Rambam on Miracles

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I. Like Father…

I saw something interesting in R. Avraham ben Ha-Rambam’s Ha-Maspkik Le-Ovdei Hashem that I think works well with a theory about his father’s position on miracles. Some scholars have suggested that the Rambam’s view on miracles evolved over time.

II. Early Rambam

In his earliest work, the Commentary on the Mishnah, the Rambam asserts that miracles are a part of nature. The Mishnah (Avos 5:5 in the Rambam’s edition) lists items that were created during the last moments of the six days of Creation, each of them miraculous (e.g. the “mouth” of the earth that swallowed Korach). Rambam, in his commentary to that Mishnah, explains this to mean that miracles were part of Creation. When setting the laws of nature in motion, unique exceptions to those laws were included; miracles were pre-programmed into the laws of nature. Therefore, technically, they do not violate nature but are part of it.

The Rambam writes similarly in his introduction to Avos, commonly called Shemonah Perakim (ch. 8, in R. Yaakov Feldman’s translation, p. 132):

[We hold that] God already expressed His will in the course of the six days of creation, and that things act in accordance with their nature from then on…

That explains why the Sages found it necessary to say that all the supernatur miracles that have occurred [in the past] and all those that we are propmised will come about [in the future] were already designated to come about in the course of the six days of creation, when the miraculous events were implanted in the nature of the things involved in them.

This was, by no means, a non-controversial explanation. Later commentators, such as Meiri and Rashbatz, disputed this interpretation and explained the Mishnah in accordance with the view that miracles are deviations from the laws of nature (see this essay by R. Moshe Taragin link).

At this point, the Rambam was a Naturalist when it comes to miracles while the Meiri and Rashbatz were Interventionists, believers that God intervenes in nature (these terms are not my creation).

III. Later Rambam

However, there is evidence that later in life, the Rambam softened on this issue and became more of an Interventionist. In Moreh Nevukhim 3:32, the Rambam writes that God actively metes out reward and punishment in order to encourage people to observe the commandments. In Moreh Nevukhim 2:29, Rambam even calls the idea that miracles are pre-programmed into Creation “very strange” (Kafach edition, end of p. 290). He also writes there “that a thing does not change its nature in such a way that the change is permanent merely,” in a context implying that miracles are such an impermanent change.

In his later Letter on Resurrection (Kafach edition of Iggeros Ha-Rambam, p. 88), the Rambam writes that he considers something a miracle only when it is explicitly identified as such and cannot be reinterpreted. In other words, he agrees that miracles happen but prefers to be cautious in labeling something as such. And in his Medical Aphorisms (vol. 2 p. 216), he states that the idea of an eternal universe is objectionable because it excludes the possibility of miracles.

This has led some scholars, such as Tzvi Langermann (Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, pp. 172-174) and Charles Manekin (On Maimonides, pp. 68-71), to suggest that the Rambam changed his view. When he was younger, he thought that all miracles were pre-programmed into nature. Later, he believed that miracles are deviations from nature. Langermann (p. 173) writes:

As he matured, however, Maimonides became more receptive to the need for miracles as well as their possibility. Doubts and uncertainties… dampened his enthusiasm for the unlimited explanatory power of natural philosophy. In addition, as he refined his own religious philosophy, he became increasingly aware of the necessity for miracles, that us, for some expressions of the omnipotense of the divine will.

IV. …Like Son

In his discussion of bitachon, reliance on God, R. Avraham ben Ha-Rambam delineates three categories of people (Ha-Maspik Le-Ovdei Hashem, p. 76ff.):

  1. Prophets and others who have direct promises from God and rely on His miraculous intervention (pp. 76-79)
  2. Deniers who trust only in intermediary causes (pp. 79-80)
  3. The religious person who knows that the world runs according to nature but God can intervene at any time if He chooses (pp. 80-82).

R. Avraham ben Ha-Rambam is clearly adopting the Interventionist position and not the Naturalist. Perhaps this sheds light on his father’s position at the end of his life. This might serve as additional support for the theory that the Rambam changed to the Interventionist position.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

