Key words: miracle stories, natural order, supernatural
Two years ago, I asked a mixed class of freshman and sophomores to relate their favorite Jewish story. To my chagrin, twenty three out of twenty four students told a story revolving around the performance of a miracle. Apparently, in my students view, a quality Jewish tale involves rabbis suspending the laws of nature. Rabbinic biographies have reached a similar conclusion as many of them (see the biographies of R. Moshe Feinstein and of the Hazon Ish) include a standardized chapter on the miraculous feats performed by the hero. Reading these biographies, one has the impression that a rabbinic career remains incomplete without a miracle or two.
I asked my students to contemplate the difference between two types of stories about rabbinic greatness.1 Some stories focus on rabbis who perform the supernatural and miraculously save the day. Most compilations of Hasidic stories contain a generous helping of such stories.2 Other stories glowingly recall the exemplary character traits of rabbinic leaders. These rabbis displayed great beneficence, unusual diligence, tremendous insight etc. I concluded that while the miracle stories are fun and exciting, only the middot stories contain educational and moral import for the listeners.3
Examples of the second type of story abound in Hazal. R. Akiva's willingness to begin learning at an older age (Avot d'R Natan 6:2) illustrates the power of dedication and commitment. R. Yohanan's desire to hear questioning of his opinions rather then proofs for those opinions (Bava Metzia 84a) serves as a model for intellectual integrity. R. Gamliel's decision to be buried in simple clothing so that others not overspend on a funeral (Moed Katan 27b) reveals both insight and humility. In contrast to these stories, what values emerge from miracle stories?
The miracle stories are not only educationally neutral but they misrepresent the rabbinic approach to problem solving. The great rabbis I know do not solve problems with the wave of a magic wand but rather with carefully thought out plans and laborious effort. Miracle stories convert rabbis into poor imitations of Batman and Superman. At least those superheroes occasionally face challenges that demand courage and dedication. A rabbinic clapping of the hands takes neither. As the Kotzker said about a reputed miracle worker "I would like to know if he is able to perform the miracle of making one real hasid".4
R. Kook emphasizes the possibility of a desire for the miraculous dampening human initiative. Functioning within the world of nature places the focus on human effort. On the other hand, depending on the miraculous converts humans from active to passive and from subject to object. Such an approach represents an extension of the positive trait of bitahon beyond appropriate boundaries.5 R. Kook supports our view that miracles fail to reveal human greatness.
A teller of miracle tales probably feels that these stories teach Divine Providence, a fundamental component of Judaism. However, it is not at all clear that Providence functions in such a simplified fashion. R. Yanai stated (Avot 4:15) that "we do not understand the suffering of the righteous or the serenity of the wicked", and R. Yaakov added (Kiddushin 39b) "Reward for mitzvot does not happen in this world". Furthermore, many of these stories emphasize the power of the tzaddik rather than God's hashgaha. In this spirit, R. Barukh of Medziboz said "When Eliyahu performed miracles, we are told the people exclaimed 'the Lord is God' but nowadays the people grow enthusiastic over the reputed miracle worker and forget to say the Lord is God".6
Two other problems occasionally emerge. Some students notice that the real world does not function the way it does in these stories. In our present existence, the good guys do not always so easily emerge victorious. This leads to two dangerous options. Either the student reflects the teacher's message as false or the student begins to compartmentalize his or her world view. These students have a religious way of talking and a regular way of talking, with no harmony between the two modes.
Encouraging an appetite for the miraculous also helps phonies waiting to take advantage of the religiously naive. The result is the hillul Hashem of rabbi taking money to suspense magical blessings. The Rizhiner argued that "the more miracle stories are attributed to tzaddikim, the more the ground is prepared for deception by clairvoyants, fortune-tellers and charlatan doctors".7
Of course, miracle stories often get the students interested and excited. However, excitement and interest must eventually lead to something of substance to have any value. If it leads to something negative, then we must forego that excitement. We would not allow a class entitled "Risque Stories in the Talmud" just to encourage student interest.
A survey of traditional sources reveals that the rabbinic tradition includes a good deal of ambivalence regarding the miraculous. Certain rabbinic schools objected to interfering with the natural order. When a widower's breasts miraculously lactated (Shabbat 53b), R. Yosef exclaimed that the widower must be a great man. Abbaye countered, "how lowly is this person who caused a change in the natural order".
Others objected to reliance on the supernatural. When R. Huna relied upon R. Ada bar Ahava's merit to jointly enter a dilapidated building (Taanit 20b), R. Ada was incensed. He cited R. Yanai's maxim that one can not undertake a dangerous activity relying upon a miracle because the miracle might not occur and even if it does, the miracle subtracts from the person's merit.
