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.
Maimonides refers to the existence of miracles: In his “Guide for the Perplexed” III:17, he discusses how people without intellectual perfection are left to nature, while those who gain intellectual perfection are in some way recipients of God’s providence (providence: divine guidance; i.e. the way that God acts in the world on the behalf of individuals).
This leads readers to believe that Maimonides believes in supernatural miracles. However, while he uses the words “miracle” and “providence”, he has special definitions for those words.
Maimonides writes that God’s actions are never mediated by a violation of the laws of nature. Rather, all such interaction is by way of angels. Maimonides states that the layman’s understanding of the term “angel” is ignorant – to the wise man, Maimonides writes, one sees that what the Bible and Talmud refer to as “angels” are metaphors for the laws of nature, or the principles by which the physical universe operates, or even kinds of platonic eternal forms.
See “Guide of the Perplexed” II:4 and II:6.
II:4 “…This leads Aristotle in turn to the demonstrated fact that God, glory and majesty to Him, does not do things by direct contact. God burns things by means of fire; fire is moved by the motion of the sphere; the sphere is moved by means of a disembodied intellect, these intellects being the “angels which are near to Him,” through whose mediation the spheres [planets] move….thus totally disembodied minds exist which emanate from God and are the intermediaries between God and all the bodies [objects] here in this world.”
II:6 “…Aristotle’s doctrine that these disembodied spheres serve as the nexus between God and existence, by whose mediation the sphere are brought into motion, which is the cause of all becoming, is the express import of all the Scriptures. For you will never in Scripture any activity done by God except through an angel. And “angel”, as you know, means messenger. Thus anything which executes a command is an angel. So the motions of living beings, even those that are inarticulate, are said explicitly by Scripture to be due to angels.
…Our argument here is concerned solely with those “angels” which are disembodied intellects. For our Bible is not unaware that God governs this existence through the mediation of angles…[Maimonides then quotes discussions of angels from Genesis, Plato, and midrash Bereshit Rabbah]…the import in all these texts is not – as a primitive mentality would suppose – to suggest any discussion or planning or seeking of advice on God’s part. How could the Creator receive aid from the object of his creation? The real import of all is to proclaim that existence – including particular individuals and even the formation of the parts of animals such as they are – is brought about entirely through the mediation of angels.
For all forces are angels! How blind, how perniciously blind are the naive?! If you told someone who purports to be a sage of Israel that the Deity sends an angel who enters a woman’s womb and there forms an embryo, he would think this a miracle and accept it as a mark of the majesty and power of the Deity – despite the fact that he believes an angle to be a body of fire one third the size of the entire world. All this, he thinks, is possible for God. But if you tell him that God placed in the sperm the power of forming and demarcating these organs, and that _this_ is the angel, or that all forms are produced by the Active Intellect – that here is the angel, the “vice-regent of the world” constantly mentioned by the sages – then he will recoil. For he [the naive person] does not understand that the true majesty and power are in the bringing into being of forces which are active in a thing although they cannot be perceived by the senses.
The sages of blessed memory state clearly – to those who are wise themselves – that every bodily power (not to mention forces at large in the world) is an angel and that a given power has one effect and no more. It says in [midrash] Bereshit Rabbah “We are given to understand that no angel performs two missions, nor do two angels perform one mission.” – which is just the case with all forces. To confirm the conclusion that individual physical and psychological forces are called “angels”, there is the dictum of the sages, in a number of places, ultimately derived from Bereshit Rabbah, “Each day the Holy One creates a band of angels who sing their song before him and go their way.” [BR, LXXVIII] When this midrash was countered with another which suggests that angels are permanent…the answer given was that some are permanent and other perish. And this is in fact the case. Particular forces come to be and pass away in constant succession; the species of such forces, however, are stable and enduring….
[Giving more examples of angels,] Thus the Sages reveal to the aware, that the imaginative faculty is also called an angel; and the mind is called a cherub. How beautiful this will appear to the sophisticated mind – and how disturbing to the primitive.”
