Friday, September 12, 2008

Miracles Vs. Nature

The T’nakh, and latter Jewish tradition, has many accounts of miraculous events. Miracles may be entirely open, like the Exodus from Egypt, or hidden like the redemption of Purim. Miracles may be public or they may be private. For those of us in the modern world, miracles seem distant. Of course open, public miracles are largely distant from us in time. With the rise of modern science they’ve become distant from us conceptually. Our better grasp of the physical principals which guide the universe makes it more difficult to grasp exceptions to those principals and even makes God’s active role in maintaining the universe less perceptible. In response to this distance I have seen two related reactions which I believe we should be vary cautious about, perhaps producing more harm than good.

The first tendency is the naturalization and normalization of miracles. Details of a miracle are either made to conform to a naturalistic explanation or it is asserted that their significance was the prophet’s prediction but the occurrence was fully in line with the laws of nature. Illustrative of the tendency to explain details of miraculous events in harmony with nature we read commenting on Exodus 7:17 “be turned to blood. They shall have the appearance of blood (cf. Joel III, 4. ‘The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood.’).” (The Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text English translation and Commentary, Edited by Dr. J. H. Hertz, C. H. Late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire Second Edition London Soncino Press, 1961, page 237) and again on Exodus 7:27 “frogs. This plague, like the preceding, was in general accordance with natural phenomena, but marvelous for both its extent and its intensity.” (ibid page 238) But such an approach is actually quite moderate in comparison to those which negate any supernatural element to miracles.

Now according to Rav Sa’adia Gaon prophetic announcement is indeed a significant aspect of a miracle. It is a prerequisite for God to overturn the otherwise fixed laws of nature:

At this point I find it necessary to make an observation for the purpose of safeguarding [our belief in] the [usual] fixity [of things]. What I have reference to is that the Creator, exalted and magnified be He, does not change the substance of anything unless He first calls the attention of the people to the fact that He is about to effect a change. For [God’s] motive [in the performance of the miracle] is to have men lend credence to His prophet. Where, however, such a motive does not exist, there is no reason for changing any substance. For if we where to assume [purposeless change to be the rule], then our confidence in the fixity of things would be shaken. None of us could then be sure, upon returning to his dwelling and family, whether the All-Wise had not changed their essences, and whether they were not different from the way in which he had left them. (Beliefs and Opinions, Sa’adia Gaon 148)
But such events are indeed supernatural, albeit temporary, departures from the laws of nature. The prior announcement allowed people to draw the desired conclusion about the prophet’s credibility providing a purpose for the supernatural event. Without it the event would not be insignificant but its significance could not be known.

“The result of the application of such a method of interpretation would be that there would not be an item left of the entire story of the creation [of the world] that would not have been divested of its literal meaning, which is the creation and origin of things…The consequence [of the consistent use of this method] would be that there would not be a marvel or miracle left but would have been divested of its literal meaning and thus have become nullified.” (Sa’adia Gaon page 426)

Nor do we find that the Rambam takes a position which deemphasizes the supernatural side of miracles.

If we were to accept the Eternity of the Universe as taught by Aristotle, that everything in the Universe is the result of fixed laws, that Nature does not change, and that there is nothing supernatural, we should necessarily be in opposition to the foundation of our religion, we should disbelieve all miracles and signs, and certainly reject all hopes and fears derived from Scripture, unless the miracles are also explained figuratively. The Allegorists amongst the Mohammedans have done this, and have thereby arrived at absurd conclusions. (Guide page 199)

For allthough the rod was turned into a serpent, the water into blood, the pure and noble hand into a leprous one, without the existence of any natural cause that could effect these or similar phenomena… (ibid 210)
Rambam denied that miracles could be understood within the context of natural phenomenon. To do so would strip them of meaning or necessitate unreasonable hypotheses in the name of rationalism. But after presenting his approach in distinction to that of Aristotle, the Rambam does discuss one significant alternative perspective on miracles:

Our Sages, however, said very strange things as regards miracles; they are found in Bereshit Rabba, and in Midrash Koheleth, namely, that the miracles are to some extent also natural; for they say, when God created the Universe with its present physical properties, He mad it part of these properties, 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 it 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. (ibid, italics mine)

Very cautiously Rambam suggests an approach to understanding the midrashim which could place miracles under the category of “natural” phenomenon. Miracles were not contrary to the laws of nature but preprogrammed into them. But such an approach is does not render the events any more “natural” than we would otherwise perceive them. God is not merely guiding events to align in an unusual fashion but designing nature to act in a way it otherwise never would. The wind isn’t separating the sea…the water is designed to separate at that point in time. The distinction is theological and not practical. These “natural” laws could not be explained “scientifically”, being un-reproducible by definition. And at most it appears the Rambam viewed this approach as tentative, seeing it unnecessary to reject God overriding nature outright.

