Shiur: Tevet 2019 – The Thing About Miracles: From Hanukkah to Everyday Life

The Thing About Miracles:
From Hanukkah to Everyday Life

 

What is a Miracle?

 

1. Melakhim Alef 16:1-8

 

Elijah the Tishbite, an inhabitant of Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord lives, the God of Israel whom I serve, there will be no dew or rain except at my bidding.” 2 The word of the Lord came to him: 3 “Leave this place; turn eastward and go into hiding by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. 4 You will drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” 5 He proceeded to do as the Lord had bidden: he went, and he stayed by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. 6 The ravens brought him bread and meat every morning and every evening, and he drank from the wadi. 7 After some time the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land. 8 And the word of the Lord came to him: 9 “Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon, and stay there; I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”

 

What Does It Matter?

 

2. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah 8:1-3

 

The Jews did not believe in Moses, our teacher, because of the wonders that he performed. Whenever anyone’s belief is based on wonders, [the commitment of] his heart has shortcomings, because it is possible to perform a wonder through magic or sorcery.

All the wonders performed by Moses in the desert were not intended to serve as proof [of the legitimacy] of his prophecy, but rather were performed for a purpose. It was necessary to drown the Egyptians, so he split the sea and sank them in it. We needed food, so he provided us with manna. We were thirsty, so he split the rock [providing us with water]. Korach’s band mutinied against him, so the earth swallowed them up. The same applies to the other wonders…

What is the source of our belief in him? The [revelation] at Mount Sinai. Our eyes saw, and not a stranger’s. Our ears heard, and not another’s. There was fire, thunder, and lightning. He entered the thick clouds; the Voice spoke to him and we heard, “Moses, Moses, go tell them the following…”

 

3. Rav Shagar, Leha’ir Et Hapetahim, 114

 

Rambam thought that faith that is based on miracles is faith that has flaws. A miracle that is presented as a proof for faith is forced on a believer artificially, from the outside, such that there will always remain a gap between the believer and their faith through which doubt can slip.

Seeing miracles as a proof for faith is a manifestation of a desire to hold onto the absolute. But the absolute cannot be seized, it only reveals itself as an intangible and unmediated presence. The very logic of proofs defeat them, for they introduce a duality into faith that blocks the path to the absolute. When miracles function as proofs, they become a hard fact that externally indicate the existence of God, and in doing so they dissolve the realness of this existence and sustain the persistence of doubt.

 

The King of India

 

4. The Kuzari I:19-22, 25

 

  1. The Rabbi: If thou wert told that the King of India was an excellent man, commanding admiration, and deserving his high reputation, one whose actions were reflected in the justice which rules his country and the virtuous ways of his subjects, would this bind thee to revere him?

 

  1. Al Khazari: How could this bind me, whilst I am not sure if the justice of the Indian people is natural, and not dependent on their king, or due to the king or both?

 

  1. The Rabbi: But if his messenger came to thee bringing presents which thou knowest to be only procurable in India, and in the royal palace, accompanied by a letter in which it is distinctly stated from whom it comes, and to which are added drugs to cure thy diseases, to preserve thy health, poisons for thy enemies, and other means to fight and kill them without battle, would this make thee beholden to him?

 

  1. Al Khazari: Certainly. For this would remove my former doubt that the Indians have a king. I should also acknowledge that a proof of his power and dominion has reached me…

 

  1. The Rabbi: … In the same strain spoke Moses to Pharaoh, when he told him: ‘The God of the Hebrews sent me to thee,’ viz. the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For Abraham was well known to the nations, who also knew that the divine spirit was in contact with the patriarchs, cared for them, and performed miracles for them. He did not say: ‘The God of heaven and earth,’ nor ‘my Creator and thine sent me.’ In the same way God commenced His speech to the assembled people of Israel: ‘I am the God whom you worship, who has led you out of the land of Egypt,’ but He did not say: ‘I am the Creator of the world and your Creator.’ Now in the same style I spoke to thee, a Prince of the Khazars, when thou didst ask me about my creed. I answered thee as was fitting, and is fitting for the whole of Israel who knew these things, first from personal experience, and afterwards through uninterrupted tradition, which is equal to the former.

