Jewish Response to Hume on Miracles

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9). Man is born. Man dies. The world takes its natural course and nothing new occurs. If Solomon is correct in this dictum, then how can miracles be possible? Miracles are new things. They are one-time occurrences – new and contrary to the natural world. Laws of nature cannot predict them.[i]

Hume takes this position in his famous critique of miracles.[ii] He argues that the senses are more reliable than testimony since testimony is only believable when it conforms to what we perceive. Stories are believable when they conform to reality, even if we never personally experienced the occurrences in the story. We are much more likely to believe stories about shipwreck, even if we never went on a ship before, than a story about the Loch Ness monster destroying a ship. The former case aligns with our normal sense perception of the world – nothing contrary to our understanding of the way the world works – while the latter presupposes the existence of a monster that literally goes against our understanding of the way the world works, especially how ships get destroyed. Hence, to a greater extent, our sense of perception is a better guide to reality than testimony since our acceptance of the validity of testimony rests on its correlation with what we perceive in reality.

As a result, Hume argues, when testimony conflicts with reality, we should not believe it, since belief should be granted to the claim with more evidence. This leads Hume to argue that claims about occurrences of miracles should not be believed since, by definition, miracles conflict with our clear and present conception of reality. Miracles are the new and extraordinary. Nothing within the ever-present reality we perceive gives precedence to miracles. Testimonies of them are dubious at best.

But what saith the Jew? “Hath a Jew not eyes?”[iii] How can a religious Jew believe in the miracles of the Bible if, as plainly put by Hume, they conflict with our clear and ever-present perception of reality?

Though not dealing directly with Hume’s argument (since they precede Hume by a couple hundred years), two medieval Jewish thinkers grapple with the idea of miracles—Nahmonides and Maimonides. Each of their conceptions of miracles will serve as a basis for taking up Hume’s argument.

Nahmonides claims that God guides everything. God intervenes on this world always, whether through miracles or the natural order.[iv] The natural order is only one of the ways that God intervenes in this world. It is no different than miracles in any way. The distinction between the natural world and miracles only arises in the human mind, but in truth, miracles and the natural order are the same. For Nahmonides, there is no such thing as the laws of nature; there is only God’s intervention in the world. According to Nahmonides, only heretics make the distinction.

Since Nahmonides does not distinguish between miracles and the natural order, Hume’s challenge does not arise. Hume cannot articulate his critique if miracles and the way we perceive the world are the same thing.[v] The issue simply doesn’t exist.

Nahmonides’ response – or lack thereof – exhibits what seems to be religious piety, but it does not conform to how people perceive the world. For man, divine acts are one thing, while mundane natural acts are another. One might want to attribute even the mundane and natural to God, but throwing out the distinction between Divine and natural leaves many perplexed, if not questioning how Nahmonides can prove there is no difference.

Maimonides, on the other hand, accepts the distinction. There are natural law and miracles, and they are not the same. That much is clear from Maimonides’ thought. It is unclear, though, how this affects his conception. Maimonides definitely wants to limit the amount of miracles and view the world in a natural manner, but to what extent he does so is debatable.[vi]

One conception of Maimonides’ opinion on miracles claims that he feels that God set the miracles into nature during creation so that they would occur at their proper and opportune moments in time.[vii] Maimonides, thus, would source himself in the Midrash that states that when God created the world, He made an  agreement with certain parts of nature that they would perform miraculous acts in the future.[viii] According to this conception of Maimonides’ opinion, the world functions like the American judicial system in which, at certain times, law is suspended – such as when the President pardons someone. The world works according to the laws of nature, but from the beginning, the system planned certain exceptions. Just like when we perceive the world, we see no reason to believe the laws of nature can be suspended, so too when we perceive the courthouses, we see no reason to believe certain laws can be suspended by presidential pardon.

At a deeper level, this shows Hume’s question begging notion of natural law—that it cannot be suspended. Who says it cannot? Just because he never personally saw it suspended doesn’t mean it cannot be. He never saw planes, so wouldn’t it reason that he could never believe that man would fly?

The first understanding of Maimonides opinion on miracles accepts the occurrence of supernatural events, but the second one does not. According to the latter, Maimonides did not believe anything supernatural ever occurred.[ix] It accepts Hume’s critique to the extent that nothing contrary to the natural order of things can occur. Initially, this shocks the religious man. In the words of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, miracles “have such an important place in the thought of the universal homo religious.”[x] But as R. Soloveitchik continues to explain, “The Jewish sages were uncomfortable about altering the natural way of things.”[xi] Judaism does not want nor seek the supernatural. Miracles, according to this conception, are not supernatural occurrences, but natural ones. R. Soloveitchik explains miracles as “simply a natural event, which causes a historical metamorphosis.”[xii] The miraculous occurs in nature at the most opportune moments. The religious Jew never calls an event serendipitous; he calls it miraculous. In R. Soloveitchik’s words, God either “planned that history adjusts itself to natural catastrophes” or “commands nature to cooperate with the historical forces.”[xiii] God controls nature to do the most opportune thing at the right moment in history or He designs history to conform to the right natural occurrences so that the miraculous can occur.[xiv]

For the religious rationalist, the second conception of Maimonides with the added understanding of R. Soloveitchik is the most easily tenable, since it accepts Hume’s critique, and religious fulfilling, since it sees God in the natural order of things. Other more mystical Jews might be more inclined to Nahmonides view. Still, some might want to maintain miracles as supernatural occurrences and agree with the first conception of Nahmonides. Let the reader decide which argument is most appealing.

[i] I take my definition for miracles from Richard Swinburne. Cf. Swinburne, Richard. “Miracles,” Philosophical Quarterly 18 (1968), 320-328
[ii] Hume, David. Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X
[iii] Shakespeare, William. The Merchant Of Venice Act 3, scene 1, 58–68
[iv] Nahmonides’ Commentary on Ex. 13:16
[v] Purtill, Richard. Thinking About Religion: A Philosophical Introduction to Religion (Prentice Hall; Englewood, NJ, 1978), 126
[vi] Kasher, Hannah. “Biblical Miracles and the Universality of Natural Laws Maimonides’ Three Methods of Harmonization” The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, Vol. 8, 25-52
[vii] An example of this position: Kalin, Alexander. Sedei Hemed 3-1
[viii] Genesis Rabba 5:4; Exodus Rabba  21:6
[ix] A. J. Reines, “Maimonides’ Concept of  Miracles,” HUCA 45 (1974), pp. 325-361. For a similar view see also H. Kreisel,  ”Miracles in Medieval Jewish Philosophy,” JQR 75 (1984), pp. 325-361
[x] Soloveitchik, Joseph B. And From There You Shall Seek (Ktav Publishing; Jersey City, NJ, 2008), 133
[xi] ibid
[xii] Soloveitchik, Joseph B. The Emergence of Ethical Man (Ktav Publishing; Jersey City, 2005), 188
[xiii] ibid. The quotation as presented is from Lawrence Kaplan’s post:
[xiv] cf. Soloveitchik, Joseph B. And From There You Shall Seek (Ktav Publishing; Jersey City, NJ, 2008), 133 where R. Soloveitchik states that miracles only occur in dire situations.