Was Yoshiyahu Fred? – Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Many Talmidim at the Torah Academy of Bergen County have enjoyed viewing Rav Leib (Lawrence) Kelemen’s video presentation of “A Rational Argument for the Divine Origin of the Torah.” A video as well as written presentation of his excellent arguments may be accessed at www.simpletoremember.com. The essence of his argument is the unparalleled Jewish tradition that Jews today are the descendants of the people who experienced a mass divine revelation at Sinai. Rav Kelemen cogently argues that this must be true since it would be otherwise impossible to introduce such a lie.

A number of Talmidim raised a question regarding Rav Keleman’s rebuttal of “Fred Theory.” They ask if Yoshiyahu is Fred.

Fred Theory

The following is Rav Keleman’s presentation of what he labels the “Fred Theory.”

The claim that three million people heard God speak appears in every intact Torah scroll ever found. The claim is either true or false. If it is a lie, and no such revelation ever took place, at some time in the past someone must have made such a claim. If we contemplate what the scene must have looked like when a false claim of national prophecy was first launched, we find ourselves locked into one of two scenarios: The person making the claim either told his followers (a) that the national prophecy happened in the present — “You personally heard God speak” — or (b) that the national prophecy happened in the past — “Your ancestors once heard God speak.” We might call the first theory “Moses Theory,” since the Torah records that “Moses” was the name of Jewry’s leader when the prophecy took place. We can call the second possibility “Fred Theory,” since the leader during this post-Sinaitic period need not be Moses — he might as well be Fred.

According to Moses Theory, ancient Jewry’s leader told a foolish lie: “You personally heard God speak, and He said these words: ‘I am the Lord your God. . . .’ ” We can imagine the scene as people first examined the supposedly divine Torah and their charismatic leader tried to explain to Jewry some of the text’s more unpleasant rituals: “Circumcision? Yes, use a very sharp knife and a quick downward motion . . . and it was the God whom you heard speak who told me you should do this!” People would probably know if they had heard God speak; and if they hadn’t heard God speak, they might be a little hesitant to accept the Torah’s validity. Because people won’t accept foolish (checkable) lies that demand self-destructive behavior, even critics who posit that the Torah is a fictional, man-made document, reject Moses Theory.

Those who view the Torah as a work of human imagination therefore put their faith in Fred. They posit that the initial lie was: “God spoke not to you but to your ancestors. He gave them the Torah. They carried the Jewish tradition for a period but then fumbled, and it was forgotten. Now I, Fred, am returning to you your long-lost religious heritage.”

When would Fred claim the national prophecy took place? If he said it happened recently — to his followers’ parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents — the lie would be checked, discovered, and rejected. Therefore, Fred must claim the national prophecy took place during “ancient times,” five hundred or a thousand years earlier.

This is a smart lie insofar as it can’t be checked. Followers would understand why they have no memory of a tradition supposedly lost hundreds or thousands of years before. However, followers would reasonably wonder how Fred himself recalls this otherwise forgotten tradition. Fred could explain things, again with a smart (un-checkable) lie, claiming that God spoke to him alone and revealed the Torah’s long-lost text and the story of its original revelation at Mount Sinai. Indeed, most modern skeptics gravitate toward a theory like this.

A major problem with this theory is that we’ve never heard of Fred or his heroic resurrection of Judaism. Certainly one of the most significant events in Jewish history would have been the fumble, when world Jewry forgot they were the [descendents of the] three million prophets, and the recovery, when Fred reminded the Jews about the national prophecy at Mount Sinai. Yet in an otherwise comprehensive Jewish history we find no mention of such a claim. Jewish texts describe myriad historical crises and the heroes who assisted during these difficult times. We know that Moses brought the Torah down from Mount Sinai, Joshua first brought the Jews into the Land of Israel, David slew Goliath, Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, and Ezra brought the Jews back to the Land of Israel after the Babylonian exile. We know that Rabbi Judah the Prince compiled the Mishnah and that Ravina and Rav Ashi compiled the Talmud. We know about Maimonides, Nachmanides, and hundreds of other stars of medieval Jewry and what their respective contributions were. We possess detailed records about every great Jewish personality, except for one. We don’t have any mention of the man who reminded Jewry that they were the only people in human history ever to experience national prophecy, and we don’t have any record of the amnesia Fred rescued them from.

