Imagine the biggest Hollywood star, let’s say George Clooney, would suddenly discover God and the Bible, give up his previous life and move into a monastery. What could make a successful, educated, intelligent person at the height of his career join a backward cult? Has he experimented too much with drugs? These are probably the first thoughts many would have in such a situation. The George Clooney of Israel was once Uri Zohar.
The unbelievable happened in Israel in the late 1970s when actor and singer Uri Zohar discovered that the Bible could not have been written by humans, after which he began learning Torah and became “Ultra-Orthodox” (Haredi). It must also be said that Uri Zohar was a typical secular Israeli who grew up on a kibbutz and almost hated the ultra-Orthodox, or at least pitied them for their backwardness. His return to the Torah came as a shock to Israelis. He could have been forgiven for anything, but a Haredi was far from acceptable behavior, even for a celebrity. So the difference between the old and the new Uri Zohar was far greater than the difference between the old and the hypothetical new George Clooney.
Uri Zohar died in Jerusalem on June 2, 2022 at the age of 86.
How could this happen?!
In his book, My friends, we were robbed!, Zohar describes an experience in Jerusalem that sparked his journey through the Bible. An old friend made teshuvah, became religious, and invited Zohar and some other friends from Tel Aviv to a celebration in Jerusalem. There he began conversing with a Haredi man, partly out of curiosity about this odd individual’s worldview, partly to poke fun at the oddball in front of his friends. (Testimony below translated and paraphrased by me.)
“Our conversation covered questions like, is there a Creator? If so, are we guided by him and is he even interested in us humans? I would not call our conversation a debate because that would mean that I would approach his position with some seriousness, or at least allow the theoretical possibility that my discussion partner’s position is rationally defensible.”
“We did have an audience, though,” Zohar continues. “I automatically played the role of a stand-up comedian, trying to get as many laughs out of my audience as possible. It was also hard for me not to see the Haredi as a comical clown that I couldn’t take seriously. On one side was me, a critical and enlightened 20th-century citizen, and on the other was him, a medieval, cloaked anachronism. Before we even started our discussion, it was clear to me that I was right and he was wrong (and probably even crazy).
“I don’t want to repeat our entire discussion here, just a brief summary of my brilliant performance. I took the position that even assuming there is a Creator, and even assuming hypothetically that it would be of any interest to him what we do, it would be absurd to suggest that he wants something from us. That the Creator of the universe wants something from us little people is a contradiction in terms. But assuming even that, one would still have to deal with the ludicrous assumption of Orthodox Jews that the infinite, perfect Creator of all existence wants the Jews to scrupulously obey the 613 commandments of the Bible. So really, take a break!”
The problem for Mr. Zohar, however, was that this conversation had triggered something inside him. It gave him food for thought that would not let him go.
“The Haredi did not go on the offensive throughout the discussion. Instead, he fended off my sharp-tongued remarks in a cool, logical way, so that my attacks always came to nothing. The audience, who were on my side from the start, didn’t notice how each of my arguments was easily repelled and they kept cheering me on.”
Only once did the Haredi go on the offensive when he said, “The Torah was given to the people of Israel by God during a revelation at Mount Sinai. The truth of these words can be proved beyond the slightest doubt.”
These words made a strong impression on Zohar. “What did he say? Does he even understand the meaning of the word proof?” thought the actor. “Are you telling me,” replied Zohar, “that you can prove that the Torah story of the Israelites’ meeting with God at Sinai was a true historical event? And that the Creator of the universe showed himself there to the people and commanded them to obey the 613 commandments of the Bible?”
“The Haredi was sure of his cause and answered affirmatively, this was the beginning of my intellectual journey that would take up the next few months of my life.”
What now, rebellion or obedience?
(Tanakh is an acronym for the Jewish holy books, Torah – five books of Moses, Neviim – writings of the prophets, and Ketuvim – holy writings such as Psalms and Ecclesiastes)
Uri Zohar was deeply shaken by the discussion with the Haredi man and could hardly take his mind off the topic. “The guy seemed perfectly normal,” Zohar marveled. “If I had realized that he was a brainwashed fanatic, I could easily forget it. But that was not the case. How could it be that two normal, rational people, he and I, come to such radically different conclusions?”
