Thursday, November 16, 2006

Miracles: In the eyes of the beholder.

It would seem at first blush that God performing miracles is something to be expected from an all-powerful Deity. After all limiting God to what is natural would seem to make Him almost human. However a little more in depth analysis will show this to be wrong. On the contrary the need to make miracles is an insult to God. Of course He can perform miracles if He so wishes as long as He does not have to. A perfectly infallible Entity should be able to bring about our existence, have it planned and so well set in place that He, the Creator, need never interfere or adjust. Even the minutest adjustment is a sign of imperfection. So what exactly are those miracles the Torah talks about so often?

Interestingly, etymologically, we are coming back to our earlier discussions of Nissayon, for Ness is one of the words that are commonly used to describe a miracle. The word Ness stands for flag, pole or demonstration. Again it would seem that miracle is an event whose purpose is to make a point. Rambam in the last of his Eight Chapters puts it as follows
(My paraphrase/translation)

For we believe that the Will was present during the six days of Creation, and that all things always behave according to their nature as it says “Only that shall happen which has happened only that shall occur which has occurred; there is nothing new under the sun” (Kohelet 1:9.) Therefore the Rabbis found it necessary to say that all the miracles that already happened, that will happen in the future as promised, and that are irregular, all were willed during the first six days of creation. Those things had in their original nature the novel behavior that occurred later, at a set time, and when that happened at a fortuitous time, people perceived them as if they were willed now. That is not so. Our Rabbis expanded on this in Midrash Kohelet and in other places. They also stated “the world acts according to its custom.””

Kohelet 3:14 reads as follows:

יד יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי כָּל-אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה הָאֱלֹהִים הוּא יִהְיֶה לְעוֹלָם--עָלָיו אֵין לְהוֹסִיף, וּמִמֶּנּוּ אֵין לִגְרֹעַ; וְהָאֱלֹהִים עָשָׂה, שֶׁיִּרְאוּ מִלְּפָנָיו.
14 I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be forever; nothing can be added to it, nor any thing taken from it; and God hath so made it, that men should fear before Him.

Rambam comments in MN 2:28:

He declares in these words that the world has been created by God and remains for ever. He adds the reason for it by saying, "Nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it;" for this is the reason for the perpetuity, as if he meant to say that things are changed in order to supply that which is wanting, or in order to take away what is superfluous. The works of God being perfect, admitting no addition or deduction, must remain the same forever. It is impossible that anything should exist that could cause a change in them. In the conclusion of the verse, Solomon, as it were describes the purpose of exceptions from the laws of Nature, or an excuse for changes in them, when he says, "And God doeth it that men should fear before him." He refers to the production in time of miracles”.

In other words everything works according to its original plan or nature. There are events in nature that are more common than others. The sun rises and sets daily unchangingly. To us that is obviously natural. There are however other events, though natural but much rarer. These can be extremely rare, so rare, that they happened just once or twice throughout human history. These events are no less natural than the daily occurrences. However the rarity itself is a catalyst that makes the observer pause. It makes him take stock and realize that there is a First Cause that this event can be traced back to. Our mundane day-to-day existence is so constant that we forget to think about what is the cause for all this. The abnormal makes us aware that there is a question to be asked that begs for an answer.

So what is a miracle? If we look at miracles it is always the interaction between man and the event. It is when man is saved because the event occurred at a fortuitous moment for him. When the Jewish people were squeezed between the sea and the Egyptians and the sea split at just the right moment, that rare natural event is interpreted as a miracle. Moshe’s greatness was his ability to sense this rare occurrence and take advantage of it. His intuition, or what we would call his prophetic insight into the future was so strong and certain, that he refused to surrender to the Egyptians.

One cannot prove empirically that miracles occur. As a man of religion one can however interpret the event as being something put in place by God at time of creation and that included this person being at the right place at the right time. It is all in the eyes of the beholder.


  1. jewishskeptic11/16/2006 6:22 AM

    >So what is a miracle? If we look at miracles it is always the interaction between man and the event. It is when man is saved because the event occurred at a fortuitous moment for him.

    This is not how miracles are perceived in the Tanach or Chazal.
    A miracle is by definition something that happens SUPERNATURALLY.If it can be explained by physical laws,NO MATTER HOW RARE,it's not a miracle!
    If someone wins the lottery-1 of 14,ooo,ooo,he thinks it's a miracle for him,but was it? Someone had to win.
    You are saying something similar to what the Ralbag is explaining the miracle Of Elisha & the axe that fell into the water (ii Kings 6:6).But not everything that Ralbag says is Torah miSinai.
    See Malbim ad loc.what he says about his explanation:
    והרלב"ג חפש בזה תחבולות טבעיים כדרכו,ודבריו הבל

    How will you explain Elisha's miracle with the cruse of oil(ii Kings 4)?
    How do you explain all the miracles by Eliyahu,& Elishah & all the other miracles in the Tanach?!

