Some months back, as I put my twins to sleep, Aronchik popped the question.

“Mommy . . .” he said hesitantly.


“. . . Are you my mother?”

My heart smiled, remembering thinking and asking the same question of my mother. “Most definitely!” I said.

“But . . . how do I know that you’re my mother? How do you know? Maybe the nurse switched me and brought you the wrong baby . . . ?”

He nestled closer. And, lying arm in arm, we continued to philosophize, until he fell asleep.

But how do I know? Our discussion reminded me of some moments after recess, back in the fifth grade. I was returning to class from the playground, kids in front and back of me and the bell blasting. Blue poles lined the path. I felt their pull, much like the force of the tide within a wave. It seemed to me I was standing still and the poles pushing past.

“Am I real?” I thought. “Are the poles? And the people?”

I pondered this all the way back to class, questioning not only where I came from, but whether I had any way of being able to verify my own existence.

“Take out your biology books.” And within minutes my mind became absorbed in the green grasshopper, following the splices in my textbook—head, thorax, abdomen, legs—absorbing the details of the big picture whose veracity I had questioned just moments before.

Although I didn’t yet know the word epistemology, that’s what my head was trying to wrap itself around: the study of knowledge and how we justify our beliefs. “Belief” traditionally implies that we accept a concept as being true despite the fact that it is beyond our understanding. As a ten-year-old girl, I could believe the world was real. But was it possible to know it? What had to be added to that belief in order to convert it into knowledge?

This concept is centrally relevant to the festival of Shavuot, which we read about in the Torah portion of Yitro. The Giving of the Torah is the event upon which our entire practice hinges. Lighting Shabbat candles, putting on tefillin, the laws of inheritance, the prohibition against taking interest on a loan—all the myriad rules governing life for a Jew are based on the fact that on a Shabbat morning, the sixth of Sivan in the spring of 2448, G‑d communicated the purpose of Creation, and His will, to the Jewish people.

I relegated Judaism to those same backwaters Before plunging in to the deeper meaning of all those details, it’s appropriate to ask ourselves, “Is it true?” It’s like checking in, “Are you my mother?” For all we know, the Ten Commandments might be a list of ethical values compiled by a group of people who developed a personal philosophical and legal system by which to live—or by a select few seeking to control the masses. The possibilities are numerous, and logically seem to outweigh the notion that the Creator clearly communicated His infinite Being to us little people.

All religions and spiritual paths lay claim to being True. Christianity claims one thing, Islam another, Buddhism yet another. The list is as long as the religions to which people around the world subscribe. They may overlap on certain issues, but the bottom line is that they all contradict every other religion, or brand thereof, in some way. There is no way that both Christianity and Islam can be absolutely true—because they contradict each other.

The same thing applies to Judaism: it is at odds with every other religion in some way or another. How do we know that it is the will of G‑d as transmitted to Moses and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai? And in what way is Judaism’s claim to Truth different?

There are intellectual and religious traditions that flounder upon the marsh of their own reasoning. In my youthful mind, I relegated Judaism to those same backwaters. But in my bones, my innate belief was rich as marrow. It pushed me to search for rational explanations that would be compelling enough to draw my faith into the realm of knowledge.

Along the way, I attended a midwinter camp while still in my teens. On Shabbat our counselor sat with us on the dry grass, beneath a sun that glared so potently I could hardly keep my eyes open. The text in my lap was the Kuzari. Written by Rabbi Judah HaLevi, it chronicles an imagined conversation between a rabbi and the king of the Khazars, as the latter searches for the truest way to serve his Creator. It changed my life. I sat down that morning replete with questions, and even skepticism. I stood up on a new foundation.

At one point, the rabbi asserts that “one cannot arrive deductively at the Truth.” That may sound simple, but it was a revelation to me. I was deeply rooted in the notion that I’d begin with myself, search, develop understanding, and then arrive, through that process of deduction, at the Truth. What was being communicated to me was that we can arrive at the Truth only inductively. In the words of the Kuzari, “The conditions which render a person fit to receive divine influence do not lie within him . . . Whosoever strives by speculation and deduction to prepare the conditions so as to receive this inspiration . . . is an unbeliever.”1

In the morning liturgy, we read the famous song Ein Keilokeinu, which, line after line, praises the Creator. “There is none like our G‑d,” it says. “None like our King, our Master and Redeemer.” The second stanza asks, “Who is like our G‑d?” The first time I had read it, I was struck by the apparent flaw in logic. Surely one would first ask, “Who,” and only then, after all the inquiry, arrive at the conclusion that “there is none like our G‑d”? I understood from the Kuzari that if we approach G‑d in that way, we are, in essence, creating Him in our image. By deduction, I can arrive only at an entity as great as my own mind. But, counterintuitively, when I surrender my notion of what-is—how things are supposed to be and what “G‑d” is—then I am able, through diving into the wisdom of the Torah, to access the infinite which lies beyond me.

