Wednesday, April 8, 2009

RYBS on the Miracles of the Exodus

“What is a miracle in Judaism? The word “miracle” in Hebrew does not possess the connotation of the supernatural. It has never been placed on a transcendental level. “Miracle” (pele, nes) describes only an outstanding event which causes amazement. A turning point in history is always a miracle, for it commands attention as an event which intervened fatefully in the formation of that group or that individual.

“As we read the story of the exodus from Egypt, we are impressed by the distinct tendency of the Bible to relate the events in natural terms. The frogs came out of the river when the Nile rose, the wind brought the locusts and split the sea. All archaeologists agree that the plagues as depicted by the Bible are very closely related to the geographical and climatic conditions that prevail in Egypt. Behind the passages in the Bible we may discern a distinct intention to describe the plagues as naturally as possible. The Bible never emphasizes the unnaturalness of the events; only its intensity and force are emphasized. The reason for that is obvious. A philosophy which considers the world-drama as a fixed, mechanical process governed by an unintelligent, indifferent principle, may regard the miracle as a supernatural transcendental phenomenon which does not fit into the causalistic, meaningless monotony. Israel, however, who looked upon the universal occurrence as the continuous realization of a divine ethical will embedded into dead and live matter, could never classify the miracle as something unique and incomprehensible. Both natural monotony and the surprising element in nature express God’s word. Both are regular, lawful phenomena; both can be traced to an identical source. In the famous Psalm 104, Barkhi nafshi (“My soul will bless”), the psalmist describes the most elementary natural phenomena like the propagation of light in terms of wonder and astonishment—no different from Moses’ Song of the Sea. The whole cosmos unfolds itself as a miraculous revelation of God. The demarcation line between revelation and nature is almost non-existent!

“In what, then, does the uniqueness of the miracle assert itself? In the correspondence of the natural and historical orders. The miracle does not destroy the objective scientific nexus in itself, it only combines natural dynamics and historical purposefulness. Had the plague of the firstborn, for instance, occurred a year before or after the exodus, it would not have been termed “with a strong hand”. Why? God would have been instrumental in a natural children’s plague. Yet God acts just as the world rule. On the night of Passover He appeared as the God of the cosmos acting along historical patterns. The intervention of nature in the historical process is a miracle. Whether God planned that history adjust itself to natural catastrophes or, vice versa, He commands nature to cooperate with the historical forces, is irrelevant. Miracle is simply a natural event which causes a historical metamorphosis. Whenever history is transfigured under the impact of cosmic dynamics, we encounter a miracle.”

(The Emergence of Ethical Man, pp. 187-188)

11 comments:

  1. The qoute takes the view that EVERYTHING is a miracle, as it is all a manifestation of God's will. This is inspiring to those so inclined, and may even be, as he claims, the traditional Jewish definition of a miracle. I submit, however, that this is not a useful definition of "miracle.

    Using his definition, anything that someone deems significant can be called a miracle. When everything is special, nothing is special.

    Further, if the purpose of positing a miracle is to attribute the event to God, we have to adress the common practice of attributing good things to God and bad things to human failings or "that sort of stuff just happens."

    Take the landing on the Hudson a few months ago. It was hailed in the headlines as the "Miracle On The Hudson." Thank God that all the people on board made it out alive. But if it was God who was responsible for the safe landing, rather than the skill of the crew, must not God also be responsible for the birds that striking the plane?

    If we limit the use of the word miracle to supernatural phenomena, we can credit the crew with the landing and the birds with the strikes. This also has the happy effect of making claims of miraculous occurances falsifiable and thereby subject to meaningful investigation.

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  2. G*3: "I submit, however, that this is not a useful definition of 'miracle.'

    "Using his definition, anything that someone deems significant can be called a miracle. When everything is special, nothing is special."

    R' Soloveitchik: "'Miracle' (pele, nes) describes only an outstanding event which causes amazement. A turning point in history is always a miracle, for it commands attention as an event which intervened fatefully in the formation of that group or that
    individual."

    yitznewton: Rather than what "anyone deems significant," I read these words from RYBS as dealing with something that can be (at least somewhat) objectively classified. "Something that causes amazement [...] which has intervened fatefully [...]"

    I.e., where H' has brought nature and history together with significant effect on a specified party. And yes, depending on the size/notoriety of the party in question, the event may seem insignificant in the overall scheme!

    G*3: "Further, if the purpose of positing a miracle is to attribute the event to God, we have to adress the common practice of attributing good things to God and bad things to human failings or 'that sort of stuff just happens.'"

    yitznewton: I don't see how this would be a weakness of RYBS's approach; we can just say this "common practice" is wrong! For example, in my office, after Katrina, I heard a woman scoffing at the idea that Katrina be a Divine assault on New Orleans because of immoral practices there. While I don't think that we can conclude that this exactly was the cheshbon of the hurricane hitting New Orleans (at least I certainly can't conclude this), I find it absurd to dismiss it.

    G*3: "This also has the happy effect of making claims of miraculous occurances falsifiable and thereby subject to meaningful investigation."

    yitznewton: How are we to meaningfully investigate the claim of a supernatural event? H' "tries His best" to cloak His ways in the natural order, thus the supernatural can always be explained around, at least forensically.

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  3. "Yet God acts just as the world rule."

    You meant to type "ruler."

    "Miracle is simply a natural event which causes a historical metamorphosis."

