middle-Eastern Jews have been formed in a similar manner?
view of the above, Kelemen’s assertion (page 74) that “Those who would
affirm the Torah’s divinity stand on intellectually firm ground” may only
cause one to wonder whether Kelemen views his readers as men and women with at
least a minimal capacity for logical thought or his intention is to prohibit his
readers to think.
KELEMEN DISCUSSES SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE
second half of Kelemen’s second book is titled “Two Issues: Responses to Two
Arguments against the Torah’s Divine Origin.”
The first of the issues in question is what Kelemen calls “The
Empirical Issue.” In the
section devoted to that subject, Kelemen discusses scientific data allegedly
confirming the veracity of the Torah. At the very beginning of that section
(page 81) Kelemen writes: “Once we detect one or several inaccuracies in a
document, we have reason to suspect its entire text.”
It is easy to accept that notion. A
natural question is then, why the obvious inaccuracies in the story told by the
Torah have failed to raise any suspicion in regard to its entire text in
inaccuracies in question are numerous. We
have discussed earlier in this article the incompatibility of the Torah’s two
pieces of information – only eight survivals of the Flood and 2.5 million of
only Jews just 1,000 years later. At
least one of these two reports, and possibly both must be inaccurate.
Kelemen says on the same page: “If the Torah contains such
inaccuracies, we would have to take a sizable leap of faith to believe that the
Sinaitic revelation really happened.” Very
true, Mr. Kelemen, and we are entitled to expect from you adherence to your own
criteria. Instead, Kelemen resorts to verbal acrobatics, trying to
prove that the Torah contains no inaccuracies.
many other writers in the same genre, Kelemen mobilizes modern theories of
physics as allegedly supporting the Biblical narrative.
Of course, the first such theory is that of the Big Bang.
To evaluate the quality of Kelemen’s discourse in this matter, it seems
sufficient to point out that he uses as one of his main tools a reference to G.
Schroeder. Kelemen writes: “Dr.
Gerald Schroeder of M.I.T. explains that the energy released in the first moment
of the Big Bang radiated at such high frequencies that it would have been
invisible to the human eye…” etc.
Schroeder is not “of M.I.T.” He
is a lecturer at Aish HaTorah, an organization that propagandizes the tenets of
Judaism and thus prods those Jews who have lost faith or are skeptical about it,
to return to fold. In other words,
Schroeder is a professional propagandist for the Torah’s veracity. His book,
referred to by Kelemen, contains numerous inaccuracies and errors testifying to
Schroeder’s insufficient understanding of physics in general and of the Big
Bang theory in particular. Using
Shcroeder’s book as an alleged proof of the Torah’s compatibility with
science simply shows Kelemen’s own lack of scientific background and
comprehension. Moreover, even if we accept that a certain statement in the
Biblical story is compatible with some scientific data, it is still very far
from being a proof of the whole story. For
example, imagine a person accused of a crime and having no alibi.
Having no alibi is compatible with a suggestion that the person in
question is guilty, but it in itself does not constitute a proof of guilt.
If some assertion in the Torah does not contradict some scientific data,
this in itself is not proof of that statement’s veracity.
On the other hand, if some statement in the Torah contradicts some
scientific data, it is indeed a strong argument against the veracity of at least
of that particular statement in the Torah.
Based on Kelemen’s criterion quoted above, inaccuracy of a particular
statement casts shadow on the veracity of the entire document. An example immediately coming to mind is the Torah’s story
about the six days of creation, which irreconcilably contradicts
well-established scientific data. Pointing
to some elements in the Torah that seem not to contradict science and
unreasonably maintaining that mentioning this absence of contradiction is proof
of the Torah’s story, Kelemen seems not to notice those numerous elements of
the Torah which disprove his contention.
Continuing his discussion, Kelemen quotes certain publications regarding the possible descent of the entire humankind from a common ancestor. First, the quoted data are inconclusive and are in the process of further study whose results are hard to predict. Second, Kelemen, strangely, is not concerned with the immense discrepancy between the data he quotes (which indicate that the alleged common ancestor of the entire humankind lived hundreds of thousands of years ago) and the Biblical story (which asserts that the first man was created only about 6,000 years ago). If the scientific data in question are confirmed, will this not make the mentioned discrepancy in time spans that inaccuracy which, as Kelemen asserted in the beginning of the chapter, make the entire text suspicious?
Then Kelemen discusses the biblical story of the Flood, where he again tries to break through an open door by citing various ancient sources that report on massive floods in the distant past. The question, though, is not whether or not massive floods occurred in the past, since there is little doubt that the answer is “Yes.” The veracity of the Biblical account is suspicious not in regards to the question whether there were large floods but because of the numerous details of that story which are utterly implausible. It is implausible that four men who had no experience in shipbuilding, had no tools and proper materials, could build a seaworthy ship with about 55,000 tons of displacement, that they could have gathered representatives of all the animals, and provided victuals for them for several months, that the entire earth was covered by water etc. Hence, all of Kelemen’s discussion aimed at proving that a big flood did indeed occur in the distant past is immaterial and does not prove in the least the veracity of the Biblical account.
The next part of Kelemen’s discussion is even worse, when he claims that archeological data support the biblical story about the patriarchs. This statement is untrue. The overwhelming conclusion by Israeli archeologists (for example, expressed by an Israeli archeologist professor Zeev Hertzog of Tel-Aviv University in Haaretz newspaper on October 29, 1999) is that, despite earlier expectations, there are practically no archeological data compatible with the Biblical story, including the Exodus, the sojourn in Sinai, the conquest of Canaan under Yehoshua Bin-Nun, etc, until the epoch of the Kings. As to the period of the Patriarchs, Professor Hertzog indicates that the archeological studies even failed to date that period. Therefore, in view of recent advances in archeological science in Israel, all references by Kelemen to archeological data must be taken with caution.
To discuss in detail all of Kelemen’s argumentation based on his comparison of scientific and historical data with the Biblical story would require to write a book about the same size as his. I will therefore limit my discussion only to the listed examples, stating though that the rest of Kelemen’s discourse is no more convincing than the items covered so far.
The second chapter in that part of Kelemen’s second book is titled “The Ethical Issue.” It contains a compilation of statistical data showing, according to Kelemen, that the Jewish people have been profoundly affected by the moral principles expounded in the Torah and therefore they display distinctive trends of morality exceeding those of many other ethnic and religious groups. While that discussion leaves out many important facts which in some instances could undermine Kelemen’s thesis, I choose to stop my discussion of Kelemen’s two books right here, since regardless of his being fully or partially correct or not, this thesis has only a tangential relation to the question of the Torah’s origin, and even less to the question of God’s existence.
My review was only in relation to the above indicated two questions. My overall conclusion is that Kelemen failed to convincingly support his contentions and rather than appealing to his readers to “permit” themselves “to believe and to receive,” he subtly (and sometimes not very subtly) attempted to impose on his readers a prohibition to think.
Mark Perakh's main page: http://www.talkreason.org/marperak .