Theology of Miracles

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Ariel Kelman

The default understanding of miracles should be that they are supernatural. After all, that’s what distinguishes a Miracle from a lucky event. While this topic has received much attention, particularly through the lenses of Rambam and Ramban; throughout my religious education miracles have often been presented from a naturalistic perspective – as events consistent with natural cause-and-effect that simply seemed incredibly unlikely at the time they occurred. Why the tendency toward naturalistic explanations?

Given the success of modern science, religion – when it engages with modern science, as I believe it should – occasionally reacts to the increased scope and success of scientific theories by adopting a posture that credits God with creation of the laws of nature, but removes Him from its daily workings. Sure, on a metaphysical level, Hashem’s will to keep the world going may be necessary – but miraculous interventions!? That would go against empirical science – a big no-no for a modern Jew.

According to this view, adopting a naturalistic understanding of miracles implies a ‘greater’ God than if He performed miracles – the naturalist contends that His work is so perfect that it doesn’t need any tweaking.

Yet the naturalistic approach misses out on something crucial. At rock bottom, there can be no difference between a “small” miracle and a “large” one – if the causal order has been broken, what difference does it make? So if there is any Divine intervention in the world, then we must acknowledge that it cannot be part of the natural order – in fact, that is almost true by definition.

It cannot be denied that the world does seem to operate like clockwork – and even the Torah occasionally emphasizes the natural side of a miracle. As Shadal points out (Shmot 14:21), what was the need for a nightly wind if the entire splitting of the sea was miraculous? Still,the phrase והמים להם חומה מימינם ומשמאלם should put to rest any doubt about whether the splitting of the sea did violate the ‘laws of nature’.

So how are we to view ancient miracles? It seems to me that the “peshat” of a miracle is just that – a non-natural occurrence. And given that I do not see a compelling way to negate this idea in a religiously consistent manner, I’d be loathe to give that up.

But the real challenge presented by this issue is more fundamental. If we had all been witness to an obviously supernatural miracle, it’s fairly unlikely we’d be tempted to naturalize them. But while, for example, the Six Day War was a tremendous and ‘miraculous’ victory, it is not a demonstration of the obvious nature-breaking power of God. The religious zionist sees God’s hand at work as a result of being a religious zionist, rather than an atheist coming to God through the miracle. The inherent nature of the victory is not enough to inspire absolute confidence in God’s ultimate power, as יצאית מצרים did, both for our ancestors and the Egyptians.

When we formulate a religious outlook and tackle the idea of miracles, we should be clear about what a miracle means. I don’t think that Biblical accounts of miracles can be explained naturalistically, and see insufficient reason for doing so; but as with every issue, argument will enrich our understanding. Hopefully these ideas stimulate a deeper discussion, crucial to forming a rich perspective on the theological topics we encounter while reading and learning Torah.
Ariel Kelman (SBM 2016) is currently studying engineering at University of Toronto.

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