Wednesday, October 21, 2015

It's A Miracle!

Have you heard the miraculous story that is making the rounds? It goes like this:
An Arab was following a Chassidish woman in Jerusalem for about 20 minutes, after which he disappeared. The woman immediately called in his description to the police, who were able to make the arrest. They brought the suspect in for interrogation, during which he revealed that he was planning to stab her but couldn’t get close to her, since she had with her two big bullies with her, one on her right side and one on her left side. After realizing these bullies weren’t leaving her sides, he gave up. The police went back to the woman to confirm she was alone as she had told them. She confirmed that she was alone, but said the whole time the Arab was following her, she kept repeating the words from the bedtime Shema: “מימיני מיכאל ומשמאלי גבריאל” ["To my right, Michael, to my left Gavriel"]

Someone wrote to me to ask for the "rationalist response." They also forwarded a list of objections to the story by a skeptic, along with their responses to said objections. My response was something much more basic: What reason is there to believe that it is actually true?

Still, it's a beautiful story, and in stressful times like these, it makes people feel good. For many people, that is why they believe that it is true. And given that therapeutic effect, I don't think that it's necessarily a good idea to dismiss it. When people are full of anxiety and fear, if they want to believe that they have angels by their side protecting them, and this helps them leave their homes and continue with their lives, then let them believe it!

What bothers me, however, is the reaction to some people who disbelieve the story. I saw someone quote a popular saying: "Anyone who believes every such story is a fool. But anyone who believes none of them is an apikorus." This saying is often proffered with the undertone that any given story should not be dismissed.

Well, Rambam would certainly not have believed any of these stories at all. As he writes in the Treatise Concerning the Resurrection of the Dead:
"…Our efforts, and the efforts of select individuals, are in contrast to the efforts of the masses. For with the masses who are people of the Torah, that which is beloved to them and tasty to their folly is that they should place Torah and rational thinking as two opposite extremes, and will derive everything impossible as distinct from that which is reasonable, and they say that it is a miracle, and they flee from something being in accordance with natural law, whether with something recounted from past events, with something that is in the present, or with something which is said to happen in the future. But we shall endeavor to integrate the Torah with rational thought, leading events according to the natural order wherever possible; only with something that is clarified to be a miracle and cannot be otherwise explained at all will we say that it is a miracle."
And that's with regard to events in the Torah. Certainly when it comes to popular legends, he would dismiss them as folktales. Of course, there are indeed people who dismiss Rambam as an apikorus, not entirely without basis. Still, most of us would consider him a legitimate role model to follow.

I would paraphrase the popular saying as follows: "Anyone who believes every such story is a fool. And anyone who believes none of them is a Maimonidean rationalist."


  1. Beautiful stories have their place. But this story, at this time, seems to me to be also potentially dangerous. Rabbis should be encouraging women (and men) to be vigilant, cautious, and possibly to carry pepper spray. Someone who is worried should contact the police immediately, not rely on the angels to protect them for 20 minutes. It takes seconds to be stabbed. And even if this story is entirely true (which I highly doubt), how does anyone know whether they are on the same spiritual level as this woman and deserve the same angelic protection?
    Everyone should try and do everything they can to be safe and to be aware. Reciting Tehillim or other phrases of protection is always good. But not a substitute for common sense.

  2. I recall seeing that statement in a slightly different form: "Whoever believes every such story is a fool; whoever doesn't believe that they are POSSIBLE is an apikorus."

  3. I don't know that one has to disbelieve this story on rationalist grounds. There have been occurrences of people "seeing" things that aren't there. So you don't have to believe that there were really two angels accompanying this woman. But you can acknowledge the possibility that in response to her prayer HKB"H put this hallucination into the Arab's head.

    1. What is the difference, from a rationalist point of view, if there were really angels, or if Hashem sent a hallucination? Both are miracles.

    2. If you are following the Rambam's approach to Rationalism, you can't do that either. According to the Rambam, prayer does not, and in fact, cannot have that effect. Also, he believed that Hashgacha Pratis doesn't exist at the personal level, only the national/ethnic/how-ever-you-group-people level.

    3. I would paraphrase the popular saying as follows: "Anyone who believes every such story is a fool. And anyone who believes none of them is a Maimonidean rationalist."

