Are Miracles Possible? Essays & Opinions
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At Twilight of the Sabbath Eve

At Twilight of the Sabbath Eve

Lenn Goodman is Professor of Philosophy and Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University.

Biblically, there is bound to be some tension between talk of miracles and thoughts of nature, with God its guarantor. The Talmudic Rabbis seek to ease the tension by imagining the prominent exceptions to nature’s regularity woven into its fabric from the start:

Ten things were created on the Sabbath eve at twilight: the mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korah and his cohort (Numbers 16)], the mouth of the well [of Miriam], the mouth of the she-ass [of Balaam (Numbers 22:28)], the rainbow (Genesis 9:13-17), the manna (Exodus 16:14-26), Moses’ rod (Exodus 4:17, etc.), the Shamir [whose tracks cleaved the stones for Solomon’s temple, lest any iron tool desecrate it with even a suggestion of bloodshed (Exodus 20:22, 1 Kings 6:7)], the letters, writing, and tablets [of the Decalogue (Exodus 24:12)].... And some say, the tongs made with tongs. (Mishnah Avot 5.8)

The first tongs mentioned here stand for the difficulties inherent in the emergence of higher from simpler things: How were tongs made without tongs to handle them at the forge? If nothing comes from nothing, how can the greater emerge from the less? Theism, along with Plato’s thesis as to the primacy of absolute over relative value (and thus the possibility of emanation as well as creation), depends on a coherent answer to that question.

If we hope to wrestle with what it means to speak of God’s act in nature and the mystery of the nexus of the Transcendent to the here and now in ourselves or in the cosmos, we must address such questions about the priority of the Infinite to the finite. But consider first the other things created in the twilight of the sixth day.

None of them, plainly, sprung from nature’s familiar order. Yet neither did they breach God’s plan: all ten served Israel’s welfare and mission. They underscore the subtext of the numerous liturgical blessings that acknowledge God’s grace in “sanctifying us with His commandments.” What that subtext pronounces is the thought that the Torah reveals concretely what the Supernal wills for us. Israel’s destiny is woven into nature’s fabric: The warp of history unfolds in natural events; the weft is added by our individual and communal acts and choices.

Like Heraclitus, Maimonides finds the key to destiny in character, not the stars. Reading the list of things created in the twilight of the sixth day, Maimonides says of the Sages, “They did not believe God changes his mind. At the outset of creation He set into nature those things by which all would be done that would be done.” God used and augmented the natural powers of things. “Outcomes that were frequent were natural; those that were extraordinary, reserved for a remote future, were marvels.” (Maimonides’ Commentary Mishnah Avot, at 5.6.) But all expressed the natures God imparted.

Maimonides outdoes the ancient rabbis in naturalizing miracles, weaving yet more tightly into nature’s fabric marvels not listed as created in the twilight of the first Sabbath: The parting of the waters for Israel (Exodus 14:21) and Joshua (Joshua 3:13-17), the natures that made possible the miracles of Elijah (1 Kings 17-19) and Elisha (2 Kings 4-7), the halting of the sun and moon at Gibeon (Joshua 10:13), and every other scriptural miracle.

The occasionalists of the kalam devised a different strategy, making every event an act of God. Since nothing can do or be more than God pleases, nothing can outlast its instant or exceed its place. Beings were atoms. Each had a position but no lasting duration, no size, and no causal power. All power belongs to God (Qur’ān 18:39).

The notion of dimensionless atoms was pilloried by Avicenna for the geometrical paradoxes it entrained. Even earlier, al-Ash‘arī, within the Islamic kalām, had seen the difficulties entailed by denying natural causality. Maimonides sharply criticized the kalām occasionalists for erasing the very idea of nature and undermining God’s role as Creator of a coherent cosmos. Why, he asked, would God create, say, food, if it does not sustain us, or medicines if they cannot treat our illnesses? On the contrary, God’s providence, working through nature, grants resources proportioned to our need—air most abundantly, then water, then simple, wholesome foods. Nature, by God’s grace, provides mother’s milk for babes until they are ready for solid food. God, through nature, lets some life forms depend on others, as all animals depend ultimately on plants. God loses nothing by empowering natural things, and it does not diminish his sway to delegate human powers of free choice. At no time, as Tzvi Langermann stresses, did Maimonides surrender his belief in nature’s causal continuity. From his youth, “the regularity of natural events” was for him “the greatest proof” of God’s rule.

God’s covenant found confirmation, Maimonides holds, not in miracles but in its content (cf. Deuteronomy 18:15-25). The strongest ground for loyalty to that covenant lay neither in the natural order nor in miracles but in the giving of the Law. According to Maimonides, God’s norms did not disrupt the laws of nature but touched the minds of all: God reached out, and Israel responded by reaching up toward Him.

That thought captures a second strategy Maimonides used for naturalizing miracles. All the movements of Balaam’s ass, he argues, were brought about by an angel (Guide I 6). But, for Maimonides, angels are the forms and forces God imparts, allowing things to act. However, later in the Guide (II 42), he locates Balaam’s conversation with his she-ass in a prophetic vision. Likewise Jacob’s wrestling match (Genesis 32:25-33) and Joshua’s encounter with an angel (Joshua 5:13-15). Generalizing, he writes: “Do not imagine for a moment that an angel can be seen or heard to speak unless in the dreams and visions of prophecy, as the principle is clearly stated: in a vision do I make myself known to him, in a dream do I speak to him (Numbers 12:6).” 