    How do you explain THE NESS OF CHANUKAH (I mean the oil,not the victory)?

    A traditional believing Jew will say that God can change nature if He so desires.But you (& Ralbag)don't accept that,Ralbag's explanation of Elishas miracle is so farfetched,that I prefer the traditional understanding.
    As I wrote in a previous comment,one's difficulties doesnt give him the right to do with a text whatever he wishes.

    You are saying exactly what David Hume,in his book on miracles, is saying.That there never was even one miracle which can't be explained by the laws of nature.
    (Of course,when I use the word miracle I don't mean it in the sense that is used in everyday conversation as a manner of speech.)

  2. JS, you are missing one point - the interaction with man. The fact the prophet predicts the event and even more, takes advantage of it, is the miracle. Of course that in itself is natural as it is man's natural ability that allows him to predict - but that is as far as miracles go. See Ramban on Breishit 46:16(? long rambna on Sheloshim veshalosh). ( parshat Vayigash) where he of course diasgrees with Rambam in general and describes his understanding of everything being a ness all the time, but he does agree that the Torah only tells us stories of nissim when there is human interaction and prediction. He interprets it differently but it is an observation that is valid for this position too.

    Rambam addresses Elisha's miracle with the boy, Yehoshua with the sun, and explains them naturistically. Re pach shemen see Aruch hashulchan at the beginning of hilchot hanukkah.IMO the ness was the victory. Because of the problems with the later hasmonaim the Rabbis emphasized this rather then the real ness.

    For a thorough treatment see my last article in Hakirah. I think I sent it to you. If not let me know and I will send again.

  3. jewishskeptic11/16/2006 11:51 AM

    >Of course that in itself is natural as it is man's natural ability that allows him to predict - but that is as far as miracles go.

    David,the Rambam is very selective in his natural explaination of miracles.That's not a fair method.
    He chooses a few which he is able to explain,sometimes in a farfetched way.(as does Ralbag).
    He uses the same method to explain anthropomophisms in Tanach.

    When one reads Tanach one can not but read that the miracles were FOR REAL & not for the EYES OF THE BEHOLDER!
    Of course by using all kinds of *dreyerei*,some of it ingenious,one can explain anything one wants.
    But the bible was not meant to be read that way,not did the people read it that way.

    Just one example of many,what I wrote in my earlier comment,about the miracle of cruse(asuch shemen)of oil performed by Elisha,How would you explain it ?!
    How would Rambam?
    Was Elisha some sort of trickster,magician,a Uri Geller,?
    Did he hypnotize her in order for her to be deceived?
    Is that what Tanach wants to tell us?
    Or perhaps we should read it as it's meant to be read,that Elisha performed a real miracle.
    I understand the dilemma you are facing.
    You want to maintain the divinity of the Tanach & at the same time you can't believe in real miracles(not just in the eyes of the beholder).
    IMO,if one is honest with himself,he can't have it both ways.

    p.s. thanks,I still have that article from chakirah you sent me.

  4. Just a quibble - Nach is not divine. Torah is.

    The story is told as it was seen by at least some of the observers. I did not have the time to research the shemen story but I vaguely remember addressing it in the past. i will look into it.

    In general though I don't know what is the problem. Until the 18 century or so people thought that comets were miraculous. read the Seder Hadorot and you will see how every few years it mentions a comet followed by a calamity. This is already intelligent bpeople how much more the masses.

    Of course the story is meant for everybody. Whoever feels comfortable with the story as is let him. I believe that one is expected to transcend that stage, try to figure out why this particular story was recorded and the meaning behiind that. I believe that it will be a much more productive endeavor than closing off critical thinking.

    What do you think made Hezekiah ubeit dino decide which story to record and which to discard in Melachim and shmuel? ezra in Divrei hayamim? Shmuel in his book and Shofetim? And then what made the cannonizers in Alyat Chezekiah ben Gurion decide what to include and what to edit? that to me is a worthwhile analysis.

  5. JS this morning when I was writing this post it occurred to me that in his iggeret Techyat Hametim, where Rambam is a little coy about what excatly he believes on that issue, he explains TH as part of the belief in miracles. IOW it is the outstanding example of God having the ability to change nature at will. What is fascinating is that he is implying that the example choisen by the Rabbis is something no one ever experienced! He can but will not!