      That is an illogical paraphrase. There may be reasons to disbelieve all such stories without being a rationalist at all, never mind a Maimonidean rationalist. For example, one could believe in the corporeality of God while still believing that angels don't exist (in a supernatural form).

    4. Dlz: you are incorrect that both are miracles. People get wacky notions in their heads out of left field (in a stadium far, far away) all the time. Who's to say G-d isn't responsible for that? The only miraculous element here is the exact nature of the guy's "vision," and the timing. But we've already said the same thing about kriat yam suf, for example. There doesn't have to be anything supernatural about this guy's vision.

      Avi: if Hashgacha exists only at the national level, it's not Pratis - the definition of which is personal or private. פרטית.

    5. @Yechiel

      Take it up with the Rambam.

    6. I didn't say that it is supernatural - but if it happened just then it is still a miracle.

    7. Avi, you are wrong. Rambam believed that there is hashgacha peratit but only on humans whereas on animals there is only hashgacha on the species (Guide, Part 3 Ch. 17-18) . Rambam also certainly believed in the efficacy of prayer and even composed a physician's prayer. However, it does not c"v obligate Hashem. If it is accompanied by an improved spiritual level it will result in a better verdict for the person.

  4. I've heard this story from a speech given at Sinai Indaba, only then of course, it was a south african variant with a male Jew and two soldiers carrying swords, and the Jew had been reciting psalms.

    1. I also heard it about a girl in Lakewood stalked by a rapist. She was the only woman he spared bc of the two angels....

  5. The quote "Anyone who believes etc," IIRC, is from the Satmar Rov.

    As you correctly point out, it is deeply ironic that the codifier of the 13 Ikarim himself would not hold these people to be Apikorsim!

    Furthermore, see his Hakdamah to Chelek, where he writes

    "You must know that the words of the sages are differently interpreted by
    three groups of people.

    The first group is the largest one. ... They accept the teachings of the sages in their simple
    literal sense and ... believe that all sorts of impossible things must be. They hold such
    opinions because they have not understood science and are far from having
    acquired knowledge. They possess no perfection which would rouse them to
    insight from within, nor have they found anyone else to stimulate them to
    profounder understanding. They, therefore, believe that the sages intended no
    more in their carefully emphatic and straightforward utterances than they
    themselves are able to understand with inadequate knowledge. They understand
    the teachings of the sages only in their literal sense, in spite of the fact that some
    of their teachings when taken literally, seem so fantastic and irrational that if one
    were to repeat them literally, even to the uneducated, let alone sophisticated
    scholars, their amazement would prompt them to ask how anyone in the world
    could believe such things true, much less edifying.

    The members of this group are poor in knowledge. One can only regret
    their folly. Their very effort to honor and to exalt the sage sin accordance with
    their own meager understanding actually humiliates them. As God lives, this
    group destroys the glory of the Torah of God say the opposite of what it intended.
    For He said in His perfect Torah, “The nation is a wise and understanding people”
    (Deut. 4:6). But this group expounds the laws and the teachings of our sages in
    such a way that when the other peoples hear them they say that this little people is
    foolish and ignoble. "

    taken from

    One wonders what he would see about people who believe every story they are told, no matter how fantastic.

  6. Are you indicating the rationalist position is that there are no non-laws-of-nature events occurring to individuals (or Jews) in the world? We certainly have a halacha that one should not rely on miracles, and therefore people should take appropriate steps to protect themselves. Yet is the rationalist position that there is no Divine protection, no miracles (no personal ones), etc?

    1. If you require that miracles have to be supernatural, you are very much limiting HaShem.

      Is there anything more miraculous than the creation and birth of a new baby? Does the fact that we pretty much know exactly how it happens make it any less miraculous?

      Is the fact that millions of people whose lives were being destroyed by alcoholism and addiction are now clean and sober and living normal lives not a miracle, even though there is no obvious supernatural action?

      Is the fact that diseases that used to kill millions are now preventable and/or controllable not a miracle, despite the fact that we know exactly how the vaccines and treatments work?

      Is the fact that the Jewish people continue to exist and thrive in spite of anti-Semitism and persecution not a miracle?

      I give thanks for these and other miracles to the One who is responsible for them all. Even without supernatural intervention.

  7. The line as I have heard it quoted in the name of R hutner and R. Meir Shapira is, "Who ever believes all the stories about the besht is a fool, who denies them is an apikores" it expresses a deep paradox about faith in the modern world. it also has nothing to do with stupid stories the circulate on the internet. The reason why we can assume it is false is that all stories that circulate on the internet are bechezkas sheker until proven otherwise.

    the issues raised by the circulation of this story are not about rationalism in the Maimonidean sense, nor about the possibility of miracles but about basic critical evaluation of information transmitted with a reliable source.
    There seems to be a notion that skepticism of any sort is antithetical to faith. Nothing could be farther from the truth. true faith needs skepticism, without it faith becomes childish superstition.

    1. > true faith needs skepticism, without it faith becomes childish superstition.

      Where do you draw the line between childish superstition we need to be skeptical about and unassailable Truth we need to accept on faith?

  8. It's an urban legend, a Jewish version of this story:

    Which is the first Google result for "two angels guarding woman." Rationalism aside, the story shouldn't be believed because it's so easily debunked.

  9. The Rambam never says that he wouldn't believe any stories. He says that where possible he would try to find the natural reason for it. If no rational explanation could be found, he would have to conclude that it was a miracle. That's what the Rambam is saying. No more.

  10. A response/sort-of-rebuttal here:

    1. Why is your "response/sort-of-rebuttal" not here?

      A single sentence would have done the job; "I'm a great supporter of Rabbi Slifkin, but I'm sick of the word 'rationalism' and wish he could stop embarrassing his opponents." Yes, yet another great friend providing wise counsel. Not worth the time linking to your blog, wading through improperly long citations of R'Slifkins post here and reading through your reiterations of the above argument.


  11. For twenty minutes, she couldn't find a safe public location?

    Video cameras?

  12. I'd add that these stories are usually published with an aside of "you see we don't need an army yadda yadda, just the lord". Similar to the missle into water story that iron dome missed (except that this story is physically impossible). Or the message that made its rounds on whatsapp linking the increase of terrorism to bein hazmanim.
    It's all about undermining the importance of actual protection.

    1. More generally, there is a natural, albeit pathetic, urge by believers to re-frame painful and tragic events into a God friendly narrative.

      After 9/11 a story passed around about a group of people that prayed at a local synagogue and were saved because they suddenly decided to delay their work day to hear a shiur from the local Rabbi.

      After the recent Henkin double murder, someone posted a comment about how great it was that one terrorist shot the hand of his comrade, thereby saving the children.

      Skeptics howl with scorn about the double standard. Believers accept tragedy blindly as God's mysterious tough love, while grasping onto the tiny scraps of fortune as evidence of divine providential love for his worthies.

    2. After the recent Henkin double murder, someone posted a comment about how great it was that one terrorist shot the hand of his comrade, thereby saving the children.

      Claiming it was a miracle would be over the top, but it's certainly something to be grateful for. Unless you wanted the children to be killed too...

  13. Rabbi.....I found the mikor for your angel story ...

  14. This is another example of what we heard during the stormy debate over Haredi conscription to the IDF...those who oppose conscription of all Haredim (or anybody else for that matter) and not just those who are studying Torah basically used the approach that this world is essentially an illusion and that everything that happens in it is merely a test of our emunah, and by increasing this emunah enough especially by giving tzedakah, learning another blatt of gemara or saying another kapital of tehillim, one is assured a good place in olam haba.

  15. variation on this old story (attributed to different people)

  16. The DANGER is that people will say these incantations believing they will be sufficient to shield them and WON'T take real world measures.

  17. Rav avigdor miller was very against telling these stories. It's hard enough to believe in the 13 ikariim he would say. About 2-3 years ago in the english modea there was a section about hashgahah tales . One was about how r shimon zeitlan zl was saved from the 1972 munich olypic massicre by becoming a baal tsuva at the last minute. He was a champion bycycle rider. He was a friend of mine. The story was an absolute lie. I contacked r carmel of the modea and told him. He answered "what do tou care.. It makes bal tsuvas" Selling the truth with lies.

  18. I'm not suggesting we believe or not believe the story. but a rather simple phenomenon could have taken place. We find by Hagar that Hashem "opened up here eyes" and she saw the well which was indeed nearby all along. In a similar vane, it could be that the Arab guy became "delusional" and saw what was really NOT there! (So perhaps you could say the “Neis” happened in the Arabs head.)


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