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The various Jewish views of miracles, Robert D. Kaiser 11/21/01
What are the Jewish views of miracles? Many different definitions exist – and no one view has ever been accepted by Klal Yisrael as definitive. Yet we can at least look at the range of positions that Jewish thinkers have put forth on this subject.
(1) The Biblical view of miracles
The is held by the ancient Israelites, as well as by many sages in the Mishnah and Talmud; this view corresponds to the modern-day, popular definition of the word “miracle”. In this view, a miracle is an intervention by God in the universe. God suspends the laws of nature to produce a supernatural occurrence. This happens by either violating the laws of physics, skewing the statistical probability of an event happening, or possibly both.
The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) is full of such descriptions; they are presented in a matter of fact matter. It was taken for granted by most of our ancestors that God acted in the world much like a human might, except that God was much more powerful.
However, there are fewer outright miracles in the Bible than is commonly believed. For instance, the splitting of Yam Suf, the sea of reeds (commonly mistranslated as the Red Sea). This occurred when Moses and the children of Israel fled from bondage in Egypt, to begin their exodus to the promised land. Contrary to popular belief, the Torah never claims that the sea split in an immediate fashion. Rather, the Torah states that God caused a strong wind, to slowly drive the sea away, in a thin strip, overnight. Although I hate crush anyone’s childhood memories, it didn’t happen the way it was shown in movie starring Charlton Heston.
Many miracles (or ‘signs’) in the Bible don’t require supernatural intervention; it is the timing that causes a prophet to announce it as a miracle.
“The problem of whether miracles are natural or supernatural, which was of concern to scholars of later ages, does not bother Bible writers. In one case (Num. 16:30) a miracle is described as a ‘creation,’ which indicates an awareness of what moderns might call the ‘suspension of natural laws’ (see also Ex. 34:10). On the other hand, the miracle of the descent of the quail (Num. 9:18-23) is quite plainly and clearly described as a natural – though unexpected – occurrence and yet is treated as a full-scale miracle.”
- Miracles, Encyclopaedia Judaica
Today many ultra-Orthodox Jews (and most Christians) adhere to this view.
(2) Miracles pre-planned by God as a part of Creation
By the Talmudic era (200 – 600 CE), the idea of miracles that contravened the laws of nature were harder to accept. Some rabbis of the Talmud taught that miracles were natural events that had been set up by God at the beginning of time. When the walls of Jericho fell, it was not because God directly brought them down. Rather, God planned that there would be an earthquake at that place and time, so that the city would fall to the Israelites.
When the plagues struck the Egyptians, these were natural events that had been timed by God to happen just then. Biblical miracles thus are not violations of the laws of nature; they are part of God’s planning.
This view assumes that God knows the future. How can man have free will, while God knows the outcome of each situation? The Talmud never attempted to produce a systematic theology. The sages were affirming that God is involved with the world, but were not concerned with reconciling philosophical implications.
This view is held by the iconoclastic Hasdai Crescas (1300s CE), who was nearly alone in writing that free will is an illusion. Creascas held that all that happens is the will of God. This idea is rejected by most Jews, except for some of the Hasidic community, for instance some within Lubavitch (Chabad) movement.
Instances where rabbinic writings say that God made miracles a part of creation include Genesis Rabbah 5:45; Exodus Rabbah 21:6; Ethics of the Fathers/Pirkei Avot 5:6.
(3) Maimonides’ view of miracles.
For a full discussion of the views of Maimonides see Maimonides’ view of miracles
A summary of his view will be placed here soon.
(4) Nachmanides’ view of miracles.
Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (1194-1270) better known as Ramban or Nachmanides, was one of Spain’s leading biblical exegetes and kabbalists during the medieval era. In many ways Nachmanides is a sort of anti-Maimonides; he criticizes many of Maimonides’ teachings as heretical. This is in no small part due to the differences in their approaches: Where Maimonides hewed to rationalism, Nachmanides hewed to Kabbalah (Jewish esoteric mysticism).
