The Rambam’s revolutionary conception of miracles

The Rambam greatly discounts the importance of miracles for the belief in G-d. So what role do they serve in his opinion?

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Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz,

Rabbi Schertz
Rabbi Schertz
INN: J. Fogel

In the Jewish religious tradition, the appearance of phenomena, which people called miracles, were normally employed as evidence for the presence or revelation of God.  A miracle was usually understood as an event which contradicted the normal operation of nature.  It could also be understood as an extremely rare event whose origin could not be clearly explained.  It was so unique that nothing like it had ever previously occurred.  Finally it could be understood as the coincidental occurrence of two or more events.  The events in themselves were perceived as normal and rational.  It was however, the coming together or coinciding of the events at a specific time which could engender either joy or dread which established their miraculous nature.

Jewish scripture, whether the Torah, Prophets or Ketuvim, describe many events which were understood as miraculous.  Those occurrences included all of the above described categories.  These were specific moments which had great impact upon Jewish history.  The Mishnah collected and enumerated these events and stated that they were all created by God on the Sixth Day of Creation, close to sundown, prior to the Sabbath.  See Avot 5: 6.

These events were incorporated by God within the structure of creation itself.  Some, but not all of the events which were included were the opening in the earth which swallowed Korach and his followers; water which flowed out of the rock that was hit by Moshe; the mouth of the donkey who spoke to Bilam; the rainbow which did not exist until the time of Noach; the manna which came down from heaven; and the writing on the tablets of the law.

There are many miracles which are not found in the Mishnah which should have been obvious.  These include the splitting of the Red Sea; the splitting of the Jordan River for Joshua; the miracles of resurrection performed by Elijah and Elisha.

In his commentary on the Mishnah, the Rambam explains that every miracle in scripture was encased in the universe during the process of creation.  However, different miracles were created on different days of the week that were appropriate for that particular miracle. They were all an extension of the process of creation.  No miracle was ever created after the process of creation, but only appeared at the necessary moment.  This is a logical conclusion, because there is no more miraculous act than that of creation itself. If God had not created the world, then the probability of non-creation to creation is infinite. It is infinitely more probable for nothing to have been created than for something to have been created.  

In the introduction (to tractate Avot) known as Shemonah Perakim, the Rambam offers a complete analysis of his understanding of the creation of miracles. 

In this matter, the Medabrim (Jewish and Moslem adherents of the Arabic medieval philosophy known as the Kalam, who are normally called the Mutakallemim or Mutakalimun) disagree:  "For I have heard that they say that God’s will in all matters is continuous and constant.  But we do not believe this, but rather maintain that God’s will occurred during the six days of creation and that all things should continue naturally for all time. .  .thus, the Chachamim (Jewish Scholars) had to conclude that all the miracles that existed outside of the natural order and those that are destined to occur as promised by scripture all came into being by God’s will during the six days of creation and then were inserted as part of nature and revealed when their time came.  When it (the miracle) is revealed, when it is needed, those who see it will think that it just occurred now spontaneously.  But that is not so, as is stated in the Talmud, 'the world proceeds according to its nature. (Olam holech keminhago)'" Avodah Zarah, 54b;  Rambam, Shemonah Perakim, chap. 8. 

What motivated the Rambam, to explain the concept of miracles in this unusual fashion.  What is the ultimate difference in understanding that miracles come into being through God’s will at the moment when they are needed, or that they were created by God at the time of the creation of the world?  There are several factors which drive the Rambam’s analysis. One is philosophical the others are theological and practical.

Philosophical:

To the Mutakalimun, God’s providence or will constantly directed the universe in all matters.  Thus, God is always intervening in the universe.  Miracles are simply an extension of that intervention.  As a supreme rationalist, the Rambam strongly disagrees with the Mutakalimun and even anticipates the thought of the seventeenth/eighteenth century philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.   

Leibniz, maintained that miracles, rather than enhancing the greatness of the Creator, actually diminish it.  The greatness of the Creator and His perfection, should be reflected in the perfection of His creation. Miracles were viewed as an interruption of that perfection.  A perfect creation would not require God to constantly adjust and correct it through sporadic acts which were unique and unpredictable.  This position is one that the Rambam maintained. The Rambam rejected the concept that God constantly intervenes in the running of the universe. However, with regard to the Jewish people, the Rambam maintains a concept of a special Divine Providence.  The natural order of the universe runs according to the original laws which God enacted during the days of creation.  God neither intervenes nor interrupts that natural order.  That is why the Rambam insists that miracles are already incorporated in the natural order at the time of creation and are not an intervention in the natural order.