The biggest problem for Uri Zohar in acknowledging that the Haredi might be right was that it would force him to give up his previous life and refocus it on fulfilling the commandments. If one could really prove that God exists, that he gave the Israelites the Torah and commanded them in it to keep his commandments, who could disagree? However, denying the truth of the Tanakh because one has no desire to change one’s life was not a good reason for Zohar. Once proven that the Tanakh is the Word of God, there is no turning back for a Jew, rebelling against the Creator’s will would be as foolish as it was useless.
Attack on the fortress of the Tanakh
Ultimately, Uri Zohar took up the Tanakh for the first time as an adult and was amazed to find that while it may not have been the word of God, it was a treasure trove of valuable insights into philosophy, psychology, sociology, science and history. He compared the Jewish books to the Western philosophies of Socrates, Plato, Kant, Nietzsche and anyone else he could pull up for comparison.
His result: “My first thought was, friends, we’ve been robbed! The writings of King David, King Solomon, the discourses in Job, and the discussions in the Babylonian Talmud on every possible subject under the sun made the works of the West look like a well-intentioned but hopelessly inadequate attempt at a student essay.”
“I know,” Zohar writes, “that for someone raised in a non-Torah environment that statement is an impossible and unbelievable statement. But it is true and provable. All you have to do is open the Torah and start learning.”
That’s exactly what Zohar did, he began to analyze the Torah systematically and in doing so he primarily investigated the question of whether the Torah was really given to the Jewish people by God at Sinai. At first he noticed that his previous idea of the Jewish scriptures did not do justice to the whole, rather they made clear to him the prejudices of Western education toward Judaism.
Zohar now faced two statements that were neither radical nor undeniable:
- The Tanakh forms the basis of Christianity and Islam, which is why one cannot avoid having to use it to explain the history of the world.
- Because the Tanakh has been translated into almost every language and is read and used by so many people as a basis of life, it has had a far greater impact on mankind than any other work.
It follows that the Tanakh, if not the Word of God, represents mankind’s greatest intellectual and cultural achievement. So one cannot dismiss the Tanakh as some sort of Jewish legends, as Zohar was taught in school. This monumental work was written either by the greatest geniuses of all time, or by God.
The wisdom and historical influence of the Tanakh provided Zohar with a strong argument for its divinity. In his analysis, however, he noted that Jewish history offers equally strong arguments.
“Assuming that there was no revelation at Sinai and that the Torah was not given by God to the Israelites,” writes Zohar, “one must conclude that the genius or geniuses who wrote it were a group of liars, or simply were only poets who heard a legend about revelation and wrote it down without examination.”
It becomes even more difficult to deny the truth of divine revelation when you consider that it was not a small detail, but the greatest national event of the Jewish people. All the people that had come out of Egypt (a census a few chapters earlier had shown there were 600,000 men fit to fight between the ages of 20 and 60 + family) stood at Sinai and experienced the revelation in person. If one took the revelation out of the history of the Jews and all of mankind because it didn’t actually take place, so much in Judaism–and therefore also in Christianity, Islam and all of human history–would make no sense.
I would like to describe in my own words how Uri Zohar went about his analysis of the Tanakh, but he can do much better: “The writings of Moses, King David, King Solomon, and many prophets are recorded in the Tanakh. Furthermore, the writings of the Talmud are based on the Tanakh. The position of these intellectual, creative, wise and sacred giants was recognized by the nations of their day. To say that these geniuses either fell victim to a beautiful but entirely made-up story, or made it up themselves, posed some problems for me.”
“The Psalms of David testify to a wisdom, depth, integrity and simply most beautiful poetry in the soul of the author. David writes openly about his naked self, about his successes and his failures. When he made mistakes, he happily accepted the consequences. His great soul inspired the Psalms and as king he led the people of Israel through times of glory but also of trouble. Does it make sense to assume that he is either a liar or a fool who accepts a story without questioning it? David risked his life several times to prove his acceptance of the Torah and its commandments. Would a man of his status take such risks without considering that he might have been betrayed?”
If one imagines that the people of biblical times were primitive fools, one could easily dismiss their beliefs as superstitions. But the writings of the Tanakh, brimming with intelligence and wisdom, tell a different story. The believing Jews throughout Jewish history were geniuses no less than Albert Einstein and they believed in God and His Torah!
