We read in the Haggadah that we are obligated in each generation to see ourselves as if we too have gone forth from Egypt. As we recall the miracles and wonders that the Almighty performed for our ancestors at this time of year, it does seem rather hard to believe without having experienced first-hand such extraordinary events as the wilderness generation did.
Modern Jewish thought has, of course, tended to be rather sceptical of miracles; it follows the argument first put forward by the Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza that events appearing to contravene the laws of nature are simply natural events whose cause are not yet understood.
Many a Seder I have attended has not been complete without an appeal to a rationalised and naturalistic explanation of the plagues, designed to satisfy those of us round the table with a scientific outlook who are puzzled by but sympathetic towards the Bible.
It was the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who, in his book Difficult Freedom, proudly proclaims that “Judaism has de-charmed the world”. He distrusted miracles, rejecting the notion of a supernatural deity whose actions inspire wonder. The miraculous was for him a distraction because it diverts attention from the most imperative force —that of the commandment, particularly as he saw it in relation to the dignity of human life.
This distrust and rationalising tendency is not limited to modern Jewish thought but has its antecedents in the Bible itself and may be found throughout the history of Judaism.
In a passage, forewarning all the messianic pretenders of history, Deuteronomy 13 says if a prophet or dreamer promises signs or omens that come true but urges us to follow other gods, then he should be disregarded. David, the man “after God’s own heart”, who receives more space than any other biblical personality, is beneficiary of no miracles. Although there are miracles with which Elijah and Elisha are associated, these are regarded very much as secondary compared to their prayer.
Even Exodus, in which the majority of the Hebrew Bible’s miracles occur, exhibits a certain ambivalence. Spinoza in his Theologico-Political Treatise reminds us somewhat amusingly: “The Israelites from all their miracles were unable to form a sound conception of God, as their experience testified: for when they had persuaded themselves that Moses had departed from among them, they petitioned Aaron to give them visible gods; and the idea of God they had formed as the result of all their miracles was — a calf!”
The midrashic literature on the subject highlights the rabbinic concern for justifying miracles with rationalistic or moralistic motivations. The Red Sea, for example, is understood only to have split once the Israelites had “stepped into it”. The rabbis’ embellishment here is therefore designed to highlight the importance of human action as a condition for divine aid.
In a number of passages, the rabbis posit that the elements necessary for many of the biblical miracles to occur are brought into existence on the eve of the very first Shabbat.
They navigated a narrow tightrope between two positions; on the one hand, that were none of the miracles (the manna in the wilderness, Balaam’s talking ass, the mouth of the well which furnished water in the desert, to name just a few) to occur, then the saving hand of God’s presence in history would not be found and yet, on the other, the equally unacceptable theological position that God must constantly intervene in creation to avoid disaster.
What the rabbis therefore did was to weave the miracles into the fabric of history itself. In so doing, they acted in the words of Israel Zangwill as “subtle philosophers”, the first apologists in history.
In striking contrast to Christianity, whose very existence is predicated on supernatural phenomena — the virgin birth, Jesus’s resurrection, the numerous miracles attributed to him — Judaism has shied away from citing miracles as proof of religious doctrines. The rabbis are also clear we should never hanker after supernatural intervention.
The great medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides develops the pursuit of a naturalistic vein. He argues, whether the text is explicit on this or not, that most prophetic experiences take place in a dream or vision and should therefore not be taken literally. He also argues strongly in his Guide For The Perplexed that if a miracle is to occur, it is only a temporary change and still leaves the natural order intact.
Rather than despair at not having witnessed a miracle of biblical proportions, we would do well to join a long chain of Jewish sceptics who, rather than surrender reason, have sought a rationalising approach from the very outset of our tradition.
Alternatively, we may also find inspiration in the created order itself as a source of the miraculous. It is in the shacharit service for example that we give our “thanks for Your miracles which are daily with us”. I think memorably in this regard of the late Rabbi Louis Jacobs, who told me the great theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel had once come to the New London Synagogue over Yom Kippur and begun his Kol Nidre sermon with the words, “A few moments ago the most profound thing in all human history took place — the sun set.”
Simon Eder is director of the Friends of Louis Jacobs