2 comments

  1. RJM 04/14/2010 10:04 PM
    3 people liked this.
    I think it is a spurious distinction. Time is irrelevant to God, and God has absolute foreknowledge of events, so preprogramming miracles and “intervening now” is the same thing from God’s perspective. It is all worked out in advance either way, so what difference does it make?
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    Yacov 04/15/2010 03:38 AM in reply to RJM
    There is another machlokes between the Rambam and Raavad about whether G-d in fact sees everything in the future, or if he chooses to block, as it were, certain things. (SImilar to the old question of if G-d create a rock that he couldn’t lift question.) The machlokes is discussed when dealing with the question of how do people have bechira if G-d knows the choice that an individual will make.
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    SZI 04/15/2010 06:15 AM in reply to RJM
    Excellent point. So long as God is timeless it would be difficult to distinguish “intervening now” and “preprogramming miracles”. Perhaps though the difference would be between building into nature particular interventions (the amazon will turn into milk at midday) and conditional interventions (if so and so does such and such in such and such circumstances, then the river will turn to milk).
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    Doron 04/15/2010 08:40 AM
    Philosophers have been quoted who argue that the Rambam changed his mind during the course of his life. But how has this been demonstrated from his writings? The Rambam says contradictory things for specific purposes. If the Rambam changed his mind why does he not say so? All we are permitted to say is that he intended his writings to speak for themselves.
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    guest 04/15/2010 09:08 AM in reply to Yacov
    do you mean rambam and raavad or rambam and ralbag?
    ———-
    SZI 04/15/2010 10:53 AM in reply to Doron
    This is an especially good point in light of what the Rambam says about contradictions at the beginning of the Moreh.
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    jouziel 04/15/2010 11:56 AM
    1 person liked this.
    Why isn’t it possible to say simply that the Rambam’s remarks in the Pirush Hamishnayot was an explanation of the views of Chazal? After all, IIRC he states in the Moreh that is is the view of Chazal, in contrast to his own opinion. So in fact, the Rambam’s view of miracles never changes, only that when he prepared his commentary of the Mishnah, he was merely explaining Chazal’s, not his own personal, opinion.
    ———-
    hirhurim 04/15/2010 12:01 PM
    RJM: You raise an interesting suggestion but I don’t think it was something that occurred to Medieval philosophers.

    Doron: Because, for one, the contradictions are consistently younger vs. older. Also, the later view fits in with other views he expressed at that time. And the later view is consistent in a number of later works.

    jouziel: Because the Rambam includes it in Shemonah Perakim, and not just in his commentary to that Mishnah.
    ———-
    Gil Yehuda 04/15/2010 12:13 PM
    R’ Gil,
    Let’s separate the issues. 1. What did Rambam believe? 2. did he change his beliefs? and 3. did his son agree with him?

    Let’s clarify a definition (which may help?). Miracles contain two elements that make them distinct from nature 1. they are not part of the natural order, and/or 2. they are not arbitrary in time and place, but seem to be a purposeful application of the extraordinary — specifically there to save us from harm. Note: Biblical Hebrew Nes = flag or “standard” (in the Roman sense, Vexilloid, ensign) — an indicator.

    Note: prior to the (Greek) idea of a natural order (cosmos), people did not have a well developed notion of Nature per se. The sun came up every day by virtue of some Sun god, (or by God, of course). If you said “it just happens that way”, people would have laughed at you as a disbeliever of forces, one who thinks that the sun is both totally random yet strangely consistent.

    Greeks introduced the idea of “it just happened” means there is a natural order, and that itself is something worthy of admiration (cosmetology -> beauty). Once the very concept of nature as an organizing order was accepted, the idea of “miracle” shifted from “something great that happened to us – thanks to the divine force (of whatever god you happened to believe in)” to “something great that happened to us, that we cannot explain via the natural order and therefore must be a Divine intervention that alters the natural order for our sake.” The point being – the very idea of “Miracle” changed meaning once the idea of “Nature” was understood.

    Another important point: if we now view God as the creator of nature then we have to ask what the need for miracle says about His greatness. It’s quite common for people to believe that a miracle is a testament to God’s greatness. That not only did He create nature – He can also perform miracles. Those people feel that if you try to deny miracles, then you are really trying to limit God’s greatness. They will defend the idea that miracles must be real.

    1. However, it’s likely that Rambam felt otherwise. That God’s creation of nature as such a testament to His greatness, that any need to deviate from nature (aka miracle) is actually a fault in the perfection of nature. Thus it’s a testament to God’s greatness to say things like the mouth of the earth (that swallowed Korach’s gang) was created bein hashmashot (as the mishna does) – meaning that God had created this element of earth swallowing as a part of nature – and that nature is not therefore flawed. Thus the motivation is to avoid playing up Miracle, because it diminishes God’s greatness in His ability to make a wonderful nature.

    Seems that Rambam simply did not believe that God created a less-than-perfect nature. And thus he explains these in a way that undercuts the un-naturalness. Thus the part of miracle that he must accept is the timing. In other words – the miraculous action is actually a natural event – but the timing is what makes it Hashgacha. So yes, earthquakes can happen as part of nature. But the miracle with Korach is that the earthquake happened right then and there with specific accuracy.

    2. The notion that he changed his mind is not convincing. I think he had a very subtle definition of miracle — one that tried to balance the many references of nissim in the Torah with a belief that God should not deviate from nature. For example, modern rationalist (frum) people might say “Yehoshua and the army _felt_ that the sun stood still for them. They thought they did not have enough time to fight, and the miracle was that they did not succumb to the fear of loosing the battle, but with confidence in Hashem, they pushed forward and accomplished the victory before sunset” — For those people who believe miracles are a testament to God’s greatness, they will hate this explanation. For people who believe that we need to find ways to avoid believing in irrationality, they will say that getting a mob to set aside fear and continue to fight at the end of the long day is quite a miracle, not diminishing the story (or God) at all.