The Encyclopaedia Judaica notes that “Nahmanides was merely temporizing in his writings to the northern French rabbis. His true temper and the temper of the entire anti-Maimonidean camp is revealed in his commentary on the Torah, which is basically a mystical work against Maimonides and Abraham ibn Ezra. The very concept of a system of laws of nature ordained by God in His wisdom to be admired by man through his reason, as expressed by Maimonides (see, e.g., Mishneh Torah, Sefer ha-Madda), he and his colleagues believe to be sheer heresy. The workings of nature are to be conceived of only and always as “hidden miracles.” God performs extraordinary miracles in order that we should understand the miraculous nature of all existence and life: [Maimonidean Controversy, EJ]
On the newsgroup Soc.Culture.Jewish.Moderated Rabbi Micha Berger noted that
“The difference between [Maimonides] and the Ramban is that Nahmanides does define nature to be just a bunch of rules of behavior, and therefore includes the ‘flowing walls’ of the Red Sea in the rules as originally written. Maimonides, on the other hand, would say that the system by which G-d directly intervened was written into the original rules. By the way, the model popular amongst contemporary Orthodoxy is the Ramban’s, but with a different perspective. Nahmanides writes that all miracles were written into the laws of nature as odd cases in the general rule.”
In the essay available at the following website, Rabbi Nachum Danzig discusses the radically different views between Maimonides (Rambam) and Nachmanides (Ramban):
To summarize, Maimonides believes that we can learn about God from the set laws of nature; Nachmanides considers such beliefs false; in fact, he denies the existence of laws of nature, and holds that anyone who believes in their existence is misled by an illusion. According to him all events are literally supernatural miracles.
Nachmanides claims that anyone who accepts Maimonides’ view is a heretic: “And from the great and well-known miracles a man comes to admit to hidden miracles which are the foundation of the whole Torah. A person has no portion in the Torah of Moshe Rabeinu unless he believes that all our matters and circumstances are miracles and they do not follow nature or the general custom of the world rather, if one does mitzvot he will succeed due to the reward he merits ” [Ramban, end of commentary to Exodus 13:16.]
Nachmanides view prefigures the Chasidic worldview: Micha Berger writes that “The Chassidic theory (which, via Rabbi E. E. Dressler made it to the rest of Orthodox thought) is to agree that there is no difference between nature and miracle — and therefore all is miracle! Instead of looking at miracles as unique natural events, we look at nature as predictable miracles. But in both cases, the difference is statistical.”
(5) Gersonides view of miracles
Here we discuss the views of Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (1288 – 1344 CE), better known as the Ralbag, or Gersonides. He was a medieval French Jewish philosopher, Talmudist, mathematician, physician and astronomer/astrologer. He was born in Languedoc, France.
Gersonides held that most miraculous events can be explained away scientifically; they are not exceptions to the laws of physics; God does not intervene in nature. For example, the miracle at the Sea of Reeds (commonly referred to as the Red Sea) had a perfectly natural cause. For Gersonides, the Bible refers to an event as a “sign” or a “miracle” due to its fortuitous timing. What, then, is the role of a prophet? In observing these rare and timely phenomenon prophets can discern truths about God, and man’s place in the universe. What makes an event miraculous is not that a rare event occurred, but that a prophet understood the implications of this event.
However, Gersonides’ admits that some events do go beyond what seem to be the normal laws of nature, and in explicating these views, we can see how close he is to Maimonides. Robert Eisen, an expert on Gersonides, writes:
“Adhering to Aristotle’s thought, Gersonides presents some basic assumptions, such as (1) God cannot intervene in nature, (2) God cannot change His will, (3) Nature behaves in accordance with laws. According to Gersonides, miracles cannot be a regular occurrence since natural phenomena and laws regularly changing through miracles would signify a defect in the natural order. Furthermore, an event that has already taken place cannot be reversed miraculously as if it has not taken place. Gersonides concludes that while God is the source of miracles, miracles follow the laws of nature. If they seem magical to human beings it is because these exceptional phenomena exist on a higher level of nature than the level with which human beings are familiar and comfortable.
For example, Gersonides writes that the miracle of Moses’ staff turning into a snake is just a speeding up of what would happen to the staff in the normal course of nature. Given enough time, the staff would have changed its properties and turned into a snake anyway. The miracle is the instantaneous aspect of the event. Gersonides observes that a prophet is always present when biblical miracles take place. The prophet is able to predict the miracle, or else he brings it about through prayer. Sometimes he performs the miracle himself, and sometimes it occurs for his benefit. The prophet’s perfected intellect allows him to commune with the higher laws of nature that normal humans don’t understand and can’t perceive.
Robert Eisen “Gersonides on Providence, Covenant, and the Chosen People” State University of New York Press, 1995.