Readers whose understanding of Maimonides is coloured by Orthodox interpretations of Judaism are thunderstruck by these passages. They are a rejection of the orthodox view. They substitute a rationalism that seems more appropriate for 21st century rationalists.
For instance, when phenomenon are frequent, they are termed by people to be “natural”, and when they are infrequent, they are termed a “sign” or a miracle.
In the Torah U-Maddah Journal, Marc B. Shapiro (Modern Orthodox) writes :
“One wonders whether any of the Orthodox spokesmen who have advocated acceptance of the Thirteen Principles are really aware of Maimonides’ view of reward and punishment, which goes against mainstream rabbinic tradition. Without going into detail, let it simple be stated that according to Maimonides there is no heavenly reward for the observance of mitzvot!. Similarly, one wonders whether Orthodox spokesman are aware that according to Maimonides, God never interrupts the set laws of nature – ever.
In “Miracles in Rambam’s Thought—a Function of Prophecy”, Dabid Guttman writes:
….”Following our understanding of Rambam we have defined miracles as properties present in nature that require certain convergences of cause and effect to occur. They are seen as miracles because of the way they occur either rarely or fortuitously. In reality they are preset and would occur with or without human (prophetic) intervention. It is up to the prophet to learn about them and use them where necessary. Depending on the circumstances and stakes involved, the level of certainty allows the prophet to act on his information. Moshe’s level of prophecy afforded him the courage and certainty to act even when the stakes involved put the future of the nation at risk.”
To illustrate Maimonides’ views on providence let us read “The Guide for the Perplexed” III:17.
“My own belief about this central issue of providence…is less beset with unfortunate consequences than those I have already described and more capable of winning the assent of reason. What I believe is that divine providence in this world…extends to individuals only of the human species, that only in this species are all the fortunes of each individual and all the evil and good he receives determined by his desserts….”
“Divine providence in my personal view is a consequence of divine emanation. The species which is touched by this overflowing of the intellectual and thereby becomes itself endowed with intellect, through which it is made aware of all that intellect can reveal – that species is the one which is attended by divine providence, and all of its actions are accountable. [Maimonides then explains why animals are not covered by providence, and why people are.] “Try to grasp my position in its full implications: I do not believe that anything is hidden from God, nor do I ascribe to God any incapacity. Rather, what I believe is that providence is a necessary consequence of intellect. For providence can only flow from a mind of consummate perfection – and all who are touched by that outpouring sufficiently to be reached by mind are reached by providence as well. This is the position which in my view is in harmony not only with reason but also with the texts of revelation.”
None of this is in-line with what Orthodoxy teaches about Maimonides or miracles. Rather, this is a view that providence is applied to humans who reach a state of intellectual perfection. .Many traditional rabbis fail to heed Maimonides’ statement that he will not openly state any controversial views. Maimonides wrote that “a sensible man should not demand of me, or hope that when we mention a subject, we shall make a complete exposition of it.”
Why would he do this? Many of Maimonides’ ideas were vilified by the religious standard bearers of his day; his books were often banned by rabbis. It wasn’t until two centuries after his death that he became more fully accepted by the rest of the Jewish community. (See “Maimonidean Controversy, volume 11 of the Encyclopaedia Judaica.)
We must understand Maimonides’ cautious position: in the medieval world one was rarely at liberty to state one’s views freely, without risking severe repercussions. Given all this, let us now accept Maimonides’ own statement that he provided two views: an exoteric, surface view which was designed to placate the masses, and an esoteric, hidden view that represented his true views. Let us also accept that when Maimonides’ contradicts himself, it is not due to intellectual laziness, but in fact is an invitation for the intelligent reader to figure out the consistent, true view.
What is the consensus of academic scholarship concerning Maimonides’ views on providence? It turns out modern day scholars come to the same conclusion as Ibn Tibbon. Ibn Tibbon rejects the supernaturalistic interpretations of providence, and concludes that Maimonides held that Providence is intellectual only; Providence is when a man no longer is bothered by any material affliction. No miracles occur. A person of perfected intellect simply no longer gives world problems any significance.
