Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Rambam and Miracles

R. Basil Herring, Joseph Ibn Kaspi's Gevia Kesef: A Study in Medieval Jewish Philosophic Bible Commentary, pp. 101-106:

The writings of Maimonides on this issue [of miracles] are ambiguous. In his Commentary on the Mishnah, written at an early age, in explaining the rabbinic statement that ten substances were created on the Sabbath eve at sunset (Ethics of the Fathers 5:5), Maimonides states that in fact all future events, including miracles, were preordained at Creation. God decreed at Creation that each substance would behave in a manner that would result most of the time in regular processes, and on rare occasions in events that would differ from the usual pattern. Even these rare events however, are the natural effect of causal factors inherent in nature since Creation.

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What makes such events miraculous is not that they are the result of the suspension of natural law, but the fact that they are highly unusual or unique. One consequence of such an explanation was that while Maimonides had vindicated the historicity of these Biblical miracles, he had also placed them within the causal framework of natural law, and thereby deprived them of their supernatural character. Such a solution of the issue was intended to satisfy the Aristotelian demand for a fixed and unchanging nature and, at the same time, to permit room for a divine will that ordains the miraculous...

In another passage of the Guide, however, Maimonides is more specific. In Guide II:29, during the course of his discussion of Creation, Maimonides gives two somewhat contradictory impressions. Initially he says
I have said that a thing does not change its nature in such a way that the change is permanent, merely to be cautious with regard to miracles, For although the rod was turned into a serpent, the water into blood, and the pure and noble hand became white without a natural cause that necessitated this, these and similar things were not permanent, and did not become another nature. But as they, may their memory be blessed, say, "The world goes its customary way."
But having said this, Maimonides goes on to quote "a very strange statement about miracles" found in Genesis Rabbah, stating
that when God created that which exists, and stamped upon it the existing natures, He put it into these natures that all the miracles that occurred would be produced in them at the time when they occurred... all this serves to avoid having to admit the coming-into-being of something new.
The question here is whether Maimonides in the Guide has modified the position taken many years earlier in the Commentary on the Mishnah...

The Hebrew translator of the Guide, Samuel Ibn Tibbon, clearly implied that he understood the Guide to adhere to the original doctrine that all miracles were preordained at Creation and are therefore part of nature. On the other hand, Falaquera, Efodi, and Shemtov consider the passage in the Guide to place miracles above all natural causality, and thereby to be a departure from Maimonides' original doctrine...

Maimonides' Treatise on Resurrection has been described as the most authentic commentary on the Guide. In that treatise there are several passages dealing with the subject of miracles. In one, Maimonides distinguishes between those miracles that are naturally possible and those that are naturally impossible. The latter include the transformation of Moses' staff into a snake, the earth's swallowing of Korah, and the splitting of the Red Sea. The former include certain of the plagues occurring in the Exodus story that are known to have happened at other times, such as the locust swarms, and the collapse of certain structures, such as the walls of Jericho. What makes this latter group miraculous is either that they occur precisely at the moment foretold by the prophet, or that some aspect of the event is highly unusual, or the fact that the event continues for an inordinately long period. In this passage Maimonides does not explain what he means by the term "naturally impossible" (hanimna'im ba-teva). In an earlier passage in the same work, however, Maimonides makes the following statement:
It is known that we avoid changing the order of nature, Nonetheless those people are mistaken, whether they are ancient or modern, if they do not distinguish between those things whose existence is miraculous, and do not remain and do not continue to exist, for these occur because of some need or to confirm prophecy; and those things that are natural that occur constantly, occurring in a customary way, and which are described by the sages always when they say, "The world goes its customary way."
At first glance this appears to repeat what was written in the Guide regarding the temporary status of miraculous events. Yet there is a subtle change in the use of the quotation from the Midrash. In the passage in the Guide quoted above, the midrashic principle that "the world goes its customary way" ('olam ke-minhago holekh) is related to those miracles that constitute a temporary suspension of natural laws, and shows that those laws will soon regain their causal efficacy. The use is similar in the Eight Chapters. Here, however, the reference does not have the same meaning, for it is used in the context of normal events that "occur constantly." There is no longer any attempt to associate the rare or unique events usually known as miracles with the normal events that are subject to the cause-effect relationship of natural laws. This would therefore appear to confirm that in his later years, when writing the Guide, and more specifically in the Treatise on Resurrection, Maimonides' doctrine of miracles evolved to a position that accepted them as being without natural cause, and therefore categorically different from the customary "way" of other events. Of course in the view of Strauss and his followers, even this passage in the Treatise is merely a concession to public opinion.

The position that we have taken is consonant with the many areas of Maimonidean thought that have been shown to presuppose the character of miracles as exceptional and temporary changes in the laws of nature. These areas include his argument in favor of Creation as against the Aristotelian argument favoring Eternity,
the manifestation of prophecy, and the effects of personal providence.

In summary, while Maimonides has a distinct preference for avoiding changes in the order of nature, he does appear to admit that there are events that are preordained at Creation, and that are the result of a divine will that supersedes the natural order of things. This approach could be categorized as the "dual approach" to

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