Maimonides’ view of miracles

What are the Jewish views of miracles? Many definitions exist – and no one view has ever been accepted by all of Klal Yisrael as definitive. In this linked resource we look at the various Jewish views of miracles, in general.

In this essay we examine in specific the views of Moses ben Maimon (1138–1204 CE.) He is more commonly known as Maimonides, or by the acronym Rambam (Hebrew: רמב״ם.) Maimonides was a medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher who became one of the most prolific and influential Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages.

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 Maimonides “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 common 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”, David 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? Most 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
    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.


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