- Aviezer Ravitzky, “Samuel Ibn Tibbon and the Esoteric Character of the Guide of the Perplexed”, Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) Review, Vol.6, 1981, p.87-123
Marvin Fox, one of the 20th century’s leading experts on Maimonides, writes “Maimonides’ point is not that God actively intervenes in the natural order so as to protect the deserving from every misfortune, but rather that when one has achieved this very high level of intellectual fellowship with God no earthly misfortune is of any consequence. From a mature perspective the troubles of a child are childish and have little true importance. Men of true knowledge have a similar view of what ordinary men consider to be great misfortunes, and are thus protected from them. It is not that nothing happens to them that is from an ordinary scheme painful or injurious, but that such events are of little consequence in their scheme of values.”
- Marvin Fox, “Interpreting Maimonides”, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1990, p.316
This is also the view of Alfred L. Ivry. He states that according to Maimonides:
“Homo Sapiens may be said to receive individual treatment primarily in the sense that he alone is aware of the divine intellect, and only he is able to benefit from this awareness by modifying his behaviour in accordance with it. The rational faculty which is man’s proprium, given to him by God, enables man to respond consciously and individually to the knowledge he acquires and thus to become responsible for his own destiny in a way that other creatures are not….It is, accordingly, in the total control which the true philosopher can supposedly excercise over his environment that Maimonides feels providence is most fully expressed.”
If, as he [Aristotle] states, the foundering of a ship and the drowning of those who were in it and the falling-down of a roof upon those who were in the house, are due to pure chance, the fact that the people in the ship went on board and that the people in the house were sitting in it is, according to our opinion, not due to chance, but to divine will in accordance with the deserts of those people as determined in His judgements, the rule of which cannot be attained by our intellects. [Guide III:17]
“Though the unsuspecting reader may well think passages of this sort affirm providence to be an action taken by God ad personam, willed specifically for or against a particular individual, this is not the case. The individual who acts on the basis of correct or incorrect knowledge is responsible for what happens to him in all circumstances, Maimonides is saying, and this is the will of God.”
- Providence, Divine Omniscience and Possibility: The Case of Maimonides” in “Divine Omniscience and Omnipotence in Medieval Philosophy” Ed. T. Rudavsky, 1985, D. Reidel Publishing Company; and also in “Maimonides: A Collection of Critical Essays”, p.183/184 Ed. Joseph Buijs, Univ. of Notre Dame Press.
This is also the view of of Prof. Menachem Kellner, in his “Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People”.
It is not just in regard to the issue of providence that we find Maimonides startling rationalism. In other areas he also makes clear that God never interrupts the set laws of nature. For instance:
“We believe that the Divine Will ordained everything at creation and that all things, at all times, are regulated by the laws of nature and run their natural course in accordance with what Solomon said, ‘As it was so, it will ever be, as it was made so it continues, and there is nothing new under the sun’ (Eccles. 1:9). This occasioned the sages to say that all miracles which deviate from the natural course of events, whether they have already occurred or, according to promise, are to take place in the future, were foreordained by the Divine Will during the six days of creation, nature being then so constituted that those miracles which were to happen really did afterward take place. Then, when such an occurrence happens at its proper time, it may have been regarded as an absolute innovation, whereas in reality it was not.”
- “Perush ha-Mishnah”, Commentary on the Mishnah, chapter 8 of the introduction to Pirke Avot (the “eight chapters”.
“In the eighth chapter [above] we mentioned to you that they (the sages) did not believe in the periodic change of the Divine Will. Rather, they believed that at the beginning of the fashioning of the phenomena, God instituted into nature that through them there would be fashioned all that would be fashioned. Whether the phenomenon which would be fashioned would be frequent – namely, a natural phenomenon – or would be an infrequent change – namely, a sign – they are all equal.”
- “Perush ha-Mishnah” (Commentary on the Mishnah), Avot 5:VI
Therefore, Maimonides believes that the set laws of nature are not in contradiction to the existence of providence. In fact, they are complimentary.