    3. The first section of Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin’s new book “Maimonides: Reason Above All” does an interesting job of demonstrating how Rambam’s views deviated from both his father’s views and his son’s views on these matters. I’d be interested in your take on his claims.
    ———-
    SZI 04/15/2010 12:41 PM in reply to hirhurim
    “RJM: You raise an interesting suggestion but I don’t think it was something that occurred to Medieval philosophers.”

    Why would you think not? Divine timelessness, foreknowledge and action were big topics for them. Maybe someone here knows more about other Medieval philosophers, and whether any addressed this.

    In any case, RJM’s point is a good one, all the cleverer if it wasn’t noticed by the medieval philosophers.
    ———-
    Ariel 04/15/2010 02:08 PM
    miracles rarely involve any violation of “laws” of nature, just statistical improbabilities. especially with quantum mechanics in the picture.
    ———-
    yahu 04/15/2010 04:41 PM in reply to hirhurim
    Hirhurim, good point. But isn’t Shemonah Perakim Rambam’s introduction to his commentary on Perek Cheilek, which is authored by and expresses the views of Chazal?
    ———-
    RJM 04/15/2010 05:46 PM in reply to SZI
    1 person liked this.
    Except there is no need from God’s perspective for it to be conditional, since He knows in advance what will be done.
    ———-
    RJM 04/15/2010 05:52 PM in reply to hirhurim
    If you look at the Rambam’s explanation in Hilkhot Teshuva as to how the Egyptians’ punishment could be foretold in advance of their commission of any sin, you will see precisely this kind of thinking in the Rambam himself. He boils it all down to the issue of divine foreknowledge, which is not resolvable.
    ———-
    SZI 04/15/2010 06:52 PM in reply to RJM
    Not literally “in advance”, since He exists timelessly, not before the event. Anyhow, He only knows it “in advance” because it is done. His knowledge does not cause it to be done; for otherwise He would be predetermining what will be done. His building into nature a conditional intervention might fit better with His not predetermining things.
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    Y. Aharon 04/15/2010 11:50 PM
    rjm, the torah, however, is written from a human perspective, “dibrah torah kileshon b’nei Adam”. In that perspective, GOD does interfere with the normal course of nature to accomplish His ends. As to its prediction that Avraham’s descendants will be made to suffer, I assume that you’re referring to the brit bein habetarim. However, that was a generic prophesy that didn’t refer to any specific guilty nation, “vegam et hagoy are ya”avodu dan anochi”. That prophesy could have been fulfilled had the oppressor people not been Egyptians. Much later, GOD tells Moshe that he will heap punishments, i.e. the plagues, on the Egyptians – but that is after they were guilty of oppressing the Israelites and killing their male offspring. At that point, free will has been removed from Pharoah and his people, “ki ani hichbadeti et libo v’et lev avadav..”.

    The philosophical conundrum about the compatibility of divine foreknowledge with free will isn’t really reflected in the torah. The evident sense of the torah is that GOD has to deliberately direct His “attention” on specific human actions before a decision about punishment is made – “Vayeired Hashem lirot et ha’ir v’et hamigdal..” (Gen. 11:5). That sense is more consistent with the Ralbag’s viewpoint that certain things are intrinsically unknowable with certainty prior to the action. Such intrinsic uncertainties go beyond the issue of human free will. It includes the actions of all animate life when faced with equally acceptable choices. This idea that the present doesn’t dictate the future makes for a far more interesting creation. It also makes us participants in a great divine experiment.
    ———-
    RJM 04/16/2010 08:29 AM in reply to Y. Aharon
    All that you are saying is true. But I don’t select my philosophic views based on how appealing or interesting their results would be. I seek what seems closest to the actual truth.
    ———-
    Doron 04/16/2010 10:22 AM
    Hirhurim: You have quoted the Moreh and the Medical Aphorisms as examples of interventionist philosophy advocated by the Rambam. If contradictions are only based on the Rambam’s age, why does he write in the Moreh that Plato’s hylomorphic universe is a possibility except that creation ex nihilo is to be accepted unless demonstrated otherwise? If the Rambam changed his opinion based purely upon a change of attitude as he grew older, why does he consider Plato’s universe a possibility and then proceed to say that an eternal universe is objectionable?
    ———-
    guest 04/16/2010 12:05 PM in reply to Y. Aharon
    “directing attention” or “remembering” can just be words which are used to describe the act of a miracle. Like when G-d “remembers” Sarah and so gives her a child. The “remember” is just a of saying that a miracle happened and it was not the natural order of things. To us, as humans, it’s as if the attention was shifted. But when talking about the infinite, the reality of the situation can not be the literal meaning.
    ———-
    Yona 04/16/2010 01:24 PM
    An often overlooked point: R. Avraham b. HaRambam quotes his father as agreeing with option #3 (The religious person who knows that the world runs according to nature but God can intervene at any time if He chooses).
    ———-
    Y. Aharon 04/18/2010 03:51 PM
    rjm, so do I. I have a more detailed response on file at work which I was unable to send earlier due to Echo’s idiosyncratic or erratic behavior. Has anyone else encountered the problem of not being able to transmit comments if the would be senders name and address aren’t already listed? Hopefully, I’ll be able to send that response on Monday.

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