The people aren’t stupid either
Not only the kings and prophets were clever and educated people, the Jewish people are not exactly considered stupid either. The Jews have been accused of many things throughout their history, but not that they are stupid.
“One must not forget that the historical narratives of the Tanakh do not take place in a distant city like Troy,” writes Zohar. “Neither do they consist of transcendent theological doctrines. They take place in the midst of the daily life of the Jewish people over the course of thousands of years. The stories are interwoven with thousands of daily events, which in turn are interwoven with thousands of wonders. How could such a historical tale be accepted by the entire Jewish people? Nowhere is it mentioned that the veracity of the Tanakh has ever been questioned, even in the most difficult of times.”
Not only did the Jewish people believe in their holy scriptures, they were also always ready to endure the greatest suffering in order not to betray their faith. Zohar describes how during the Crusades and other frequent pogroms, European Jews always had the opportunity to save themselves from martyrdom through baptism.
“The Holocaust was the only exception. Throughout Jewish history, the Jews were killed for their stubborn adherence to the Torah and its commandments. Why did millions of Jews choose death instead of converting? Why? Because of a book written by a human, or human beings, thousands of years ago?”
Suppose it’s a lie
In the next chapter, Uri Zohar plays the following mind game:
Let’s assume that the revelation at Sinai did not take place. Surely the generation that came out of Egypt, roamed the desert, and conquered the land of Israel could not believe such a fairy tale. They would have witnessed the revelation and countless miracles during those 40 years in the desert. So you couldn’t lie to them that they themselves experienced a revelation that didn’t happen. In addition, it is a legal text that imposes on them 613 commandments that dictate the entire daily life of the Jew.
So if divine revelation was a lie, it must have been written down several hundred years later. Zohar here again emphasizes the tendency of modern man to see himself as intelligent and enlightened, while biblical people were simple, uneducated fools.
So if the story were a lie, written down a few hundred years after it supposedly happened and circulated among the Jewish people, one has to wonder how the people could have accepted this innovation.
“Imagine that you and I, two enlightened people of the 20th century, are approached by a charismatic man. After introducing himself as a descendant of our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he tells us that in 1712 all the people of Israel were gathered on Mount Everest where the Creator of the world revealed himself to us and gave us the Torah.
“Let’s further assume that we would allow this hair-raising story as a possibility. Surely we would tell the kind man that we must have heard of this event, why did it take so long for the news to get through to us? We should have at least heard something about it from our grandfathers. But even if they forgot to mention this historical event, the surrounding countries, someone should have heard about it.”
Zohar also examines the possibility that the Torah was written much later, which he also dismisses as illogical. Zohar similarly rejects the notion that the writings of the Torah evolved over the years, first one book, then a hundred years later, Exodus, and so on.
Is it possible that Moses was the author of the five books named after him? Perhaps he really did write this greatest cultural work of mankind while sojourn in the desert? Then one would have to assume that the miracles he describes there were not also experienced by the people. The revelation was therefore perhaps just a particularly strong storm that Moses interpreted as a miracle. That makes no sense. Either Moses’ generation experienced all the miracles as he did, or… Zohar cannot see any other possibility at this point.
The Torah repels all attacks
Uri Zohar tries everything to refute the veracity of the Torah but fails every time. Miracles, Jewish history, the deep wisdom of the Torah, the prophets, and many other aspects of Judaism simply could not be refuted by the notion that everyone had been duped.
“I attacked the Torah at full force again and again, but when the smoke had cleared I couldn’t even dent its veracity. I was a beaten man. The Torah easily encompasses all of human life, giving each piece of the jigsaw puzzle of human existence its rightful place. Neither logic, nor common sense, nor my gut instinct could accept any human being or any group of human beings as the authors of the Torah. It was just in a different league. I let my imagination run free again and imagined that Aristotle, Da Vinci, Newton, Freud, Descartes, Confucius, Lao-Tse and the Buddha lived at the same time. They got together to create something that might resemble the Torah. I saw that even if the sum of their efforts were far better than their individual attempts, they would not make the leap to a qualitatively higher level that, well, is not human.”
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