Miracles and Faith

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

R. Arama intends this sha’ar to show the Flood fully proved Hashem’s having created the world from absolute nothingness (commonly referred to as ex nihilo, the Latin for absolute nothingness; I know none of us speak Latin anymore, but it is shorter than saying “from absolute nothingness” each time). Creation ex nihilo opens the possibility of miracles.

[This last idea, Hashem created the world from scratch, with the concomitant acceptance of Hashem’s complete freedom and power over supposed laws of nature, has mattered in Jewish conversations with non-Jews since Aristotle. Sources from a variety of eras of Jewish history tell me this has always been the difficult aspect of faith for many Jews, Hashem’s complete power to change the world. With Purim coming, a holiday whose crucial moment involved Mordechai reminding Esther Hashem could and would always save the Jewish people, it seems an appropriate point to bring to mind.]

The Miracle of Opposite Actions

He starts with what he sees as a law of nature, opposites act oppositely. Hashem’s promise to ingather the Jewish people after having scattered them, Yirmiyahu 31;9, predicts a miracle, the source of scattering will also ingather. To publicize it, the verse calls all the nations to heed Hashem’s word.

Although in this case, he sees another option. The verse says Hashem will guard the Jewish people as a shepherd his flock. A shepherd, too, sometimes lets the sheep scatter (to graze) and sometimes gathers them. Both acts show proper care of the sheep, as Hashem cares for the Jewish people in seeming opposite acts, each at their right time.

[I think he is addressing his audience more pointedly than we might at first notice. Other sources tell one of the reasons Jews in fifteenth century Spain gave for converting to Christianity was its success, the length of the exile convincing these Jews Gd must be on the Christians’ side. R. Arama seems to me to be jabbing at them, saying it’s no cause for a loss of faith.

He also does not seem to recognize the shepherd example undermines his previous point about opposites, since any opposites might be part of a larger rubric. I will leave it, because he will move on to a less assailable point, and does not address it].

Gidon (the Judge) relied on the idea of opposite actions to verify his mission, in Shofetim 6, where he asked for a miracle to go both ways—one time for a fleece to be the only part of a field to be soaked by dew, and then, the next night, for the rest of the field to be soaked and the fleece left dry. Neither on its own clinched the point; the two together did, since they showed Hashem’s ability to do the opposite. He gives another example, Chizkiyahu’s request for the shadow of the sun to go backwards (II Melachim 20;10), moving an object in its opposite direction as proof of a miracle.

The Seasons Stopped

Gidon’s actions tell R. Arama we are supposed to investigate miracles thoroughly, to remove all possible doubts [I wonder whether this, too, is a dig at Christianity]. The great value of the Flood story lies in its unequivocal presentation of a miracle which points to Hashem’s continuing power. Prior stories already made these points: the story of Creation confirmed creation from nothing, the world’s existence points to a Creator of power and wisdom, and man’s expulsion from Eden makes clear Hashem’s continuing involvement with and response to right and wrong.

Nonetheless, the story of the Flood adds value. First, R. Arama thinks Hashem’s post-Flood promise (Bereshit 8;22) to never again suspend the seasons, it lets us know they were suspended during the Flood. Including, surprisingly, the movement of the sun– R. Arama thinks there was no night and day during the Flood, although the people in the Ark did have a way to tell the passage of time, to be able to know the Flood lasted for a year [I’m not really interested in his physics or cosmology, but this was too good to ignore; it reminds us he thinks time isnot set as the world turns, sunrise and sunset.]

The events would reconvince Noach and his family of Creation, because only the Being Who made it all (from nothing, giving Him absolute control) could destroy it so fully. [I think he means a being subordinate to a system might be able to wreak havoc; to uproot its workings, such as the seasons and the passage of night and day, requires having been the One to put it in place.]

Service of Hashem Depends on Recognizing the Possibility of Miracles

Hashem made the point for them to pass it on to their children and descendants, as a truth no one could deny. Further, the Flood helps us believe the stories of the earlier miracles, such as Creation, as do later Divine abrogations of Nature, such as the sun standing in Giv’on for Yehoshua, or the shadow moving backwards for Chizkiyahu. [The recurring miracles suggest they are not as convincing as R. Arama portrays them; we seem to need periodic renewal and reconfirmation.]

The miracles, he thinks, teach Jews to submit to Hashem, helping them remember how dependent they are on Hashem’s rewards and to understand the awe they need to cultivate. Belief in a Nature over which Hashem does not have complete control— he says, “as early philosophers think,” a reminder he is working to counter claims popular with his audience— leads people to neglect their obligations, to focus some of their energies on what they mistakenly think of as independent sources of their welfare.

The Urge to Naturalize Miracles

The religious rot inherent in such beliefs leads to his surprise at Torah scholars who naturalize miracles (Christian and Moslem sages of his experience took miracles more simply). These scholars (he singles out Ralbag, Gersonides) made a pact with philosophy, to rationalize whatever they could. In contrast, the Talmud and Midrash found more miracles than the text reveals.

For space reasons, I am leaving out his disagreement with Ralbag over the miracle in Yeshayahu 38, where Hashem moves the sun’s shadow back ten steps (which we saw before). He expounds a bit more on these scholars’ denial later prophets could outdo Moshe’s miracles, because Devarim 32;10-11 says no prophet like Moshe ever arose. The insisted the verse included the signs and wonders Moshe performed, and therefore would not accept the plain reading of any later miracle which outdid Moshe’s.

Miracles Do Not Imply Greatness

R. Arama attacks the idea. First, miracles respond to need. If Moshe’s era did not need miracles as impressive as later ones did, it says nothing about Moshe himself.

More, it’s not clear miracles show greatness at all. Shabbat 53b tells us of a widower who had no way to feed his infant, and he miraculously lactated. R. Yosef reacted by celebrating the greatness of a man for whom Heaven changed the laws of nature. Abbaye corrected him, said how terrible it was the man put himself in a situation which forced Heaven to break the laws of nature.

According to Abbaye, Moshe’s not having performed a certain miracle might speak well of him, as Ketubbot 77b thinks R. Shimon b. Yochai and R. Yehoshua b. Levi deserve praise for the lack of rainbows in their days, a sign Hashem did not need to miraculously step in and stop the world’s destruction.

The Torah itself has others act in ways Moshe never did, such as Ya’akov moving a large stone off a well. Nor were kings necessarily the greatest in all the actions of theirs we see (for his examples, Shimon and Levi more directly show their military prowess than Yehudah, who still was chosen as king, and Yehu the king of Israel has some advantages over David, yet we remember David as enormously greater than Yehu).

Coming back to miracles, Eliyahu withheld rain and brought a boy back to life (as did Elisha, who also made a few loaves of bread feed a multitude). None of these feats take away from Moshe’s greatness over them.

A point he will finish quickly next time, then take us back to the Flood and its lessons.

About Gidon Rothstein

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