There is a rational component to Jewish beliefThis does not imply “blind” faith, though. There is a rational component to Jewish belief. Our tradition marries the supra-conscious and the rational in the most remarkable way. We’ll come to that. For the moment, though, let’s hold on to this notion that if we are the point of departure, we cannot arrive at G‑d.

Rabbi Judah HaLevi takes this notion a step further. He states that even if a religion grows in a grassroots fashion and takes hold of a collective consciousness, it has no more validity than the subjective fancies of an individual. Religions of divine origin don’t “grow” and “spread,” because they don’t begin with the people. With religions of divine origin, there is no need to unite differing opinions or lay the foundation of the faith, working and reworking it until it takes on a complete structure. As the rabbi answers the king, “Only rational religions of human origin can arise in this way . . . a religion of divine origin arises suddenly. It is bidden to arise, and it is there, like the creation of the world.”2

What this means is that just as with the individual one cannot arrive at G‑d following a step-by-step path that begins with the self, so too with regard to humanity at large. If G‑d did indeed communicate His will to the Jewish people, then He did so in one instant. The divine revelation upon which our belief is based must have occurred at one moment in time. Either G‑d was communicating to us, or He was not.

And, if the setting meets certain criteria, then from that moment onward, the revelation holds a validity that carries it forward. In their discussion, the rabbi emphasizes to the king that there were over two million Jews who lived in Egypt and endured slavery, heard the promise of redemption, witnessed the ten plagues and experienced the Exodus and the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. He adds that not one of them had separated or lived elsewhere at the time these events occurred. Furthermore, all these people experienced these things together over a period of forty years.

The king of Khazaria readily accepts the rabbi’s claims to divine revelation and Truth. He accepts that religion does not evolve, but that rather there is a spontaneous eruption, a revolutionary moment that arises out of this revelation. And he accepts what the people themselves came to through witnessing the revelation, namely that Moses held direct communication with G‑d.

What is it about what the rabbi said that persuaded the king so readily? Here’s where logic comes in to play. Let’s assume that this notion of the Giving of the Torah is just a claim. Can we authenticate it? Yes. Because the nature of the claim lays itself open to being proven true or false.. The philosopher of science Karl Popper asserts that a theory must expose itself to being disproved—otherwise it’s pseudoscience. And the same applies to history. If an event can’t stand up to being proven true or false, it cannot be classified as a historical fact.

Let’s contrast, for example, the attack on the World Trade Center and the story of the flight of Icarus to the sun. Why do we term the former a historical fact and the latter a myth? Because the former exposes itself to being disproved, whilst the Greek tale doesn’t. A claim is made that two airplanes flew into the towers on September 11, 2001. Imagine that I’d never heard of such an event, and challenged you to prove it. You could. You’re making a claim that you can prove, and that I could disprove. I could search for evidence and find none, and thereby refute what you’re telling me. You could show me footage of what happened, written testimonies, eyewitnesses—and prove that it happened. But with the story of Icarus, we can’t do that. The claim is that there were no witnesses to corroborate the event. Either I believe you or I don’t. I can’t logically challenge it.

Where do religious claims fall in to the mix? History or myth? Fact or fiction? Remarkably, all religions base themselves on a revelation or event that happens in private—such as that Jesus rose from the dead before a handful of people, or that Muhammad ascended to the heavens alone. And it’s not just the New Testament or the Koran. Most religions don’t lay claim to any more than one individual or a small group as being privy to divine revelation. Why? Because that way, no one can refute it! There is simply no way to verify—or falsify!—the claim. Either you believe them or you don’t. “Muhammad said.” So he said. You believe him and I don’t. In essence, the foundation of all religions is, from a philosophical perspective, no different from a made-up myth.

Judaism is the only exception. The Bible states that G‑d revealed Himself to the entire nation at the same time! No other nation ever made such a claim, because it would be immediately exposed.

Think about it for a moment. The Bible repeatedly states that every member of our tribe stood at the base of Mount Sinai and experienced G‑d’s communication. According to the claim, there were 600,000 males. Plus their wives and children (and supposedly, there were many of them, because all the women, we are told, had multiple births each pregnancy). Then there were the Egyptian converts who had joined them. The account of the Giving of the Torah clearly states that every individual was there. And then it repeats that claim over and over. When Moses communicates his parting message to the people forty years later, he reiterates the claim again and again. Why the necessity to emphasize it? Because such a claim most certainly stands up to the test of being proven false.

