The allure of miracles

Miracles, no matter how significant they may be, are not a life plan – for individuals or for the nation.

haggada four sons_311 (photo credit: David Geffen)
haggada four sons_311
(photo credit: David Geffen)
The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a story of miracles. An invisible God arises in an idolatrous culture and performs a mighty burst of supernatural activity. The Ten Plagues bring a supreme empire to its knees and the ruling military power of the ancient world is destroyed in one spectacular act. Who cannot imagine the Nile flowing with endless streams of blood and a darkness so thick it can be felt? Or the vivid scene of the Red Sea parting and the Children of Israel, as numerous as the population of Greater Tel Aviv, passing through on dry land, with walls of water to their right and left? The dominance of miracles in collective Jewish memory creates a contemporary desire for shortcuts through miracles. Secularism, enlightenment, rationalism and science cannot trump miracles.
Facts show that increasing numbers of Israelis believe in miracle workers, whether religious, spiritual, political or ideological.
Some attribute supernatural powers to physical objects, such as graves or territory, or to charismatic people. Israel’s political, cultural and business elite pride themselves in consulting with “holy men” before taking significant life steps. The ethos of miracles thrives within the national subconscious. As we face the threat of Iran, we expect a modern-day Moses to arise and reassure us: “Fear not… and see the salvation of the Lord.” We are ready for a repeat performance, this time in the Persian Gulf, in which God fights for us and we remain still. Instead of naval commandos, Nahshon – the first to enter the sea during the Exodus – will leap into the water; instead of the air force, we will dispatch the Pillar of Fire; instead of a security cabinet, the finger of God.
Jewish tradition, however, teaches us the opposite: “Do not rely on miracles.” While it is convenient to believe in miracles and to be led blindly by others to a destination that is not of our own choosing, Judaism demands that we rely on ourselves, accept responsibility and act autonomously. The time since the Exodus has been an extended transition from trusting external forces to self-reliance. After the miracles at the Red Sea, the Children of Israel learned that miracles will depend on their own deeds. They received the manna as heavenly sustenance but were told that it will only fall if they exercise restraint and do not gather it on Shabbat. The miracle is thus contingent on human behavior, on withstanding a test.
This is the dominant paradigm of Biblical miracles.
The miracles of the Exodus, which were not dependent on human behavior, were an exception. This was a “start-up” stage, when God established the concept of freedom, created the nation and consolidated monotheism. The continuation of the biblical narrative, however, is based on the assumption that all events, including miracles, are a consequence of human activity.
As this message is internalized, the overt and active presence of God diminishes; miracles become less frequent and there is less direct communication between God and humans. God’s appearance is replaced by that of messengers – angels and prophets.
Later, the existence of God seems to be dependent on human interpretation of events, and human narrative appears to take over the story. Interestingly, the last person God speaks to in the Bible is Job, who challenges the morality of God’s activity; in the remaining 10 books of the Bible, God is totally silent: Present, yet absent.
The silencing of God’s active voice in history makes way for human activity and shifts responsibility to people. Shaping history now becomes a human matter. The Passover Haggada teaches us that God was directly involved in the redemption: “I and not an angel; I and not a seraph.” Today, however, the opposite belief prevails: I – a human – make decisions, and not an angel; I – a mortal – bear responsibility, and not a seraph. The ethos of miracles has been replaced by rational realities that involve cause and effect and follow predetermined rules. Our lives are a series of challenges that must be overcome without divine intervention. As in Jabotinsky’s anthem, we must “die or conquer the mountain.”
THE TENSION between relying on miracles and assuming responsibility also affected the Zionist Movement. In the utopian Altneuland, Theodor Herzl describes a universal Seder attended by people from many nations. In contrast to the traditional version of “Had Gadya” (the song “One Little Goat,” sung at the end of the Seder), which places God at the apex of the existential hierarchy, Herzl’s version positions the technological forces that drive the plow that cultivates the soil of Palestine at the top. The spiritual dimension of the founding of the Jewish People is expunged entirely. Human responsibility for changing reality – symbolized by the plow – is the only actor in the Herzlian drama.
Ben-Gurion also tried to detach Zionism from spiritual interpretations of national history.
He believed the Exodus was an undeniable historical fact, but sought to strip it of its miraculous nature, claiming that no more than 600 Israelites left Egypt rather than the traditional 600,000. Ben-Gurion’s vision of Israeli republicanism demanded a restart of the Jewish people and a detachment from the myths of the past. Similarly, the poet Aharon Ze’ev, who became the first chief educational officer of the Israel Defense Forces, took issue with the account of the miracle of Hanukka, writing: “No miracle happened for us, no cruse of oil did we find. We quarried rock until we bled, and there was light!” At the opposite end of the spectrum is ultra-Orthodox Judaism, which refused to participate in the Zionist enterprise, arguing that Israel’s rebirth must come about by miraculous means. This community’s leadership perceived human efforts to attain national objectives as rebellion against God, violation of ancient oaths and an act of heresy. Even today, the haredi community in Israel wishes to base Israel’s existence on miracles and sincerely believes that the study of Torah by tens of thousands of yeshiva students does more to ensure national security than would the service of those same men in the army. This community has thus chosen an ethos of miracles.
Between secular Jews and the ultra-Orthodox stands religious Zionism, which actively partnered with Ben-Gurion and Herzl in realizing the Zionist dream but shares the haredi belief in the importance of Torah study for Jewish survival. Today, large sectors of this community have messianic conceptions of reality. They see the State of Israel as “the first flowering of our redemption” – interpreting this not as a hope and aspiration, but as a fact – and wish to determine foreign policy and security matters based on rabbinic rulings rather than on the analysis of political leaders.
These people are being swept up by the experiential, uncritical and seductive allure of the reliance on miracles.
In recent years, a measure of sobriety has been evident in all camps. Ben-Gurion’s agnostic republicanism is no longer in fashion, having been replaced by a secular Jewish renaissance. The haredim are changing as well: While they continue to support a society of scholars, one quarter of ultra-Orthodox men of draft age are now opting for military service or national service of some kind. Even messianic trends in religious Zionism have lost some of the momentum they gathered after the Six Day War, and there is a return to more normative political discourse, with both the Left and Right planted firmly in the soil of reality.
What, then, is the purpose of miracles? The story of the Exodus serves as a driving force, a motivating assembly of mighty events. After the parting of the Red Sea, the Bible relates: “and the people feared the Lord; and they believed in the Lord, and in His servant Moses.” This is the heart of the matter. Witnessing the miracle led to fear, fear led to faith and faith imprinted itself in the nation’s soul. We recall the formative event of the Exodus in our prayers three times a day because it is the origin of an intergenerational message that resonates within us to this day. A recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute’s Guttman Center and the Avi Chai Foundation revealed that 80 percent of Jews in Israel affirm that they believe in God. Miracles, however, no matter how significant they may be, are not a life plan – for individuals or for the nation.
The writer is the vice president of research of the Israel Democracy Institute and a member of the Faculty of Law of Bar-Ilan University.