Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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22 Av 5766 - August 16, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Opinion & Comment
Nature and Miracles

by R' Dovid Kornreich

We will approach this famous topic from the vantage point of the Rambam via a seemingly unrelated discussion: Why did the Rambam list the belief in the resurrection of the dead as one of the Thirteen Articles of Faith? Why is this ikkar on a par with G-d's existence, prophesy, Torah from Shomayim, and reward and punishment in order for a Jew to be considered among the Jewish people?

Fortunately, we don't have to speculate. Although the Rambam provides virtually no elaboration of this ikkar in his Commentary on the Mishna where he originally formulated these ikkarim, nor in the Mishneh Torah, nor in the Moreh Nevuchim, he actually devoted more writing on this ikkar than any other.

In his Ma'amar al Techiyas Hameisim, the Rambam put to rest any suggestion that he did not believe in a physical- bodily resurrection of the dead. The idea that he did not believe in that may have arisen because he devoted so little writing to it and so much writing to the non-corporeality of the World-to-Come. Apparently, people mistakenly believed that the Rambam conceived of a spiritual resurrection with his spiritual World-to-Come. It is in fact difficult to understand logically why there should be a physical resurrection for the righteous, if the ultimate reward will anyway be experienced completely on the spiritual plane.

The Rambam said explicitly that he believed in a physical resurrection and also explained why a physical resurrection of the dead is such a core tenet of our belief.

There is probably no greater violation of nature than a resurrection. Changing water to blood, or sticks to snakes are mere (Egyptian) parlor tricks in comparison. There is no natural or even conceptual way to explain why it should occur. And unless you witness it with your own eyes, or hear about it from reliable witnesses, it is completely a matter of faith.

The Rambam then says that the belief in a physical resurrection serves as the litmus test for belief in all the miracles of the Torah. If one feels the need to allegorize the scant verses in Tanach that predict the final resurrection, we have to be very concerned about his motives.

Why is he incredulous? If the Novi is a reliable transmitter of the word of Hashem and he says that there will be a physical resurrection, why should a person doubt it?

The frightening truth is that there are many people who think that violations of nature are impossible. Scientific- minded people who deny any reality that cannot be observed or measured by the physical senses (or sensors) have a real philosophical problem with miracles.

This denial is attributed by the Rambam to Aristotle's heretical belief in eternal and immutable matter. Aristotle believed that the laws of nature are absolute and cannot be broken by any power.

This then leads to a denial in Hashem's creation of physical matter and its natural laws -- yeish mei'ayin -- which is ultimately a breach in the first and fourth ikkarim of the Rambam.

In short, to deny the possibility of a physical resurrection by Hashem, which the Rambam says is a complete and utter violation of the natural realm, is to deny Hashem's omnipotence.

History Repeats Itself

It is ironic that once again in our times, the Rambam has been used by contemporary Jewish authors as a source for asserting that Hashem does not interfere with the laws of nature in principle. All miracles described in Tanach, they say, should be interpreted as somehow conforming to natural law. (Don't ask me how they manage to do this.)

To ascribe this view to the Rambam they overlook the Rambam's Letter on the Resurrection and emphasize two places in his commentary to the maseches Ovos. The first is in the eighth chapter of the Rambam's long introduction to that masechta, called the Shemoneh Prokim, where the Rambam deals with conflicts between man's free-will and Hashem's foreknowledge.

The second is in maseches Ovos itself in Chapter 5 Mishna 5 which lists ten wondrous creations that were brought into existence just before the onset of the very first Shabbos of creation.

In these places the Rambam briefly explains that all future irregularities in the natural behavior of matter were pre- programmed into nature at the very beginning. This is taken by some readers to mean that natural law is absolute and can have no exceptions. This of course plays well with a secular audience which feels uncomfortable with the notion of supernatural miracles.

Rabbeinu Bachya to the Rescue

Rabbeinu Bachya is indispensable here in two ways. First, he describes in detail the critical hashkafic failure of people who, out of their deep respect for and fascination with science, attempt to explain various miracles of the Torah in natural terms.

He explains in his introduction to parshas Mas'ei in Bamidbar chap. 33: King Shlomo (Mishlei 4:7) said: At the beginning of wisdom, acquire Wisdom. Before any other wisdoms, acquire the wisdom of Torah . . . "It was for this reason that Sholom Hamelech o"h said here, "At the beginning of wisdom, acquire Wisdom." For if a person does not first study the wisdom of the Torah and does not see the Torah's descriptions of the signs and wonders [mofsim] and the gigantic well-publicized miracles, it is likely that he will be drawn after the natural and will believe in an eternal universe. That is why nature is given the name it has ["teva"] since it will sink (yitba) a person in its depths and he will descend to the nethermost pit if he is not careful with it. It is like one who comes to dive in the deep parts of the ocean but knows not how to swim, and drowns.

"So too, a person is likely to be skeptical based on his familiarity with the wisdom of teva (science) regarding the signs and wonders that were performed by Moshe for the Jews. He will only believe in natural events that can be perceived by the eye. And he will corrupt the path of emunoh by asserting that the miracles in the wilderness were natural events and were not miraculous . . . [And he will say that perhaps they were able to sustain themselves through natural processes.] . . . Thus in order to uproot this corrosive view and to instill belief in these great wonders [mofsim], the Torah comes to mandate that a person must acquire its wisdom before any other discipline and it enlightens our eyes and tells us that that desert was not like other deserts [where people live all the time] . . . and by nature a man could not live there even one day and certainly not a great people of men, women and children . . ."

Second, in his commentary to that mishna in Ovos 5:5 mentioned above, Rabbeinu Bachya gives us the vital background to understand the Rambam's necessity for concluding that miracles are pre-programmed into nature at creation.

He explains that miracles in history can easily make an impression that needs to be carefully avoided. We should not attribute the unnatural intervention of Hashem in the physical world as reflecting a change in Hashem Himself. Hashem's plan for the world needs no later adjustments to respond to man's free-willed actions.

"There is nothing new under the sun," says King Shlomo. If a miracle required a new creation by Hashem, says Rabbeinu Bachya, it would imply that Hashem's eternal will was altered chas vesholom by the unfolding of events and He needed to correct the course with a miraculous intervention.

Of course, it is obvious that this has nothing to do with the idea that the laws of nature are absolute. That notion was already discredited by both the Rambam and Rabbeinu Bachya themselves above. On the contrary. Hashem in His infinite wisdom has built in all the numerous exceptions to physical law from the beginning of time.

Of course all miracles can and will defy natural law; the only issue is how that defiance is orchestrated. The Rambam simply says that it was orchestrated in anticipation of history, and not as an ad hoc response to it.

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