Theological:

From the perspective of theology, the Rambam greatly discounts the importance of miracles for the belief in God.  Indeed, there is no theological necessity at all for miracles.  This is best expressed by the following statement:

"Israel did not believe our teacher Moshe because of the wonders which he wrought.  For one who believes because of signs (i.e. miracles) has doubts in his heart for it is possible to perform the sign through deception or witchcraft.  But all the signs which Moshe performed in the wilderness, he did for particular and not to bring proof for the truth of his prophesy.  He had to drown the Egyptians and so he split the sea and drowned them in it.  We needed food, and he brought down the manna for us.  They thirsted, he split the rock.  Korach and his followers denied him, and the earth swallowed them, and so with all the wonders. And what is it that caused (Israel) to believe in Him?  Standing at Sinai where our eyes saw, not a stranger, and our ears heard and not another . . .and why is standing at Sinai the only proof for his prophecy that it was true and there is no doubt?  For it says, 'I will come to you in the thickness of the cloud in order that the nation will hear My speaking with you (Moshe) and will always believe in you (Moshe).'  Shemot, 19:9. Therefore, before this event, they did not believe with a faith which lasts forever, but rather, in a faith which is always subject to mistrust and doubt." Mishneh Torah, Yesodai Hatora 8:1/

Theological truth is always rooted in the content of the belief and the source from which it is derived.  All signs, wonders and miracles are external to the belief and have no bearing on it.  If a belief is true, there can be no evidence outside the inherent content of that belief which can either establish it or disprove it.  We can see that if miracles had a greater role in Jewish belief, they would shift emphasis to the miracle itself rather than the content which it came to support or uphold.  Thus, the Rambam delegated to miracles the most insignificant role that he could.  If miracles occurred spontaneously at the moment they were needed, they would become the prime focus of our attention. They are therefore hidden by the Rambam in the distant past, at the time of creation. They thus became, part of the framework of nature and not external to it.

We have a powerful historical example to support this analysis.  The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 18b) tells us that the Rabbis wished to annul the celebration of Hanukkah.  It was one of the miraculous holidays found in Megilat Taanit which was annulled after the destruction of the Second Temple.  The Rabbis could not annul Hanukkah, however, because the miracle of the oil and the mitzvah) which accompanied it  (of lighting candles became so beloved and accepted by the Jewish people, that they would not relinquish it. See Rashi Ad Locum.

This could be the reason why there is no mention of the miraculous oil in the Al Hanisim prayer. Because we do not want emphasize miracles. Ironically, the Al Hanisim prayer (which means, “For the Miracles”) thanks God for the miracles He provided, yet the major miracle of Hanukkah (the oil which lasted for eight days) is omitted. It seemed that the Rabbis wished to redirect our attention and our focus to the presence of God in our midst and his unique relationship to the Jewish people, rather than upon a specific supernatural miracle.

Practical:     

Order is always preferable to disorder and chaos.  Only an orderly world is accessible to the human mind.  If one cannot predict from moment to moment what will happen, how can one predict anything?  The predictability of nature is crucial for human survival.  If there is no predictability, there can be no agriculture or indeed any other form of science.  Fire should always move upwards, and heavy objects move downwards.  Vegetative life requires carbon dioxide, while animated beings require oxygen.  If the world is chaotic, it could not be studied and the rational mind would cease to exist.

No matter how wondrous they may be, miracles destroy the natural order.  They are a great impediment to reason and understanding.  Indeed the Torah itself states after the great flood, “all the days of the earth, sowing and harvesting, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.”Bereishit, 8; 22. Nature must remain constant for human life. Thus it seemed more correct to the Rambam to see miracles as inherent in nature, rather than an exception to it. 

There is only one law which governs the universe, i.e. its creation by God. Miracles are a part of that law and do not destroy the natural world, but are already ingrained in it. They do not assume a greater importance than any other aspect of this natural law.  

This article is dedicated to the memory of my late brother-in-law, Dov Sylvetsky, founding dean of Emunah College in Jerusalem, whose yahrzeit falls on the 13th of Shvat.

  

  






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