While many Talmudic stories seem to celebrate the miraculous, several qualifications deserve notice. Many of these stories relate the workings of individual wonder workers not otherwise known for rabbinic greatness. Few halachic statements survived from the mouths of R. Hanina ben Dosa, Honi haMeagel and R. Pinhas ben Yair. On the other hand, halachic greats such as R. Akiva and R. Meir rarely appear in these stories. Apparently, greatness in learning and supernatural ability do not always coincide.8
One story (Berakhot 34b) explicitly distinguishes between religious greatness and miraculous power. When R. Yohanan ben Zakai's son fell sick, R. Hanina ben Dosa's prayer saved the boy where all R. Yohanan's supplications could not. In response to his wife's amazement at R. Hanina's success compared to his own failure, R. Yohanan clarified that R. Hanina was not greater then him but merely had a different relationship with God. According to R. Yohanan, miracle stories fail to reflect rabbinic greatness.
Furthermore, the Talmud itself (Berakhot 20a) noticed a marked decrease in miracles as the early Tannaim give way to the later Tannaim who in turn give way to the Amoraim and attempted to account for it. It would be logical to assume that this downward slope continued past the close of the Talmud and into our own era.9
In the Gaonic period, R,. Shmuel ben Hofni argued that miracles happen only to prophets. He classified Talmudic tales of wonder working as not halachically binding. Even R. Hai Gaon, who took issue with this position, reacted with a great deal of skepticism to tales of miracle men in his day. R. Hai rejected reports of wonders performed in the land of Israel.10
Medieval philosophers went even further in limiting the role of miracles. Rambam viewed many miraculous biblical stories as dreams, argued for the stability of the natural order, and attempted to incorporate miracles within that order. In his essay on resurrection, Rambam describes his approach as the attempt "to reconcile the law and reason, and whenever possible consider all things as of the natural order. Only when something is explicitly identified as a miracle, and reinterpretation of it cannot be accommodated, only then do I feel forced to grant that this is a miracle."11
The Hasidic tradition also includes elements critical of emphasis on miracles. We have already cited Hasidic statements regarding the pitfalls of miracle stories. The Peshiseha school used to employ the verse "otot u'moftim b'admat bnei ham" to indicate that wonder working was for bnei ham but not for Judaism.12 R. Yitzchak Vorker claimed that God thanked Yitzhak for cultivating the land in a natural way rather than relying on a miracle.13
The responses to the tragic Rabin assassination raised yet another dangerous consequence of the focus on the miraculous. Some Orthodox Jews, rather than responding with shock and revulsion to the murder, focused on the kabbalistic curse placed on Rabin and searched for coded hints in the biblical text that killing Rabin was foretold. in this response, miracle stories move beyond moral irrelevance to the immoral. The efficacy of a rabbi's curse becomes more significant then whether that rabbi condones or condemns murder.
If our stories fail to hold up character as the barometer of rabbinic greatness, then lack of character becomes irrelevant. This state of affairs must change if we are to teach our students basic middot tovot. Neither miracle stories nor miracles themselves will create bnei and bnot torah of the finest qualities.
1. R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin outlines different types of Hasidic stories in Sippurei Hasidim (Tel Aviv 1955) page 3.
2. For a fascinating compilation of miracle stories, see Gedalyah Nagal's Magic, Mysticism and Hasidim: The Supernatural in Jewish Thought tr. Edward Levin (Jason Aronson 1994)
3. Certainly, middot stories that present rabbis as superhuman become irrelevant and insipid. The worthwhile stories treat rabbis as great while still conveying their human fallibility.
4. Yo'etz Kayam Kadish Siah Sarfei Kodesh Part 2 no. 39. All the translations of Siah Sarfei Kodesh and Dor Deah come from Louis Newman The Hasidic Anthology (1963).
5. R. Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook Ein Ayyah on Massekhet Shabbat no. 192-195.
6. Arye Yekuthiel Kamelhar Dor Deah (New York 1952) page 174.
7. Ibid., page 139.
8. This point was already noted by Alexander Gutman in "The Significance of Miracles for Talmudic Judaism", HUCA vol. 20 (1947).
9. One possible explanation for the abundance of miracles in the biblical era as opposed to the paucity of miracles in our own is that God's presence had to be more manifest initially to establish a relationship with the people.
10. Both opinions appear in B. Lewin Otzar haGaonim Hagiga pages 13-21.
11. The translation comes from Abraham Halkin and David Hartman's Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides (JPS 1985) page 223. On the Rambam's stance toward miracles, see also the final chapter of his Shemoneh Perakim.
12. R. Simha Bunim was the most adamant of rebbes in downplaying miracles. See Harry M. Rabinowitcz's Rabbi Simha Bunim me'Peshiseha: Hayyav u'Torato (Tel Aviv 1944).
13. R. Zevin Sippurei Hasidim page 3.