Even as he presses that thesis, Maimonides stresses the reality of angels as God’s intermediaries: Subjectivity need not entail unreality. The mind is the meeting place of the finite with the Infinite. So bracketing the miraculous within human experience need not mean its dismissal. And the experience, as Sinai reveals, need not be private.

Bible scholars tell us that poetry like Israel’s Song at the Sea antedates the prose settings that situate an ancient experience. Hence the opening word (az, then) of the verse introducing Moses’ song: Then did Moses and the Children of Israel sing this song to the Lord: (Exodus 15:1). God’s fighting for the Israelites, so recently slaves whose children were cast into the Nile, belongs to their experience: The tide turned, Egypt’s chariotry sank like a stone, like lead in the mighty waters; the sea seemed to part, its waters to stand up like walls as Israel passed. Much depended on perception: Israel felt trapped by the sea before the tide turned—the tide of the sea, and the tide of trust. The waters that had seemed impassable were soon to engulf Pharaoh’s chariotry. No Israelite heard the foe promising themselves booty. But the people tasted the irony of Egypt’s defeat as God’s breath sent back the sea. The shared epiphany was captured in the poet’s words—just as Deborah’s song seizes its moment, picturing Sisera’s mother at her lattice, reassured by her tactful ladies that only the rich booty can have detained the brigands’ chariots; then the perspective shifts to Israel’s realization that the roads are safe (cf. 5:6-7), and the prose historian’s verdict: the land had peace for forty years (5:31).

A shared moment is again captured when Joshua orders sun and moon to halt while he completes the enemy’s rout—the poet’s words, preserved from the vanished Book of Jashar (Joshua 10:12-13). The stars did not literally battle Sisera, but the triumph was no less real for that—nor in the Six Day War or Entebbe. If the cause is just, there’s no blasphemy in seeing the hand of God. In Israel’s clearest shared theophany, all stood before God at Sinai and, according to their capacity, experienced the commanding Reality inviting each to rise in emulation of God’s holiness by following God’s Law of life. Midrashically, every future generation was present; liturgically, later generations relive the moment, rising to hear the Decalogue read out from the Torah scroll.

It’s natural, not least in times of crisis for outstanding characters to be adorned in popular imagination or sacred history with tales of marvels like those that decorate the memory of Elisha or Elijah, giving charisma its glister. But greatness needs no tinsel. For Israel the epiphanies that matter most are experiential, yet shared. Even the heaviest embellishment cannot disable with credulity or incredulity the meanings we naturally seek and find in historic patterns. Our penchant to connect the dots does not make every construct is as good as any other.

Natural miracles are distinguished less by their rarity than by their reception. Yet not every moment is a duck/rabbit: Events can have real meanings. Most tellingly, the fact of life and the existence of anything at all come closest to manifest miracles, not for their improbability but for the natural marvel. Scientists as well as poets see such things—moderns no less than ancients, although we may be reticent today in naming what we see. The rainbow remains a sign, not in spite of optics, but by its beauty. Diverse interests may poach upon its meaning. But that cannot make one construal no better than another.

God makes the memory of Egypt a moral imperative for Israel: to love the stranger, since we were strangers in Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19). The memory defines a mission chosen, its moral truth seconding historicity. Vengeance was not the message. If Israel has long been the suffering servant, as Isaiah saw, there’s no less truth in her glimpses of herself as God’s once youthful bride, sometimes bereft but never forsaken. Jeremiah recounts God’s words: I remember you for your youthful grace, your love as a bride, how you followed Me in the desert, a land unsown (2:2). Seeing God’s hand in Israel’s sufferings, the prophets can honestly claim a license to see the same hand in her triumphs.

Knowing one’s place in nature and history is real start of wisdom. Thus the maxim of the Psalms: Piety is the start of wisdom (111:10). Piety counsels modesty, and modesty knows that we live with many others in a world where all things exercise a conatus that may affect us but hardly turns exclusively to serve or thwart our interests. There is a bit of God in us, in the breath of life and light of consciousness. So we can hear the still small voice and sometimes help others hear it too.

Herzl needed no praeternatural powers to foresee the denouement for European Jewry. Intellectual honesty and moral courage were enough. Lemkin knew the stench of genocide long before he coined the term. Herzl did not live to see the State of Israel, any more than Moses lived to enter the Land. But Herzl’s 54 years were long enough to launch the Zionist movement that would build the state. Avi Weiss and Natan Sharansky lived to see the collapse of the Soviet colossus. Both still speak out for truth, synonymous with justice in the Jewish lexicon. Even Lemkin, in just 59 years, lived to see the fall of the Reich to last a thousand years and served as father, mother, and midwife in making the United Nations pay at least lip service to his vision, branding genocide a crime.

The precedence of the Infinite, from which the finite springs, is the theme of Judaism, a cosmic not a local truth. Part of what makes one reading of events more credible than another is fitting together the facets of experience into a coherent whole. That’s the standard science uses, as theists should when they speak of God’s governance, not reserving separate epistemologies for one day of the week.

Lenn Goodman is Professor of Philosophy and Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University. With permission, this article is excerpted from Professor Goodman’s paper, “To Make a Rainbow: God’s Work in Nature,” to appear in a number of the European Journal for Philosophy of Religion dedicated to the issue of special divine action. The author expresses his appreciation to the editors.

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