Until two hundred years ago (with the founding of the Reform movement), every Jew and member of a Jewish breakaway group (like the Christians, Sadducees, and Karaites) affirmed that ancient Jewry, their direct ancestors, had experienced national prophecy at Mount Sinai. Indeed, virtually every Jew alive today can trace himself back to Orthodox relatives (usually within five generations) who believed with all their heart and soul that they were links in an unbroken genealogical chain going back to Sinai. Yet not a single ancient or contemporary individual or religious community has any tradition about the man who should have been the second greatest hero of Jewish history: Fred. Why? Calm, unbiased observers will be quick to admit that perhaps there never was a “Fred” who lied about a national revelation; perhaps something supernatural really transpired at Sinai.

A few students asked if Yoshiyahu was indeed “Fred.” Indeed, Yoshiyahu is the only remotely plausible candidate for “Fred.” Melachim Bet 22:8-13 describes a Sefer Torah being discovered in the Beit HaMikdash and Yoshiyahu spreading the word among the people about its discovery. Moreover, Yoshiyahu was the first king in seventy-five years to support Torah observance. This seventy-five year period is the only remotely possible experience of the “national amnesia” that a “Fred” could “repair”. Before we delve into the explanation of these specific Pesukim, we must review the basics of Yoshiyahu’s life story.

Yoshiyahu – The Early Years

When Yoshiyahu’s thoroughly evil grandfather, Menasheh, died after fifty-five years of rule, he was succeeded by his son Amon, who continued his father’s evil practices but ruled for only two years before being assassinated. Sefer Melachim describes how Yoshiyahu succeeded his father at the tender age of eight. He was installed as the king, even though he obviously was unfit to rule at that age, because he was next in the Davidic line. The people of Judea, despite their spiritual shortcomings, zealously honored the Davidic line even after they assassinated a disliked king. Yoshiyahu is described in Sefer Melachim as beginning to take interest in repairing the Beit HaMikdash already at age twenty six. In Sefer Divrei HaYamim (Perek 34), he is described as having begun to take an interest in the proper Torah way at age sixteen, and he began the process of purifying the Beit HaMikdash at age twenty.

In total, the Jewish people had experienced seventy-five years – fifty-five of Menasheh, two of Amon, and eighteen more until Yoshiyahu matured and was fully committed to Hashem – of rule under monarchs that were, at the very least, not dedicated to Torah law (although Divrei HaYamim records that Menasheh engaged in minimal acts of Teshuvah in the latter years of his rule). Despite this handicap, Yoshiyahu embarked on his program of national reformation (Teshuvah).

Undaunted by the enormity of the challenge, Yoshiyahu set out on his path to national Teshuvah. He encountered, however, a major setback at the early stages of his campaign. He discovered, in his efforts to purify the Beit HaMikdash, a Sefer Torah that was opened to the Tochachah (reprimand) of Sefer Devarim. As explained by the Midrash HaGadol (Devarim 27) and Radak (Melachim Bet 22:11; unlike the skeptical interpretation of these Pesukim), Yoshiyahu correctly saw this as a bad omen and sought the interpretation of a Navi. Chuldah the prophetess presented a crushing message. Her prophecy was that as a result of Am Yisrael’s intense sinning, Hashem had resolved to destroy the Beit HaMikdash. She noted, however, that since Yoshiyahu had expressed remorse for the evil committed by his predecessors and his people, he would be spared from experiencing this awful event in his lifetime and that he would die a peaceful death.

Reaction to Chuldah’s Prophecy

Sefer Melachim (Melachim Bet 23:1-24) records that Yoshiyahu did not accept this prophecy with equanimity. Instead, he reacted by embarking on a massive campaign of national spiritual renaissance. He gathered all of Am Yisrael and its leaders and demanded that the nation make a solemn commitment (Berit) to dedicate itself wholeheartedly to the service of Hashem. He committed himself to completely eliminating Avodah Zarah from Eretz Yisrael. The Navi records that he eliminated the Avodah Zarah of his grandfather Menasheh as well as the misdirected places of worship (Bamot) of Yarav’am and Shlomo HaMelech that had stood for hundreds of years that not even Yoshiyahu’s righteous predecessors (other than Chizkiyahu) dared to disturb.


Next week we shall conclude our brief biography of Yoshiyahu and explain why it is highly unreasonable (and requires an enormous leap of faith) to assert that Yoshiyahu was the “Fred character.”

Was Yoshiyahu Fred? – Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Lemon v. Kurzman – Its Impact on Eiruvin and Gittin Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter