In the Ruzhin Hassidic tradition, tales of the wondrous capabilities of and
miracles performed by hassidic masters are not considered a central tenet or
theme. The father of the Ruzhin dynasties – Rabbi Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin
(1796-1850) – reportedly called miracles “child’s play,” explaining that the
ability to perform miracles could be seen as a distraction in the pursuit of
lofty spiritual levels.
One of the holy Ruzhiner’s descendants, Rabbi
Yaakov Friedman of Husiatyn (1878-1957), explained that while telling tales of
wondrous deeds can sometimes be an attempt to laud the hero of the tale, it may
actually lessen the stature of the one who wrought the miracle. In his book,
Oholei Yaakov, Rabbi Yaakov of Husiatyn declared that the hassidim of the
nascent movement did not come to Mezritch for the sake of miracles.
the seat of Rabbi Dov Ber (d. 1772), Rabbi Yaakov’s ancestor and the most
important leader in collective hassidic memory after the Ba’al Shem Tov. Rabbi
Yaakov also recorded a Chabad tradition attributed to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of
Liady (d. 1812), who was also a disciple of Rabbi Dov Ber. Rabbi Shneur Zalman
described the atmosphere in Mezritch, saying that ruah hakodesh, the holy
spirit, was scooped up in large jugs and miracles were rolling around under the
benches. But there was no time to bend down and to pick them up. The spiritual
work in Mezritch was loftier than miracles, and it would have been a downgrade
to focus on the miracles there.
Alas, Rabbi Yaakov did not flesh out what
is so problematic with telling tales about miracles, nor did he fully explain
why it lessens the stature of the hero to tell about miracles he performed.
Aside from questions of authenticity and verification, a number of reasons could
be offered to explain why focusing on miracles may be more harmful than
First, tales of wondrous deeds distance the hero as a possible
role model who could be imitated. If the hero’s gains his stature from an
ability to perform miracles, there is little chance that regular people, who are
not blessed with this capacity, will not see the miracle-working hero as a
person to be imitated. Essentially, the miracle worker is no longer a useable
Secondly, miracle-workers can be seen as replacement of God.
Instead of petitioning the Almighty or striving for a connection with the
Divine, some might seek a relationship with a human instead.
of miracles takes the conversation from this world to a realm beyond our
reality. We may need to talk about the challenges of the physical world in which
we live, but instead we escape to the world of miracles. Focusing on miracles
may be a form of avoiding the vicissitudes of our earthly existence. We avert
the unpleasantness of demanding of ourselves to be better people, preferring to
dream of the metaphysical.
In addition, if we base our faith on
miracle-working escapades, should those tales be called into question, the
foundations of our faith may be shaken. What happens when a child realizes that
Elijah the Prophet does not drink from the cup at the Passover Seder, but that
one of the adults is actually shaking the table? Faith based on miracles wrought
by an individual may be flimsy and tenuous.
And finally, tales of
miracles are stories about moments, not about arduous journeys. Jewish life is
about the journey, about building steadily on previous achievements. Leadership
is also about the long journey, not about transient wonders that quickly fade.
The ideal leader is therefore not the miracle performer but the person who can
inspire better conduct despite lacking the ability to bring about miracles at
To be sure, Rabbi Yaakov of Husiatyn was not denying the
possibility of miracles. Rather, he felt that the connection between hassidic
master and disciple should not be based on wondrous deeds. In the Oholei
Yaakov‘s eyes, the focus of hassidism – on personal development, on striving for
spiritual achievement – should not be centered on miracles.
The writer is
on the faculty of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur
Hadassah. His book, Relics for the Present, was recently published by Maggid
Books and Pardes.