 

5. Rav Shagar, Zeman Shel Herut, “This is For You, A Sign,” 78–79

 

The Haver of The Kuzari also gives miracles a central role in the context of faith. However, rather than framing miracles as proof for faith, he says that they create a connection to faith. The Haver chooses to present himself to the Khazar king as “believ[ing] in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, who led the children of Israel out of Egypt with signs and miracles… who sent Moses with His law.”  The king is confused by this confession and asks, “Now shouldst thou, O Jew, not have said that thou believest in the Creator of the world, its Governor and Guide, and in Him who created and keeps thee?” In response to the king’s shock, the Haver emphasizes the miracle of the exodus from Egypt as the basis of faith. The Exodus from Egypt demonstrates God’s direct, personal relation to the Jew that transcends nature. This personal relation creates the Jew’s connection to his God and his Torah.  This great, revealed miracle demonstrates real, divine closeness, and this closeness is itself the primary revelation of faith. As far as The Kuzari is concerned, miracles are not some momentary “hocus pocus,” they are events that carry within them the sensation of direct encounter with the wondrous, the mystical. This is the religious significance of miracles, without which they have no meaning.

 

What is Faith?

 

6. Rav Shagar, “My Faith,” Faith Shattered and Restored, 22-24

 

Philosophies and outlooks are, in this context, nothing but rationalizations – apologetics, even – whose sole role is to justify what has already been arrived at, and which must thus be regarded with a certain wariness. They are not the substance of faith but explanations for it; thus, they are ancillary to it and always involve a degree of duality. To paraphrase the opponents of Maimonides and his school, who stated that a God whose existence must be proven is no God at all, I offer the absurd assertion that a believer who requires an intellectual proof for his faith is no believer at all.

There is no proof of faith, and no certainty of faith to be gained with a proof. In any event, proofs do not impact our existence like a gun pointed at one’s temple; they do not touch upon the believer’s inner life. That is why, when it comes to faith, I prefer to use terms such as “event” and “experience.” God’s presence in my prayers is as tangible to me as the presence of a human interlocutor. That is not a proof but rather an immediate experience. Similarly, I do not assert that the sight of someone standing in front of me is proof of the person’s existence. That would be foolish: After all, I see you.

 

You Did Miracles For Our Forefathers

 

7. Yishai Mevorach, A Theology of Absence, 57

 

“With those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (Devarim 29:14).” These words correctly present the deep meaning of the biblical idea of a covenant (berit), which means being a sign-representation of the past encounter, of the moment of responsibility and obligation towards the other who confronts me. Similarly for the father of the nation, Avraham: “I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring who come after you, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring who come after you. […] As for you, you and your offspring who come after you throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. […] every male among you shall be circumcised. […] and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. […] Thus shall My covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact” (Bereshit 17:7-13). If so, maintaining the covenant means being a body that expresses the past, as a past that was, in a present that has nothing of its own. Maintaining the covenant means living without revelation or redemption that happen to me. Instead, I see myself as “offspring who come after,” as a symbol of the event and encounter that was.

 

8. Yishai Mevorach, A Theology of Absence, 63

 

A covenantal life is when two people willingly exist as representations of a moment of revelation, the engagement, that happened in the past. In their past there was a “face to face” moment of revelation-responsibility, and now the couple are a symbol of that time. A life of covenant is not about the Other who reveals himself to me, but the Other who revealed himself to me, and the I, the face, who was the address of that revelation.
Here too, as with prayer and the commandments, secularized Western culture boldly tries to fill a couple with tension and expectations of revelation. This is why couples are always told about workshops, classes, magical getaways with youthful atmospheres, bungalows, taking time away from parenting, analyzing their tension, and so on and so on, ideas without end, all just so that the couple will resume discovering each other and revealing themselves to one another. However, “this is all Christian,” as Rosenzweig would say. Someone who wants to hold onto an Other who is currently revealing himself, without any disruption, is asking to live without a covenant. In a covenant, there is no revelation, only a faithful representation thereof. This forces or coerces a person to carry the covenant onward, toward the children who bear its sign.

