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No Miracles, Please*

by Eliezer Segal

Numbers 16

31 And it came to pass, as he had made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground clave asunder that was under them: 32 And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. 33 They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation. 34 And all Israel that were round about them fled at the cry of them: for they said, Lest the earth swallow us up also . 35 And there came out a fire from the Lord, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense... 46 And Moses said unto Aaron, Take a censer, and put fire therein from off the altar, and put on incense, and go quickly unto the congregation, and make an atonement for them: for there is wrath gone out from the Lord; the plague is begun. 47 And Aaron took as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the congregation; and, behold, the plague was begun among the people: and he put on incense, and made an atonement for the people. 48 And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stayed...

Numbers 16

8 And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds.

This section of the Torah contains a relatively high quotient of spectacular miracles, which are performed in order to prove that Moses and Aaron have been divinely chosen to serve the leaders of Israel; and that the rebels who challenge their authority are acting in opposition to God's will.

In this spirit, we are told about the ground opening to swallow up Korah and his congregation, and then closing itself to trap them them underneath. A supernatural fire was also produced to consume the two hundred and fifty men who offered up incense. And if that is not enough, then a plague was unleashed, and Aaron had to stop it by carrying incense into the middle of the infected congregation. The rod of Aaron, alone among those of the tribal princes, sprouted blossoms and almonds.

An innocent reading of the text would argue that these supernatural changes to the natural order are not just peripheral to the story, but are central to its message:

And Moses said: Hereby ye shall know that the Lord hath sent me to do all these works, and that I have not done them of mine own mind. If these men die the common death of all men, and be visited after the visitation of all men, then the Lord hath not sent Me. But if the Lord make a new thing, and the ground open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down alive into the pit, then ye shall understand that these men have despised the Lord.

(Numbers 16:28-30)

It is therefore quite startling to observe how much of an effort was made my some of the medieval Jewish commentators to minimize the dimensions of the miracles, and to provide naturalistic explanations for what we would normally read as quintessentially supernatural occurrences. As we shall see, this approach was formulated in general terms by Maimonides; but it was applied more consistently by rationalistic exegetes in southern France during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, such as Rabbi Levi ben Abraham (author of livyat Hen) and Rabbi Nissim of Marseilles (author of Ma'aseh Nissim).

Leading off this discussion is Maimonides in his commentary to Mishnah Avot 5:6. The Mishnah there lists the mouth of the earth that swallowed up Korah's congregation among the ten things that were created at twilight on the eve of the first Sabbath. This Mishnah is central to Maimonides' understanding of the place of miracles within the scientific order. For him, the Mishnah's image of preparing a miracle in the last stages of the creation is a metaphor for the principle that nature is, in reality, permanent and unchangeable; as is the God who imposed those eternal laws on his creation. It is therefore inappropriate to imagine that God can change his mind capriciously by interrupting or altering scientific laws. Hence, we should understand that those events described in the Bible that appear to involve suspensions of scientific laws are, in actuality, programmed into the original laws when they were formulated. For this reason the rabbis said that on the sixth day God embedded it into the nature of the world that Korah and his congregation would be swallowed up, and that the well would emit water, and that [Balaam's] ass would speak, and so forth"

Some interpreters of Maimonides understood him to be implying that an earthquake was scheduled to occur at that spot on that day; and that what was special here was that Moses was made aware of that fact in advance.

Nahmanides was clearly aware that the event could be perceived as an earthquake, and he argued vehemently against such an interpretation. In particular, he claimed that natural earthquakes do not close themselves up, so that that fact is irrefutable proof that divine agency was involved here. Other commentators, however, went on at length to demonstrate that the closing up could be accounted for by conventional science, by the earth falling back into the chasm through the force of gravity, or through sand and dust being propelled there by the winds in a sandstorm.

Similarly, Rabbi Nissim of Marseilles proposed that when the Torah states And fire came forth from the Lord, and devoured the two hundred and fifty men that offered the incense, what it really means to say was that Moses, as an accomplished scientist and philosopher, knew how to insert a poison into the fire that would be spread by means of the smoke and kill of the insurgents. He even suggests that Ibn Ezra might have implied that such a scenario was possible. When commenting on the people's murmurings against Moses and Aaron (16:41) You have killed the people of the Lord--Ibn Ezra interprets that as What evidence was this that the tribe of Levi was chosen and that Aaron was chosen as high priest? It is possible that you caused the burning of the offerers by means of your prayers or your expertise. Such an argument would not really have been conceivable if an obviously miraculous flame had consumed them.

Rabbi Levi ben Abraham argued that the incense that was used to stop the plague was really a powerful disinfectant that was capable of counteracting the toxins in the air.

As regards the flowering of Aaron's rod, some of the commentators tried to diminish the supernatural elements of this miracle as well. The Torah reports (17:8) behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds, and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds implying that it went through the entire maturing process in one night. Our philosophical exegetes limit the miracle to the claim that Aaron's rod was the first to flower; but the more advanced stages of fruit-bearing did not occur until a later time.

What is the point of advocating these kinds of explanations, which seem so out of step with the straightforward point of the Torah's narrative? I think that what these philosophers were arguing was not so much that God could not perform real Technicolor miracles--but that he would not: astounding manipulations of nature are inappropriate to God as he is understood by rationalists.

Maimonides takes every opportunity to remind us that the existence of God, as well as whatever we are capable of understanding about his nature, can only be derived from a lifelong study of science and philosophy. The specific proofs that he offers for God's existence are all based on the permanence, infinity and eternity of the universe; these all imply that the being that brought that universe into existence must also be eternal and unchanging. It was this ageless deity who established the laws of science and nature; and therefore every violation of those laws diminishes God's absolute greatness. Once you accept that premise, it is understandable why Jewish philosophers were so determined to play down the role of miracles.

I confess that I have never been particularly sympathetic to that outlook. I have always felt more comfortable worshipping a personal deity with whom I can have a meaningful relationship, and whom I can trust to interact dynamically with his creatures.

Nevertheless, I am trying to enter empathetically into the mindset of the medieval rationalists, and to derive some practical lessons from this abstract conflict of world-views.

It seems to me that what the philosophers were seeking was an ultimate truth on which they could depend absolutely and unswervingly. This led them to prefer a God who is unchanging and eternal, who placed us in a universe that is also subject to fixed and permanent laws. In making this choice, the philosophers were well aware that there is an alternative perspective that is, in many respects, more attractive and personally satisfying: a world that is constantly amazing and surprising us, in which the earth might open its mouth, or flames pour down from the heavens at any moment.

I will humbly sidestep the big theological question about whether a miracle-working God is preferable to an unchangeable one. However, I think the same approach can be applied to some more mundane areas of our daily lives. Here are a few that come to mind:

The generation who witnessed the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea and the revelation at Mount Sinai failed miserably when it came to internalizing the values of the Torah. It took forty years of uneventful living and learning in the desert to bring them to the stage where they could be counted on to create a functioning Jewish society.

It is a daunting commitment, and it is not always accompanied by fireworks or earthquakes. Still, it's the least we can do for a God who keeps our universe in dependable running order.


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My e-mail address is eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca


*Delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, Calgary, July 1, 2006 .