ARE MIRACLES REALLY SO MIRACULOUS?
Q. Are miracles all that they are made out to be? If we can split the atom, double the performance of the PC every six months and concoct the Internet, does Moses’ parting of the Red Sea seem so miraculous after all?
A. Belief that miracles – ancient or modern – do occur is axiomatic in Judaism.
Maimonides says that to deny the possibility of miracles is heresy. He rejects both the view of some Arabic theologians who deny the permanence of the law of nature and the argument that nature is so immutable that there is no possibility of Divine interference.
However, he recognises a philosophical problem – if nature is permanent, how can it sometimes be suspended? But if nature can sometimes be suspended, how can it be permanent?
He gives two answers:
1. It is not only the laws of nature that were established at the time of creation, but also the exceptions to the rules. Nature was constituted in such a way that occasional variations (“miracles”) were also Divinely ordained.
Thus when God created the animals, He had already planned for Bilam’s ass to open its mouth and speak, which asses do not usually do.
2. The immutability of the laws of nature means that there can be no permanent change in the properties of the universe. But there can be temporary change (“miracles”) in some individual instances.
Thus on a temporary, one-off basis the Red Sea parted, but the standard rule with seas is that they do not part.
Our concept of miracles is based on a series of principles:
1. God is active in the world, i.e. the world is not “hefker” (ownerless).
2. God sometimes works directly and sometimes indirectly.
3. When God works indirectly He sometimes uses the forces of nature and sometimes the forces of history.
People who studied the Bible used to ask why miracles only happened in ancient times and not today.
It is not really a valid question, as your references to atoms, PCs and the Internet illustrate – and you could have quoted many other, possibly even more impressive examples, including the fact that despite the Holocaust, Jews and Judaism survived; the creation and survival of Israel; the collapse of communism, apartheid and the Berlin Wall, and so much else.
All have an element of the miraculous, all are God working indirectly through the forces of history, and it is fruitless to try to assess them and say that one is more and another less miraculous.
The specific examples you quote need, however, additional comment.
You and I both agree that they are miraculous, but are they not man-made miracles?
I would say no.
They are also the work of God, who implanted in us the human mind capable of stretching and exerting itself to move into new intellectual and scientific territory, and the human heart endowed with the ability to create great works of art, music, literature and other expressions of culture, and to be inspired to perform amazing deeds of love and compassion.
When David Ben Gurion asked Rav Herzog why God did not send a miracle to preserve the new State of Israel, the rabbi replied,
“Ben Gurion, I regard you as one of God’s miracles!”
Likewise, when people wonder why there are no miracles these days, I am happy to echo your words and to say,
“I regard great human beings as Divine miracles!”
GENETICS & JEWISH PRIESTHOOD.
Q. How can you really be certain that you are a Kohen?
A. A family surname is some help. Not just Cohen, but also Cahn, Kahn, Kahan, etc.; even Katz (or any of its variations): this stands for “kohen tzedek”, righteous priest.
But none of these names is a guarantee of priestly lineage, nor is family tradition.
Few of us can trace our descent back more than three generations, though some families have always been scrupulous in preserving genealogical records.
One such priestly family is the Adlers: father and son, Nathan Marcus Adler and Hermann Adler, occupied the British Chief Rabbinate from 1845 to 1911, and they traced their yichus back through centuries of kohanim.
But genetic research has come to our aid. “Geographical”, the magazine of the Royal Geographical Society (September, 1998), carries an article entitled “Bodies of Evidence”, in which Dr Mark Thomas of University College London reports on genetic investigation into Jews who claim to be kohanim.
“We looked at the Y chromosome,”
says Dr Thomas,
“which is only passed on through men, of Cohens from Jewish communities worldwide. We found they’re all much the same. And, since part of the Y chromosome is known to mutate at a regular rate (at about 0.2 per cent per generation), we’ve been able to estimate the time distance from the common ancestor of all Cohens by looking at the number of changes between the different Cohens. We’ve now done this in Ashkenazi Cohens and in Sephardi Cohens and got the same date.”
The date has been traced to about 3000 years ago (Jewish tradition considers the Exodus was about 3300 years ago; the priestly office came into being shortly thereafter).