Ask the Rabbis | Do Jews Believe in Miracles?

Paintings of manna from heaven, Moses and the Red Sea, and the miracle of the oil

INDEPENDENT 

This is an existential question. Our entire nationhood is predicated on a host of miraculous events that conceived and birthed us as a people, from the splitting of the so-called Red Sea to the invention of gefilte fish. If we don’t believe in miracles, none of those events ever happened and we’re a complete fraud. In the 17th century, Frederick the Great asked the poet Christian Gellert: “Herr Professor, give me a proof of the Bible, but briefly, for I have little time.” Gellert’s  response: “Majesty, the Jews.” Jews have traditionally perceived everything as miraculous. One only needs to contemplate the mind-blowing workings of the…um…mind, let alone all of those red and white blood corpuscles streaming up and down the rapids of our endless arteries. Every leaf, every stone, every paramecium, every strand of COVID is a camouflage for divine mystery. Calling something “natural,” the 13th-century Moshe ben Nachman taught, is just an excuse not to explore further. We are a nation of explorers. Why do you think it took us 40 years to travel a few miles after the Exodus from Egypt? Because: “Oooh, look at that cactus. Oooh, look at that seashell. Oooh, wow, look at that sunburn…” That there are actually Jews who don’t believe in miracles is a miracle in itself. 

Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Fontana, CA

Jews have traditionally perceived everything as miraculous.

HUMANIST 

There are obviously many Jews who believe in miracles, though they don’t agree on exactly what kind. Some limit their embrace of miracles to the ones in the Bible. Some look at the ongoing existence of the Jews as proof of some kind of divine intervention. Yet others believe that miracles are theirs to be had for the price of a talisman. You can go online right now and search for segulah (protection) amulets. They’re sold by mystics (or profiteers) who promise wealth and good health. Prices range from the affordable to the outrageous.

Fortunately, those of us who are not big on miracles can also point to a tradition of skepticism. Maimonides was famously ambivalent. While he did not deny biblical (or future redemptive) miracles, he wrote that they “were already designated to come about in the course of the six days of creation…implanted in the nature of the things involved in them” (Eight Chapters 8:10). Uncomfortable with the notion of supernatural intervention, he classified them as part of nature.

Humanistic Jews believe that all miracles, whether biblical or modern, are the pure products of human imagination. There is not now and never has been any sufficient evidence of supernatural intervention in the natural world. And as Carl Sagan—echoing David Hume—famously said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick
Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
Farmington Hills, MI

RENEWAL

The key to finding wonder is knowing to look—think of the Spanish word mira, “look,” embedded in the word miracle. There is a midrash (Exodus Rabbah 24:1) that when the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds, the waters miraculously piled up into walls beside them. But two Israelites, Reuven and Shimon, paid no attention, and all they could see was the mud—just like the mud they had in Egypt. All the miracles surrounding them were lost to their sight.

I don’t know if we believe in miracles—“belief” is such a problematic word for modern Jews. Not in the supernatural Spiderman-type God who swoops in to rescue us at just the right moment. But in the miracle of our people’s survival—I’d say yes. The miracle that the Torah of ancient times continues to be endlessly fascinating, holy and capable of being reinterpreted in each age. The miracle of love and compassion. And stories of miracles can inspire hope and strength simply as stories. On Hanukkah, we recount the miracle of the oil, a symbol of spiritual hope and survival. In the traditional Hanukkah prayer Al HaNissim (“For the Miracles”), the rabbis focused on a different part of the story, just as miraculous or more—the defeat of the mighty Greek forces by the weak Judean army, the many vanquished by the few. Is there a miracle of Hanukkah that speaks to our own era? We have but to look.

Rabbi Gilah Langner
Congregation Kol Ami
Arlington, VA

RECONSTRUCTIONIST 

Great miracle stories suspend the natural order, like crossing the Reed Sea days after leaving slavery or rededicating the Temple with awesome oil. Maybe these happened as described; maybe not. Either way, real Passover and Hanukkah “miracles” include oppressed people overcoming challenges, successfully organizing for justice and freedom. Miracles rarely come on cue, so we must create the conditions for them and be ready to deliver the “miracle” ourselves.