  6. jewishskeptic11/17/2006 3:57 AM

    > IOW it is the outstanding example of God having the ability to change nature at will. What is fascinating is that he is implying that the example choisen by the Rabbis is something no one ever experienced! He can but will not!

    Well,David,this is semantics,just playing with words.
    What's difference between saying "He can but will not " & saing "He can not"
    What did you gain by it,except that it sounds better..
    He can BUT NEVER DOES is the same as saying HE CAN'T.
    The same goes for "free will".
    It's pointless to say that HE HAS FREE WILL & at the same time say that He ALWAYS chooses to do good.
    If He can not but choose to do good,He doesn't have free will.
    The same as said goes for miracles.

    Shabbat Shalom.

  7. jewishskeptic11/17/2006 4:24 AM

    Just want to add to the above,that you can ascribe such free will to a falling stone.
    Using the same semantics one can say that the stone does have free will & can choose not to fall to the ground but ALWAYS chooses to do so.
    What's the difference between God & the stone?

  8. I read through the debate and it reminded me of a group meeting I attended that discussed the nature of miracles. The Bible tells that God performs miracles. And for some reason I raised the question about what is the part of human beings in the act of performing miracles. I remember an orthodox lady in our group said that we just have to pray for miracles to happen, but later she seemed to have reservations. It takes me to your focus on the relationship between the miraculous event and man. I believe that miracles happen all the time on every scale. Ofcourse the Bible tells us of the big ones. But miracles happen on a daily basis, it only takes paying attention and acknowledgment. It seems to me like the debate on this issue reflects two point of views, or as spiritual jargon says two levels of consciousness. Besides why are we compelled to understand miracle stories in the bible in a certain way. I believe miracles are living demonstrations of God for whevever is paying attention. It takes intuition to recognize miracles and see the divinity in our world.
    So maybe when we find ourselves in times of trouble and pray for a miracle, we are actually in search of an event that we can say this is divinity in action, "צמאה נפשי לאל חי". Your comment on the Ness of the sea split in Egypt is in my eyes a very interesting point of view. I only wish in our days and especially in the holy land we had leaders as great as Moshe with prophetic insight and wisdom to acknowledge God's miracles.

    Shavua Tov

  9. Avshalom, Your point of view is Ramban all over his perush on Chumash.At length in Shemos 13:17 but many other places agian and again. It is a very valid and acceptable shita. I do not subscribe to it because it takes away responsibility from man and i believe a human being has much more independence and freedom. But I can acceopt others. Rav Soloveitchik in the beginning of his Kol Dodi Dofek has an interesting take on this. He repeats itI think in one of his other papers with a twist.(I think Adam one and Adam two)

  10. Well, I am in favor of taking responsibility and being independent, but I do not understand where you see man's responsibility in the context of miracles?
    Actually, I can also relate to Rambam's point of view (the way you described it). In our everyday life miracles are there as a part of God's original plan'. We do have responsibility to utilize the occurances and acknowledge them if we wish to live in harmony with the ways of God. Is it the nature of responsibility you are reffering to? Or did I get you wrong?

  11. It seems to me that we are just arguing on semantics. Daily occurrences are not miracles but natural events that result from a system of cause and effect. I do not see God's hand directly in every event but rather see Him as the original Cause because He set the rules in motion. He does not get involved in the day to day minutae, though He "knows" them. It is our responsibility to predict the occurrences and take advantage of them. That is my understanding of schar mitzva, mitzvah. OTH Ramban selieves that there really is no rule of nature. Nature is an illusion and theoretically unpredictable. God just hides His presence by making sure things are repetitive but at any moment something can happen that is unpredicted at God's will. Nature is a ness nistar and miracle is ness galuy. It takes independence away from man and in a way reduces responsibility. Tefilah now can cahngew things immediately. If I eat bad food and get sick and pray properly and do teshuvah, God will heal me. Ramban's tshuvah is a panacea. Rambam on the other hand believes you cannot change the past you can only see to it taht it does not repeat. Teshuvah is geared to the future. See hilchot Ta'anit wher he explains why you must do teshuvah otherwise one is an achzar as he will repeat his bad deeds.

    I accept the Rambam's approach and have great difficulties with Ramban's.Ramban's however is the accepted theology nowadays and I believe is the cause of the many problems in the community. Rav Soloveitchik tried to address that and explain Ramban's approach so the responsibility comes back to the individual. The Yeshiva (chareidi) unfortunately does not want that. Chaval.