Similarly, Julius Guttman notes that “For Gersonides, miracles are not the direct result of God’s act, but are produced by the active intellect. They constitute an interference with the laws of the natural order, but this interference has been foreseen and provided for in the natural order established at creation.” [“Philosophies of Judaism” Julius Guttman, JPS, 1964, p.218]
Let us now recall Maimonides’ view: He also envisioned a close connection between the realm of the physical and the intellectual. In his worldview all physical events are the results of “intellects”… He held that these intellects could interact in such a way as to violate the usual laws of nature. Yet Maimonides held that this wasn’t a violation of the real laws of the universe: rather, a miracle was what occurred when two different sets of natural law worked together, yielding an important and unusual result.
How, then, does Gersonides differ from Maimonides? Gersonides had a strong belief in astrology, which in his day was considered by some to be scientific. He believed that all earthly occurances were connected in some metaphysical way to the stars. “The general connection imparted to the prophet by the active intellect is the general order of the astrological constellation. The constellation under which a man is born determines his fate, and constellations as well determine the life span of nations….
The active intellect knows the astrological order…which in turn contains all of the conditions of a particular event. Thus, when a prophet deals with the destiny of a particular person or human group, he receives from the active intellect a knowledge of the order of the constellations, and with sufficient precision to enable him to predict its fate in full detail…. The astrological determinism has only one limitation: The free will of man could shatter the course of action ordained for him by the stars; prophecy could therefore predict the future on the basis of astrological determination only insofar as the free will of a man does not break through the determined course of things.”
“Philosophies of Judaism” Julius Guttmann, JPS, 1964, p. 217-218
In summary: Gersonides believed astrology to be a science that predicts events according to set laws of nature (albeit, a different set than the ones we are used to.) He also believed that a person who has perfected his thinking could interact with the laws of nature through the active intellect. Gersonides thus thought of himself as creating a rationalist and non-supernatural theology. In this sense, there is much similarity between Gersonides and Maimonides: Both were rationalists who believed that all miracles could be described within the laws of the universe; the difference comes from the fact that they held different conceptions of what the laws of the universe actually were.
(6) Non-literal reinterpretations of miracles
In Numbers 22 we come across one of the most unusual miracles reported in the Tanakh, the story of Balaam and the talking donkey. Unlike other miracles in the Torah, this event cannot be interpreted as a natural event. Donkeys don’t speak. So one might assume that we are stuck with accepting one of two possibilities: Either we have to assert the literal truth of this miracle, or claim that the story is an absolute fiction. And indeed, some rabbinic commentators have claimed that we must take this story at face value. However this is absurd; this understanding demands that God act as some sort of uber-ventriloquist or puppeteer. Even ignoring the fact that a talking donkey is not possible, this conception of God manipulating animals as puppets can fairly be said to be objectionable on a theological basis alone.
Judaism has non-fundamentalist approaches to such issues. Commentators such as Saadiah Gaon and Maimonides teach us that we are not to take this story literally at all. Rather, it is explained as an account of a prophetic experience, which are dreams or visions. The donkey, in fact, did not actually speak. Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz, one of the great biblical commentators of the 20th century, writes that these verses “depict the continuance on the subconscious plane of the mental and moral conflict in Balaam’s soul; and the dream apparition and the speaking donkey is but a further warning to Balaam against being misled through avarice to violate God’s command.”
Perhaps the most miraculous event recorded in the Tanakh, other than creation itself, is the resurrection of long dead bodies witnessed by Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones. [Ezekiel 37:1-14]. While some later rabbinic commentators attempted to understand this verse in a literal fashion, most state that the peshat [plain meaning of the verse] can only be understood in its actual historical context. Ezekiel in fact was speaking about the national restoration of the people of Israel, which is symbolically represented by the resurrected bodies; he never meant for anyone to take this metaphor literally.
Similar understandings can and have been applied to all of the miracles in the Bible. Thus even the most rigorous adherent of rabbinic Judaism does not need to worry about reconciling seemingly impossible – and unnecessary – miracles with our own experience of how the world actually works.
Despite the many different views of miracles, as surveyed above, there are some beliefs that most Jews have in common. According to Maimonides and Gersonides, God created set of laws of nature, and that all events occur in accordance with these laws. According to the Chasidic view, all events are miracles. Note that common ground does exist: We can consider the laws of physics as miracles in of themselves, and therefore all of nature is a miracle – and should be appreciated as such However, nature follows its course and God does not supernaturally intervene. This ideology is expressed in the Modim prayer in the Amidah, the central prayer of every Siddur.