Would you want your body to be miraculously enhanced? One Talmudic rabbi (Tractate Shabbat 53b) cheers this, while another says, “How disgusting, that the sidrei bereshit (orders of creation) would change.”  That second rabbi prefigured Maimonides, Mordecai Kaplan and every other rationalist-spiritual thinker. Maybe nature itself, plus naturally flourishing community and creativity, is the ultimate miracle. 

Liturgy affirms our gratitude “for Your miracles that are with us daily, and for Your wondrousnesses and goodnesses unfolding every moment.” Miracles? The water cycle. Sunrise. Earth’s fragile atmosphere, orbiting around a stable star, enabling life. Atoms becoming DNA, organelles, cells, organisms, then communities. I’ll take photosynthesis and poetry over Maccabean oil any day. The commonplace can be, and is, miraculous. Let’s celebrate and protect these everyday miracles. 

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Bethesda, MD

REFORM

Our daily and holiday prayers are replete with words of gratitude for miracles. Each morning we may recite a litany of blessings thanking God for the daily miracles associated with human experience: returning strength to our steps, giving sight to our eyes, and creating us in the image of the Divine. The Torah and Midrash tell stories of miracles such as the splitting of a sea, daily manna to eat and a well of water that followed Miriam and quenched the Israelites’ thirst during their 40 years wandering the desert.

As 21st-century Jews with knowledge of life, physical and earth sciences, we may be able to rationalize what our ancestors called out as miracles. Yet does that make any of these experiences any less miraculous? When we pause with curiosity, when we recognize the marvels of the universe and of the human body, with all their perfections and imperfections, we may find moments to acknowledge the wondrous world of which we are a part and ponder the source of creation. As Albert Einstein once said, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” 

Rabbi Dr. Laura Novak Winer
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Fresno, CA

CONSERVATIVE

The story of the parting of the Sea of Reeds is considered one of the great miracles of the Bible because it describes a radical change in the laws of nature. Even if the parting of the sea could be explained as a natural phenomenon, its timing was indeed miraculous. This was called a nes galui—an overt and visible miracle.  

The rabbis remind us that there is also a nes nistar—a hidden miracle. In our daily liturgy, we thank God for the miracles that attend us daily: evening, morning and afternoon. Here the definition of a miracle is not restricted to that which defies nature. God performs miracles by working with the natural order itself. Similarly, the Ba’al Shem Tov said that the world is full of miracles and wonders, but humanity does not see them.  

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argued that the greatest example of a miracle is the survival of the Jewish people, despite countless ruthless attempts to obliterate the Jews physically and spiritually.  I often hear friends and family bemoan the demise of Judaism and the Jewish people. They focus on assimilation, intermarriage, the conflict in Israel.  I cannot relate to their pessimism. Hirsch’s definition of a miracle inspires me to believe in Jewish survival. 

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA

MODERN ORTHODOX 

In the Bible, God intervenes to uphold the good through miracles that appear to override nature (as at the Red Sea). The rabbis teach that God subsequently self-limited to usher in a new era where God is more hidden and less controlling, where human actions and policies toward other humans play a larger role in the outcomes. God’s miracles operate not to override natural law but to undergird the natural order. Nature and internal human body systems are all miracles. The Asher Yatzar blessing reminds us that the digestive system (including urination and defecation) is miraculous and shows God acting to “heal all flesh…doing miracles.” In the Amidah, we acknowledge that God makes miracles by sustaining all the processes of existence.

Now, I would argue, we are in the third stage of interaction with God. God does more miracles than before, but entirely through human agents who utilize natural laws and the divinely created properties of matter. Thus miracle drugs cure more diseases; technology performs miraculous actions every day (see under: smartphones) and aluminum and carbon fibers are turned into airplanes flying all over the globe. Jews should believe, because we live in the age of more miracles than ever before. 

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
J.J. Greenberg Institute of Jewish Living and Learning, Hadar Institute 
Riverdale, NY

ORTHODOX

David Ben-Gurion, hardly a hewer to the traditional theological line, said it best: “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.” I would add that this is true wherever you live if you sense the flow of Jewish history.

If a miracle is when God intervenes and produces results that could not be predicted, then Jewish tradition unequivocally believes in miracles. It is fundamental to Judaism that the God who created the world and all the laws of nature can, if he wants, contravene those laws. A minority opinion stated by Maimonides is that God does this by building asterisks into natural law, as if every divine intervention was built into those laws from the very beginning. The fundamental point is that God does tweak human existence in response to prayer and need, sometimes invisibly, covertly, behind the scenes, and sometimes, in a very small minority of cases, in dramatic Cecil B. DeMille style. 

Maimonides also tells us that Jewish belief is not based upon or contingent on miracles, but on reason and our historical relationship with God. Miracles work for those who already believe and will sense the presence of God in them. Nachmanides adds that the purpose of the really dramatic miracles in Tanach is to teach us that our everyday existence is miraculous. 

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Cross-Currents
Los Angeles, CA

CHABAD

Miracles are a central part of Jewish existence. While the Talmud warns us not to rely on them, our odyssey as a people is replete with them, going back to our exodus from Egypt even before we became a nation and received the Torah at Sinai. The Hebrew word for miracle, nes, also translates as “flag,” something hoisted as a sign of pride.

 We, the Jewish people, have always worked hard to ensure that when G-d does want to shower us with blessings, we have made the effort, the keli, or receptacle if you will, to receive it. Every blessing is a miracle, and often—as in the story of Purim, or in our everyday life if we stop to notice—we are showered with miracles, large and small, all the time, even if they can seem like serendipitous circumstances.

 We do whatever we can, then wait to find what G-d wants to result from our efforts. Sometimes we see it immediately, other times only much later in hindsight. Whatever the result, it’s a miracle and a blessing, and this belief is also a sign of true pride in our faith.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov
Executive Vice President, American Friends of Lubavitch
Washington, DC

SEPHARDIC 

All humans believe in miracles one way or another. Traditional Jewish observance certainly includes the belief in extraordinary events that manifest divine intervention in human affairs. The Torah makes promises to the Patriarchs and their descendants, bestows blessings on those who observe the mitzvot and threatens those who deviate with horrifying curses. Though that system seems to have been malfunctioning for the last 2,000 years, many still believe that God is a micromanager and that therefore every instance of our existence on earth is a miracle. I think that both grandiose miracles and humble, behind-the-scenes natural micromanagement were used by the Torah and the prophets as a marketing tool to convince people to adhere to the weird and revolutionary ideas of Judaism. At a certain point, perhaps after the destruction of the Temple, the training wheels of miracles were removed and we had to start dealing with reality using our own tools. 

It is still important to believe that everything is possible, but it is crucial not to get frustrated when a miracle does not happen. For example, the State of Israel is considered by many a modern miracle, but it came at the heels of disastrous wars and a cataclysmic Holocaust, during which no miraculous divine help was offered. The greatest miracle is hope and endurance, and yes, once in a while, a little smile from above.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Torah VeAhava
Potomac, MD

2 thoughts on “Ask the Rabbis | Do Jews Believe in Miracles?

  1. h Gott;ieb says:

    WHAT kind of a question is that????? and WHAT is a rabbi supposed to be ????
    2021 and we still talk of miracles ???? and we still talk of rabbis and priests as tho they are something special…
    shame on you

  2. Davida Brown says:

    Miracles are defined as: (American Heritage Dictionary, #1) “An event inexplicable by the laws of nature and so held to be supernatural in origin or an act of God.” Dictionaries change with the times (this one was almost 30 years ago published), yet the Bible doesn’t change with the times, though interpretations certainly do! In the New Covenant “Torah” (instruction), Romans 1:20, we read: “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” There is more of the aforementioned, but since it is not politically correct today, I will leave it up to each individual to pursue or not. Suffice is the knowledge that humans were created in the image of God, had an alteration in Gan Eden, and have been groping in the dark since then to obtain wisdom. According to the N.C. letter of 1st Corinthians, 1:27-29: “…but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” I am all of the above. Nevertheless, I have been chosen for such a time as this…by God Himself.

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