We see that Judaism affirms the occurrence of divine intervention in a way which cannot be explained through scientific understanding and experimentation. Whether through foresight or direct intervention God’s active participation in human affairs is not strictly limited to that which we know of as the laws of nature. And though largely limited being by definition the exception to the rule, at least in part because the more overt the miracle the more damage is done to our free will, miracles do happen.

Another approach I see is hesitancy by some to accept any miracle which they are not obligated too. If the skepticism or denial of an event doesn’t qualify one as a heretic then skepticism wins out. This applies not only to overt miracles where nature is overturned, but more hidden miracles where the outcome is otherwise possible but would not have come about had nature run its course. Of course one cannot begrudge another for using discretion. There can be a fine line between a reliable account of what can only be considered an “answered prayer” and an urban legend. People will repeat fictional stories they don’t remember the details of because they like the underlying message. And if they relayed and sketchiness about the details that would likely be lost one the audience relates the story to others (along with the appropriate embellished details for rhetorical value). But to outright dismiss a miraculous account a priori seems incongruent with belief in God’s omnipotence and the efficacy of prayer.

One particularly poignant example of such reluctance asserts, “One must not accept stories of miracles, unless witnessed by masses. This is the reason why God created the event of Mount Sinai as "proof" of His existence. God understands that man must not accept miracles, unless he either sees them, or learns by proof that there were masses at the event who witnessed the miracle. There were no masses at event such as you describe, so by Torah standards, and rationality, we cannot accept such stories.” ( Not only are we not obligated to accept miracles which did not occur in our own presence or that of a multitude, but it is asserted we are actually forbidden to.

Such a standard is artificial. Rationally “masses” of witnesses are almost irrelevant. Logically given the premises that God is omnipotent and has performed miracles there is little reason to reject a miraculous account from a source we would otherwise consider reliable. I would accept the testimony of an individual, but otherwise trustworthy physician who told me seeing someone miraculously overcoming insurmountable illness as being direct Divine intervention much more readily than dozens of acquaintances of such a person. Certainly otherwise reliable people aren’t above suspicion and such an account may contain elements which seem theologically at odds or suggest that our otherwise reliable witness is suspect, but there is not inherent difficulty. But no cannon of logic makes acceptance upon something contingent upon a great number of people witnessing it. Conversely there are events hailed by masses as “miracles” which indeed are not, the crowds being unclear on what has actually transpired or overestimating its significance.

Nor does the Torah place such a standard, in fact according to the Rambam it specifically denied:
Scripture, therefore, declares that no prophet will ever, like Moses, do signs publicly in the presence of friend and enemy, of his followers and his opponents; this is the meaning of the words; ‘And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, etc., in all the signs and wonders, etc., in the sight of all Israel. (Guide 224)
The Revelation at Sinai was foundational, but not prototypical. It was the event which established Who the designer was and allowed us to know Him and to know about Him. Moshe’s miracles were the only ones truly open to the masses. With respect to Moses we read “The Jews did not believe in Moses, our teacher, because of the wonders that he performed…all Israel were witnesses to [the appointment of] Moses, our teacher, at the [revelation] at Mount Sinai, and it was unnecessary for him to perform any further wonders for them (Yesodei HaTorah 8:1, 2, Moznaim, translated by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger). For others to be established as a prophet they must make a number of true predictions (Yesodei HaTorah 10:2) but even that was unnecessary provided his prophecy had been established by another prophet (ibid 10:5). But once these conditions are met we accept the prophecy of someone who is fit for prophecy even though it is possible such predictions occurred by chance, “It is possible that a person will perform a sign or wonder even though he is not a prophet – rather, the wonder will have [another cause] behind it. It is, nevertheless, a mitzvah to listen to him. Since he is a wise man of stature and fit for prophecy, we accept [his prophecy as true]” (ibid 7:7). And once he has been established we are not permitted to continue to ask for signs or test further (ibid 10:2). We see that, at least with respect to accepting predictions made by one who seems fit for prophecy, Torah expects us to err on the side of emunah. Hyper-skepticism is not encouraged, and certainly not required, by Judiasm.

“Accepting the Creation, we find that miracles are possible, that Revelation is possible, and that every difficulty in this question is removed.” (Guide 199-200). One who was raised with, or heavily exposed to, agnosticism, atheism, and skepticism may find it difficult to relate to the miraculous. Having left Christianity, I too can relate. ‘Once bitten twice shy’, at times I struggle with feelings that the supernatural seems just too in-credible until I contemplate it is only seems unreasonable if one accepts the even more in-credible claims of strict materialism. It may be necessary for some to relate to the miraculous in the most naturalistic way that’s justifiable. But if one does so across the board I believe it should be accompanied by the recognition that it is a sort of “corrective lens” to help us emotionally deal with a deficiency in our perspective of Emunah. It’s no shame to use a crutch to get through those times we need one. But we should recognize our safeikos are emotional baggage from our secular atmosphere and not rational necessities.

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