“We give thanks unto You, for You are the Lord our God and the God of our fathers for ever and ever; You are the Rock of our lives, the Shield of our salvation through every generation. We will give thanks unto you and declare your praise for our lives which are committed unto Your hand, and for our souls which are in Your charge, and for Your miracles which are daily with us, and for Your wonders and Thy benefits, which are wrought at all times, evening, morning, and night. You are are all-good, whose mercies fail not; You, merciful Being, whose loving-kindnesses never cease we have ever hoped in You.”
What is the use of miracles? Does Judaism rely on them as proof?
Solomon Schechter writes that “In the whole of rabbinic literature there is not one single instance on record that a rabbi was ever asked by his colleagues to demonstrate the soundness of his doctrine, or the truth of a disputed halakhic case, by performing a miracle. Only once do we hear of a rabbi who had recourse to miracles for the purpose of showing that his conception of a certain halakhah was a right one. And in this solitary instance the majority declined to accept the miraculous intervention as a demonstration of truth and decided against the rabbi who appealed to it. Nor, indeed, were such supernatural gifts claimed by all the rabbis. Not a single miracle is reported, for instance, of the great Hillel, or his colleague Shammai, both of whom exercised such an important influence on rabbinic Judaism. On the other hand, we find that such men as, for instance, Honi ha-Me’aggel, whose prayers were much sought after in time of drought, or Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, whose prayers were often solicited in cases of illness, left almost no mark on Jewish thought, the former being known only by the wondrous legends circulating about him, the latter being represented in the whole Talmud only by one or two moral sayings.”
[Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology: Major Concepts of the Talmud (New York: Schocken Books, 1961), p. 7]
So now that we have finished our survey, we return to the original question: What is the Jewish view of miracles? All of the schools of thought discussed here are within normative Jewish theology. So which is the correct answer? In the end, that is something which we have to decide for ourselves.
“Maimonides: A Collection of Critical Essays” Ed. Joseph Buijs, Univ. of Notre Dame Press
“Gersonides on Providence, Covenant, and the Chosen People” Robert Eisen, State University of New York Press, 1995).
“Maimonidean Controversy”, found under “Maimonides” in volume 11 of the Encyclopaedia Judaica[EJ], Keter Publishing. This section is found as an independent entry in the updated 1997 CD-ROM version of the EJ.
Lenn E. Goodman “Rambam: Readings in the Philosophy of Moses Maimonides” , Gee Bee Tee, 1985
“The Return of Maimonideanism” Warren Zev Harvey. Jewish Social Studies Summer/Fall 1980 Vol.XLII, No.3-4.
“Providence, Divine Omniscience and Possibility: The Case of Maimonides” Alfred Ivry. This essay has been printed in at least two volumes: (1) “Divine Omniscience and Omnipotence in Medieval Philosophy” Ed. T. Rudavsky, 1985, D. Reidel Publishing Compnay, and (2) in Buijs’s volume (above.)
“The Aryeh Kaplan Anthology, Volume I”, Aryeh Kaplan 1994, Jointly published by Mesorah Publications and NCSY (National Council of Synagogue Youth.)
“Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought”, Menachem Kellner, Oxford University Press, 1986
“Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People”, Menachem Kellner, SUNY Press, 1991
“The Guide of the Perplexed” 2 volume set, translated by Shlomo Pines, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1956 (numerous reprints)
“Samuel Ibn Tibbon and the Esoteric Character of the Guide of the Perplexed”, Aviezer Ravitzky. AJS Review (Association for Jewish Studies) Vol.6, 1981, p.87-123]
“How to Begin to Study the Guide of the Perplexed” Leo Strauss, contained in volume 1 of Pine’s translation of the Guide
“The Literary Character of the Guide for the Perplexed” Leo Strauss. This groundbreaking essay has been printed in a number of volumes, including Buijs’s volume (above) and as a chapter in Strauss’s own “Persecution in the Art of Writing” [Glencoe, 1952 (numerous reprints)].
Copyright 2002, Robert D. Kaiser
While I maintain a copyright on this work, I encourage free distribution and reproduction of single copies of this paper. This may only be done if I am given attribution as author, if it is distributed unedited, and that the distribution be done for free. While I retain copyright on this document as a whole, and on all the original material therein, the copyright on all individual quotes within belongs to whoever originally wrote them, which I have attempted to denote as accurately as possible. Corrections are welcome.