This is My God, the God of My Father’s Religious Language

As a general rule, Modern Orthodox thinkers have always preferred personal religious experience to objective proofs as a basis for faith.[1] To some degree, this is a function of necessity, as Modern Orthodox thinkers tend to be less than convinced of the viability of objective proofs. As such, it is unsurprising that much has been made of a quote from the Kotzker Rebbe on the topic.

This is my God, and I will glorify Him, the God of my fathers and I will exalt him(Shemot 15:2). First one had to be able to say, this is my God; then one could add, the God of my father.”[2]

The Kotzker puts personal religious experience on a pedestal. Regardless of whether or not objective proof is possible, it is not desirable, at least, not at first. First, a person must have a personal relationship with the Divine, and only then should they worry about how their faith relates to that of their tradition.

The idea that personal experience can tell you about the Divine becomes problematic, however, when held up against 20th century conceptions of the relationship between language and thought. We think and understand in language, a language we absorb from the community around us, and our personal experience of the Divine is therefore inseparable from that community.[3] This was discussed by the Christian mystic and theologian Paul Tillich in his book Dynamics of Faith, though he does not discuss the problems this raises.

The act of faith, like every act in mans spiritual life, is dependent on language and therefore on community. For only in the community of spiritual beings is language alive. Without language there is no act of faith, no religious experience. This refers to language generally and to the special language in every function of mans spiritual life. The religious language, the language of symbol and myth, is created in the community of the believers and cannot be fully understood outside this community. But within it, the religious language enables the act of faith to have a concrete content. Faith needs its language, as does every act of personality; without language it would be blind, not directed toward a content, not conscious of itself. This is the reason for the predominant significance of the community of faith. Only as a member of such a community (even if in isolation or expulsion) can man have a content for his ultimate concern. Only in a community of language can man actualize his faith.[4]

Tillich is concerned with the question of how a personal, individual thing like faith can ever be part of a communal thing like organized religion. Tillich points to the fact that personal experience of the Divine is something we, by force, translate into our own language, a language we get from our community, and thus even personal religiosity has a communal aspect. While this solves Tillichs problem, it alludes to our own. A persons experience of the Divine is mediated through the terms they possess for thinking about the Divine, terms they learned from their tradition and community. How much can our personal experience then tell us about the Divine? It seems like the answer is, perhaps, very little; anything we learn from our experience will have more to do with our language than with something external to us, something objective. The Modern Orthodox believer is thus left in a quandary, challenged and inspired by personal experience of the Divine, but unsure of what to make of it, of exactly what and how much it can really tell them.

The way out of this quandary may be in reversing our expectations, asking not What can my linguistic experience of the Divine tell me about the Divine?but What can my linguistic experience of the Divine tell me about my language?The answer to that question is much clearer. The fact of experiencing the Divine through our language means that the Divine is willing to be, or capable of being, expressed in our language. Thus our language, and the religious tradition it both is born out of and gives birth to, are vehicles through which I can connect to the Divine. Our experiences may not be able to tell us about the Divine, but maybe they dont need to. The Kotzker said that what is really important is not the Divine as it exists beyond us, but rather the Divine as we relate to it. Not whether there is a God, but whether we have a God.

[1] This is in contrast to the approach generally taken by Haredi thinkers. For more on this see the phenomenal chapter on popular theological works in Yoel Finkelmans Strictly Kosher Reading.

[2] AJ Heschel, A Passion For Truth, pg. 188; similar in S. Raz and E. Levin, The Sayings of Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, pg. 12. Also in Rav Shagar, Al Kapot HaManoul (Hebrew).

[3] The degree to which our language shapes our thought is hotly debated, but the fact that we need language to conceptualize abstract ideas, and the corresponding fact that all conceptualization happens in a language, seems inescapable.

[4] Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, pg. 23-24.