(What follows is a letter penned by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I typed it out from Rabbi Chaim Miller’s peerless English language work on Rambam’s Thirteen principles of Judaism. In addition to the principles themselves, the book contains “an anthology of commentaries from the Talmud, Midrash, Rishonim and Acharonim, and elucidation from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.”)
In view of the various religions and creeds in the world, each claiming to be the truth and superior to all others, how is a Jew to be certain that his religion is the true one?
This and related questions have already been dealt with at length in the famous 12th century classic, the Book of Kuzari by the great Jewish philosopher Rabbi Yehuda ha-Levi. It is well documented and based on proofs that would stand up to the scrutiny of scientific method and common sense.
One basic scientific principle is that the first thing is to ascertain the facts, regardless whether they seem logical or not, and then to try to find the right explanation. Science does not come with forgone conclusions and beliefs with the idea of reconciling and adjusting facts to these beliefs. Rather the opposite, it deals with facts then formulates opinions and conclusions. This has been expressed in the dictum that knowledge is derived from reality, not vice versa. If according to one’s reasoning the reality should be different, the fault is with one’s reasoning, not with the reality.
A further basic principle of scientific method is that the veracity of testimony is compelling when it is based on the widest possible range of witnesses and observations, substantiated, moreover, by experience under the widest possible conditions, etc. Where there is such evidence it is accepted as a fact which is undeniable, even if it does not agree with a scientific theory. This is the accepted practice in science even where there are are several reliable witnesses, and certainly scores of them, hundreds and thousands.
By way of illustration: If you are asked, how do you know there existed such a person as Maimonides, author of Yad haChazakah [Mishneh Torah], Sefer ha-Mitvos, etc., you will surely reply that you are certain about his existence from the books he has written, and although Rambam (Maimonides) lived some 800 years ago, his works now in print have been reprinted from earlier editions, and those from earlier ones, still uninterruptedly, going back to the very manuscript which the Rambam wrote in his own hand. This is considered sufficient proof even in the face of discrepencies or contradictions from one book of Rambam to another. Such contradictions do not demolish the above proof, but efforts are made to reconcile them, in the certainty that both have been written by the same author.
The same kind of proof substantiates any kind of historic past, which we ourselves have not witnessed, and all normal people accept them without question, except those who for some reason are interested in falsification.
Accordingly, as pointed out in the Kuzari, and in other sources through the ages, we Jews are certain that “Moshe is true and his Torah is true”, on the basis of the historic events of the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai, which were witnessed and experienced by 600,000 male adult Jews (apart from women and children). Among these original witnesses there were many who were initiated in the sciences of those days (i.e. Egypt), many achievements of which are still baffling nowadays; among them were philosophers and thinkers, as well as ignorant and uneducated persons, woman and children of all ages. Yet all of them reported the event and phenomenon connected with it without contradiction to each other.
What our ancestors witnessed and experienced they transmitted to their children and children’s children, from generation to generation to this day, for there has never been a break or any interruption in our history and tradition from the time of our first Patriarch Abraham. Even during the times of the greatest persecutions, and even after the destruction of the Beis ha-Mikdash, there always survived large numbers of Jews who preserved the text of the Torah and the traditions, so that the chain has never been broken. At no time, even during the worst pogroms and massacres of Jews, were there less than millions of Jews faithfully maintaining this tradition.
Thus, the identical tradition has been transmitted to us by millions of Jews from all walks of life, and verified by the actual way of life and commitment to the same mitzvos of the same Torah (the same Shabbos, the same Tefilin, Mezuzah, etc.) from generation to generation, in different lands and under different conditions. While other factors which are usually associated with the preservation of other nations and their ethnic cultures–such as territory, political independence, language, dress, etc.–have changed in Jewish life from time to time and from place to place, the Torah and mitzvos did not change in the life of all Jews. This fact that runs like a golden thread throughout our Jewish history not only confirms without the slightest doubt the authenticity of our Torah and mitzvos, but also clearly demonstrates which is the truly vital constant factor that has preserved us Jews under all possible circumstances and crises, namely, the Torah and mitzvos, “our life and the length of our days”.
No other religion, without exception, even those whose followers by far outnumber our Jewish people, can claim such proof of authenticity. In all other religions, especially those which are more prevelant in the U.S.A., namely, Christianity and Islam, the religion itself bases its tradition and origin on a single individual, (Mohammed), or several individuals, (the Cristian Apostles, and here, too, eventually on one person, Paul, the founder). The same is true of Buddhism, which was founded by an ancient Hindu sage, the Buddha, (“Enlightened One”), whose followers adopted his teachings and doctrines and called themselves Buddhists, after him. These religions themselves, and their followers, openly declare that they were so founded.
Consequently, despite the multitude of followers the skeptic may question the veracity of the revelation claimed by the original founder, whether it was a genuine prophetic revelation as claimed or perhaps an hallucination, and, in the case of a small group of founders, whether there was a genuine shared experience, or perhaps a collusion, and the like.
On the other hand, the Jewish religion goes back to the revelation at Mount Sinai, (in which, incidentally, the Christians and Moslems also believe), which took place in the presence of 600,000 adult men, not including woman, children and the elderly, all of whom, taken together, would total several million souls. This distinction is a very fundamental one, for where it is claimed that the religion originates with a single individual or group of individuals, one can argue that there may have been human error involved, or even conspiracy. No such argument can be made in regard to the Divine Revelation at Mount Sinai, which took place in the presence of the entire Jewish people–living witnesses–and was transmitted from parents to children, in an unbroken chain of tradition, to the present day.
By way of illustration: Suppose that 600,000 parents would today say to their children, “This morning you and we were all gathered in a certain place, and we all heard a Heavenly voice proclaim the Decalogue.” The children would not accept this for they would surely say: “If we were there with you, why did we not hear or see anything?” Now, making the single assumption that human reactions have not essentially changed in the course of centuries, one can assume that such would have been the reaction also in the previous century, and two centuries ago and so on, until we reach the generation whose parents witnessed the event of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
And let it be emphasized again that during this long chain of tradition, there has been no break, nor has the number of transmitters at any time been reduced to less than many hundreds of thousands, for at no time was there less than one million Jews in the world, Jews from all walks of life, who had no personal ax to grind, etc., yet in each generation of the uninterrupted and unbroken history of our people, this event was accepted as authentic history and the text of the Decalogue remained exactly the same. This is certainly undeniable evidence according to all the rules of scientific proof accepted today.
To deny such a fact is anything but scientific; it is the very opposite of science.