    I might agree with this statement 99%. I would think that specifically in the case of the tenth plague, the one Rav talked about in the excerpt, (to borrow his words): "Miracle is simply /a managed synchronization of many natural events/ which causes a historical metamorphosis." Each of the other plagues was "an event," but the tenth plague, where each death of a firstborn can be completely natural but a /coordination/ of such deaths is unnatural, is "many events."

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  4. Just posted on Hirhurim:
    http://hirhurim.blogspot.com/2009/04/soloveitchik-voyeurism.html

    "It's a fascinating book. To add to the experience, R. Holzer selected some of discussions in which R. Soloveitchik said some very surprising things. Such as

    * His belief in the miracles described in the Talmud (p.92)"

    Also, if he really meant "The demarcation line between revelation and nature is almost non-existent!" literally, then he couldn't be reciting Hallel on Seder night.
    RYBS held (cited in sefarim quoting him about the sugyos of the seder) that Hallel is only permitted as a response to a miracle and not to a natural event. One is forbidden to say Hallel for natural occurrences.

    So either he was writing dramatically to emphasize a subtle point, or he changed his mind over time.
    And looking at this quote again, I see he never actually allows himself to say the Exodus was completely natural.

    So what has the rationalist gained by this quote?

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  5. yitznewton, on your first point, "an outstanding event which causes amazement" is subjective. What I find amazing you may find ordinary. And if a miraculous event "may seem insignificant in the overall scheme" then how are we to know what a miracle is?

    To your second point, I agree completely, this practice is wrong. But if we are calling every outstanding event a miracle regardless of whether it can be explained naturally, we have the problem of having to attribute the bad as well as the good to God.

    On your third point, if we define "supernatural" as "unexplainable by natural phenomena," which is how I was using the word, then a claim of a supernatural event should be fairly easy to investigate.

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  6. RYBS follower:

    His belief in the miracles described in the Talmud (p.92)WADR to R' Gil, it's kedai to read the quote in its entirety. Actually, it's kedai to read the book in it's entirety, especially after the way it was misrepresented by some of the commenters on that post!

    Firstly, the quote you're referring to is not from the transcripts but from R' Holzer's notes. Secondly, the note says the Rav said "all the stories in the gemara and midrash about nissim happening through tefilla..."
    RYBS held (cited in sefarim quoting him about the sugyos of the seder) that Hallel is only permitted as a response to a miracle and not to a natural event. One is forbidden to say Hallel for natural occurrences.I'd like to see these quotes in their entirety. And, btw, check out http://hirhurim.blogspot.com/2006/07/r-joseph-b-soloveitchik-on-miracles_09.html

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  7. Baruch-
    Sorry, but I'm afraid the full text of these positions is not available online, AFAIK.

    The English version is printed in R. Yosef Adler's "Haggadah for Passover With Commentary Based on the Shiurim of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik"
    https://www.amazon.com/dp/9655240118?tag=hirhurimmusin-20&camp=0&creative=0&linkCode=as4&creativeASIN=9655240118&adid=0JX0JKM534XBGY1EQ5MY&

    and the Hebrew is in "הררי קדם" in the Pesach section of vol. II

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  8. RYBS Follower --

    I own that sefer. I haven't gotten around to reading it yet though. What page does the commentary that you're referring to start on?

    (I probably won't be able to get to it for awhile, but I'd appreciate the reference for my further reference.)

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  9. I don't remember if I mentioned it...I own Rabbi Adler's sefer, not Harerei Kedem.

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  10. G*3:
    What I find amazing you may find ordinary. And if a miraculous event "may seem insignificant in the overall scheme" then how are we to know what a miracle is?

    yitznewton:
    Though "miraculosity" is indeed subjective, one could argue that level of amazement experienced by observers is empirical, which is how I was understanding this sentence. I don't know if that's what the author meant, or how well it fits in with the rest of the piece.

    G*3:
    [...] we have the problem of having to attribute the bad as well as the good to God.

    yitznewton:
    I don't think I understand what point you're making here; do you mean that it is invalid/inappropriate to attribute "bad" occurrences to G-d's Hand?

    G*3:
    On your third point, if we define "supernatural" as "unexplainable by natural phenomena," which is how I was using the word, then a claim of a supernatural event should be fairly easy to investigate.

    yitznewton:
    Theoretically, yes; my point is that naturalistic explanations are plastic enough to fit in many unusual events. Thus the naturalness of events under this sort of investigation would often be subject to ambiguity - at least after the fact, which is how I assumed that most investigations would necessarily be carried out.

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  11. "one could argue that level of amazement experienced by observers is empirical"

    I suppose you could devise a standardized test to determine the level of amazement experienced by those who witnessed a miracle, and use the scores to determine empirically whether or not a given event was a miracle. Somehow I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about.

    “do you mean that it is invalid/inappropriate to attribute "bad" occurrences to G-d's Hand?”

    Not at all. I think the problem is referring to bad events as “bad” and praising God for doing good things without condemning Him for the bad things.

    “Theoretically, yes; my point is that naturalistic explanations are plastic enough to fit in many unusual events.”

    That’s the point. If it can be explained naturally, by definition it’s not supernatural. I’m sorry for picking on semantics, but “unusual” and “impossible according to the laws of nature” are not the same thing. It occurs to me, though, that even phenomena which we would currently would classify as breaking the laws of nature may one day be explained, and in fact the occurrence of such phenomena would encourage research towards that end. It may be that miracles rely on how you interpret the world. If you think God did it, it’s a miracle. If you don’t think God did it, it is at most an as-yet unexplained phenomenon.

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