Sunday, January 28, 2007

Miracles: Ramban and Rambam - two opposing views.

Continuing with the comparison of the theology of the two great medieval Jewish thinkers, Rambam and Ramban, I would like to contrast their respective understanding of miracles.

Ramban’s view: As we saw earlier Ramban sees nature as a manipulated system. To the general population of the world, the non-Jewish, the stars control and run nature. The Jewish population[1], the one that follows the Mitzvot, God controls directly through a constant series of hidden miracles which also feel like nature. In reality every minute happening in the life of a Jew is the result of a specific decision of God. (The same goes for the non-Jew just replacing God with the stars as His intermediates.) It just so happens that normally things follow a certain pattern which cloaks the involvement of the spiritual and disguises itself as nature. That is just an illusion. That illusion is unmasked when the unexpected happens. The unexpected being unquestionably the result of a specific decision of a thinking entity, proves that what we see as a pattern is in reality not so. The miraculous, the unexpected, the anomalous proves without any doubt that God (or some other power such as the stars) is needed constantly to decide on every little occurrence whether it seems to have a pattern or not. The fact that God has the power to override the decision of the stars is what makes Him the superpower, the ultimate arbiter. It is only because He so desires that the stars run things. They are just His servants. Ramban sees this power to control every little detail constantly, as the greatest attribute of God. When the Torah says
יב וְעָבַרְתִּי בְאֶרֶץ-מִצְרַיִם, בַּלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה, וְהִכֵּיתִי כָל-בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, מֵאָדָם וְעַד-בְּהֵמָה; וּבְכָל-אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים, אֲנִי יְהוָה.
12 For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night, and will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD.
Ramban comments that the gods of Egypt are the stars that control it. God took away their power to control the Egyptians. It is just this ability to overrule stars that proves that “I am the Lord”.[2]

Rambam’s view: Rambam argues that a perfect Creator does not need to constantly adjust things. It is demeaning to God to see Him as unable to set things in motion making sure that everything will fall in place at the right time and moment. In fact there is an underlying predeterminism in the universe. It is part of the conundrum of how man can have Bechira (freedom of choice) when God knows the future. Rambam addresses this by arguing that God’s knowledge is just a word we use for lack of a better one. The question therefore is only a problem relative to our perspective but in reality it is like comparing two completely different concepts. (I have posted on this a little and will address more in the future). Therefore from God’s perspective everything that will happen has already happened. The universe follows natural rules set down by God at creation. The singularities which are what we see as miracles have been set in place and it is up to humans to find out about them and use them. A prophet is such a man, who through the study of physics coupled with metaphysics, senses or knows about the upcoming singular event and takes advantage of it. That is what happened at Kryat Yam Suf and all the other miracles.[3] From this perspective miracles have just the opposite effect; they make one question God’s omnipotence. It is therefore a good idea to try to explain them as natural events. Thus Rambam’s comment in MN 2:29:

He made it part of these properties [nature], that they should produce certain miracles at certain times, and the sign of a prophet consisted in the fact that God told him to declare when a certain thing will take place, but the thing itself was effected according to the fixed laws of Nature. If this is really the meaning of the passage referred to, it testifies to the greatness of the author, and shows that he held it to be impossible that there should be a change in the laws of Nature, or a change in the will of God [as regards the physical properties of things] after they have once been established. He therefore assumes, e.g., that God gave the waters the property of joining together, and of flowing in a downward direction, and of separating only at the time when the Egyptians were drowned, and only in a particular place… It is said there: R. Jonathan said, God made an agreement with the sea that it should divide before the Israelites: thus it is said, "And the sea returned to its strength when the morning appeared" (Exod. xiv. 27). R. Jeremiah, son of Elazar, said: Not only with the sea, but with all that has been created in the six days of the beginning [was the agreement made]: this is referred to in the words, "I, even my hands have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded" (Isa. xlv. 12); i.e., I have commanded the sea to divide, the fire not to hurt Hananya, Mishael, and Azaryah, the lions not to harm Daniel, and the fish to spit out Jonah. The same is the case with the rest of the miracles.”

As we can see Rambam and Ramban come from two opposite directions. Ramban lives in a miraculous world. Sciences are just illusions and patterns can be discerned. But the underlying laws that make things happen will never be discovered. They just do not exist. Rambam disagrees. Man has to learn about his environment and harness it to the point that he can use even the irregular and unexpected to his advantage.

So far we have seen how the two points of view of these greats affect the understanding of Providence and Miracles. We still need to look at Olam Haba and Techyat Hametim.

On a personal note again, I have a hard time accepting Ramban’s worldview and fit it into our contemporary understanding of science and nature. Rambam’s approach requires hard work to translate his understanding of nature which is based on Aristotelian Science to our contemporary one. It is doable though. For the life of me I cannot fathom how to deal with Ramban’s worldview in the same context. Ironically it is Ramban’s approach that is accepted nowadays by a majority of Orthodox Jews. It therefore cannot be ignored. That is why I got interested in Rav Kook’s thought. From the little I have read he seems to try to address it. As I read I will periodically share some insights.

[1] Ramban goes even farther and assigns EY as the place where God really runs things. It is another discussion but results from this position of his.
[2] רמב"ן שמות פרק יב פסוק יב

ועל דעתי ירמוז הכתוב לשרי מעלה, אלהי מצרים, כענין יפקוד ה' על צבא המרום במרום ועל מלכי האדמה על האדמה (ישעיה כד כא). והנה השפיל מזלם ושרי המזלות שעליהם. והכתוב ירמוז ויקצר בנעלם:

[3] For a thorough discussion of Rambam’s position see my article at Hakirah


  1. David,
    I am sorry for again commenting off the cuff on an entry that you have spent much time working on, however, looking at Dr. Berger's article on Ramban's position makes him appear significantly different than the way you are presenting him. For example, "...Consequently, a careful examination of the totality of Nachmanides' comments on the issue reveals nature in operation 99% of the time, and it is perforce nature without providence, since "natural", indirect providence indirect providence in terms. Nachmanides' world is thrrefore exceptionally-extraordinarily-natrualistic precisely because of his insistence on the miraculous nature of providence." ( P. 116)

    Obviously there are differences between Rambam and Ramban, your approach seems to overstate them compared to Dr. Berger. If you disagree with his presentation of the Ramban, I would be interested in knowing why.


  2. It is the "nature" of nature that the two differ with. According to Ramban nature operates via the stars. Astrology is nature.

    I will revisit Dr. Berger's article and see if he diasgrees. From memory he argues that Ramban believes that 99% of the time there is no interference by God in changing the normal pattern. However the mechanism according to Ramban is totally different.I don't bel;ieve he focussed in on that. If I find a difference i will address it. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  3. >However the mechanism according to Ramban is totally different.

    I meant totally different than Ramban's.

  4. Thanks for your analysis. I teach a class on Chumash in Tel Aviv, and I've discussed the difference in understanding miracles between Ramban and Rambam, so I'm happy to see it here so succinctly presented.
    I recently started a blog: