Wonder of miracles

The Tisch: The father of the Ruzhin dynasties – Rabbi Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin (1796-1850) – reportedly called miracles “child’s play.”

Ba'al Shem Tov's Tomb 370 (photo credit: PAUL ROSS)
Ba'al Shem Tov's Tomb 370
(photo credit: PAUL ROSS)
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.
Mezritch was 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 useful.
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 paragon.
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.
Third, talk 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 will.
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.