Let’s look at it from this angle: imagine that the assertion was that “many” or “most” people were there. Now, one generation down, along comes a kid and asks of Mom and Dad, “Were you there?” and they answer, “No.” That child with that question would not necessarily thereby have disproven the event, but she’d certainly have room to doubt it. But if the claim is that every member of the people was present, and the child says, “Folks, did you witness it?” and they say, “No, not us”—well, then, the claim’s been invalidated in that instant! “The claim is that it was experienced by everyone without exception, and here you are telling me that you weren’t there!?”

So, just one generation later, this audacious assertion would have fallen apart. If even one child born after the claimed occurrence had been told, “I didn’t witness what happened,” then the whole story would be up in smoke. And so on to the next generation. All the way to us. If we generously assume there are five generations per century, we’re looking at roughly one hundred and seventy links in the chain. And, in some way, our acceptance of the veracity of the event requires no more than what was necessary for the children of those who personally witnessed it. It has been an unbroken chain.

Certainly, there were Jews who challenged the oral tradition. But even the Sadducees didn’t deny the Giving of the Torah! How could they? We have no tradition of anyone who said, “Sshhh. Let’s keep this to ourselves, but . . . it’s all bogus. So-and-so made it up.” Could you imagine someone making such a claim today? “Yesterday, at midday, the entire Jewish nation stood on the shores of Jamaica and, amidst lightning, thunder and booming waves, heard G‑d communicate a new version of the Bible.” It’s preposterous! We’d laugh at the person, or cry for him and call for psychiatric intervention. Or, let’s say someone said, “Yesterday, the Twin Towers rose from Ground Zero.” Come on! It’s an impossible con. You can’t make something like that up, because no one would accept it—it lays itself too open to falsification. No one in our history, from the Jewish people’s stride up the Fertile Crescent and into the Holy Land and down through the ages, could have made up the story of Sinai. It would instantaneously have been crushed with disdain and laughter. So, while the oral tradition may have been challenged, no one ever denied the Giving of the Torah.

I hear you thinking, “My folks did. And their folks too!” But . . . with all due respect to your folks, those statements defy logic. Where are they drawing that tradition from? Where are the people going all the way back—3324 years—who corroborate that? Prove to me that it didn’t happen. Where are your sources? The painful facts are that a history of pain and persecution has blinded us to our heritage, has covered our faith with soot and darkened our minds. Our ancestors were observant Jews. That’s how we know we’re Jewish today. And, for those who lost their faith to the sufferings of exile even earlier, their offspring most likely don’t even carry the knowledge of their own Jewish identity. It’s the same scenario as what happened to the descendants of the lost tribes, or the Sadducees.

From a purely logical point of view, the claim of mass revelation compels us to an acceptance of the biblical account of the Giving of the Torah. So why the resistance to its acceptance as a fait accompli? Many of us are still likely to be more ready to recognize that Napoleon battled at Waterloo, or that Van Gogh cut off his ear (though apparently, current theory denies that—seems it was Gauguin who done it!) than to accept that G‑d brought a plague of frogs on Egypt and spoke to the people from a cloud. Why? According to the principles of logic, it makes so much more sense that those things did happen than that they didn’t.

I’d venture to say that our minds are bribed by our bodies. To accept that Napoleon lived makes no demands on my life. Van Gogh cut off his ear; I might find it psychologically compelling, but it doesn’t ask of me to do anything different. But if our ancestors really heard G‑d communicate the Torah, well, that’s another story entirely! If I bought in to that . . . then I’d have to forego the cheeseburger, or the mini-dress. I’d not be able to tour the world in the way I do now. I’d have to give up Saturday’s income. But that’s embarrassing, isn’t it? To casually say no to the absolute Truth and purpose of my existence because my stomach is rumbling and my heart greedy? Just doesn’t fit with our image of ourselves as sophisticated, people of integrity. So we dress our desire up in roundabout logic, and say, “Preposterous. It makes no sense. Seas don’t split, and G‑d’s voice is not heard by bubbies and babies on Shabbat mornings anywhere! Anytime! Now . . . how ’bout prawns for dinner?”

If we want to understand the world—the grasshoppers and where we come from—if we want to live in accordance with Truth, we must be willing to follow the answers to their end point. They may be uncomfortable. But then, where in that big book did G‑d say it would be easy?