Objection: But Maimonides says “…all miracles which deviate from from the natural course of events…” Doesn’t this imply that Maimonides admits that some events deviate from nature, i.e. that supernatural miracles therefore happen?
Response: No, do not overlook the words that begin this sentence! Maimonides actually writes “THIS OCCASIONED THE SAGES TO SAY that all miracles which deviate from the natural course of events…” While the sages used that particular terminology, Maimonides goes on to disabuse us of such misconceptions; it only appears as if those events deviated from the natural course of events. In reality, they are natural, “Whether the phenomenon which would be fashioned would be frequent – namely, a natural phenomenon – or would be an infrequent change – namely, a sign – they are all equal.”
Note further that Maimonides teaches that almost every Biblical miracle never took place. In his “Guide for the Perplexed” Maimonides writes that most of these passages were, in fact, allegories for teaching esoteric truths about physics and metaphysics. Other stories of “miracles” are really to be understood as the record of a prophetic dream; therefore the event thus did not literally take place. Only a small number of events are thus left for us to explain as actual events. Undoubtably, Maimonides believed that certain miraculous events did occur. The Nile river really did turn to blood (or at least it actually turned to a red color that the Egyptians mistook for blood); the sea of reeds (usually mistranslated as “the Red Sea”) really did split apart and allow the Israelites to pass thorough, etc. Yet as all the above shows, none of these occurrences violated the laws of nature (as the laws of nature were understood by Maimonides).
Objection: Doesn’t Maimonides write that prophets can pull off seemingly supernatural events? For example, he writes that a community may use the existence of publicly performed miracle as proof of a prophet’s validity. [Fundamentals of Torah 7:7, and Guide II:25.]
Response: Maimonides certainly did believe that true prophets could perform miracles – and this is no contradiction of the above. We simply have to remember to use Maimonides’ own rationalist definition of the word “miracle”. A prophet achieves his or her miraculous results through natural law and divine providence (as explained above).
We must be aware of linguistic anachronisms. To modern day readers, a miracle is an event caused by God that violates the laws of physics. Given this understanding of nature, one could then legitimately conclude that Maimonides didn’t believe in the existence of miracles (in the modern, popular use of the word.) Nonetheless, this conclusion isn’t fair as we are projecting a modern day understanding of physics back onto Maimonides.
Maimonides and his peers envisioned the laws of the universe differently than we do; his Aristotelian influenced worldview envisioned a close natural connection between the realm of the physical and the intellectual. In this worldview all physical events are the results of “intellects”, some of which are human, some of which are “angels” (which Maimonides explains in a rationalist fashion, as described above); many of these “angels” are what we would call the laws of nature. Maimonides held that these intellects could interact in such a way as to seemingly violate the laws of nature (i.e. produce miracles). From the viewpoint of Maimonides and other neo-Aristotelian philosophers, this wasn’t a violation of the laws of physics at all; a miracle was what occurred when two different sets of natural law worked together, yielding an important and unusual result.
Can modern day thinkers adhere to the Maimonidean view of miracles? This is not possible in a straightforward way, because there has been much progress in science over the last 1,000 years. Today we know that there is only one unified set of natural laws in the universe; there are not separate interacting domains of laws.
Yet can one can still agree with Maimonidean theology by adhering to his method, if not his particular conclusions. In doing so, one can agree with Maimonides to a large degree: (1) God created the laws of the universe; i.e. the laws of physics. (2) Most miracles in the Bible didn’t actually take place; these sections of the Bible are actually teaching esoteric views. (3) Some miracles in the Bible are descriptions of prophetic dreams, and were never meant to describe historical events. (4) Divine providence is non-supernatural, and is found in the perfection of the intellect. (5) On occasion, incredible physical events take place. These events are so timely or stupendous that one should identify them as miracles. However, these events do follow the laws of nature, even if we are not capable of understanding the details.
(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 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) The view of Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, better known as the Ralbag, or Gersonides.
The views of Gersonides are commonly believed to be significantly different from those held by Maimonides. But when compared in an analytical fashion, the differences are few.
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.
Robert D. Kaiser
“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.