On Miracles: Martin Buber, 1878-1965

Martin Buber belongs to that group of modern Jewish thinkers (along with Rosenzweig and Heschel), who returned to an almost biblical conception of miracles, based upon the idea that the miracle is a "sign" of God's presence. Buber stresses that no miracle is contrary to nature. For Buber, both miracle and nature were part of revelation, and man's openness to that experience of revelation is what makes it miraculous. Buber approaches biblical miracles by asking "what human relation to real events this could have been... [which] grew into the written account we have read."[1] He maintains that modern-day man can experience the same miracle that biblical man experienced; man's attitude to particular events or people is the raw material out of which experiences that are miracles arise. For a person properly attuned, any event of meaning to him may be considered a miracle.

Moses at the Red Sea
Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the LORD drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split .[2]

The concept of miracle which is permissible from the historical approach can be defined at its starting point as an abiding astonishment. The philosophizing and the religious person both wonder at the phenomenon but the one neutralizes his wonder in ideal knowledge, while the other abides in that wonder; no knowledge, no cognition, can weaken his astonishment. Any causal explanation only deepens the wonder for him. The great turning points in religious history are based on the fact that again and ever again an individual and a group attached to him wonder and keep on wondering at a natural phenomenon, at a historical event, or at both together; always at something intervenes fatefully in the life of this individual and this group. They sense and experience it as a wonder. This, to be sure, is only the starting-point of the historical concept of wonder but it cannot be explained away.

Miracle is not something "supernatural" or "superhistorical," but an incident, an event which can be fully included in the objective, scientific nexus of nature and history; the vital meaning of which, however for the person to whom it occurs, destroys the security of the whole nexus of knowledge for him and explodes the fixity of the fields of experience named "Nature " and "History." Miracle is simply what happens; in so far as it meets people who are capable of receiving it, or prepared to receive it, as miracle. The extraordinary element favors this coming together, but it is not characteristic of it; the normal and ordinary call also undergo a transfiguration into miracle in the light of the suitable hour.

The historical reality of Israel leaving Egypt cannot be grasped if the conception of the accompanying, preceding, guiding God is left out. This is the " God of the Fathers", with whom the tribes have now established contact. He has always been a God who wandered with his own and showed them the way. But now he has been revealed to them afresh through the secret of his name as the one who remains present with his own. He leads them by a way differing from the customary one of the caravans and armies. He has his own ideas of guidance, and those who follow him find welfare….

Following his leader; Moses comes to the shore, he steps on the sands that are barely covered by shallow water; and the hosts follow him as he follows the God. At this point occurs whatever occurs, and it is apprehended as a miracle. It is irrelevant whether "much" or "little," unusual things or usual, tremendous or trifling events happened; what is vital is only that what happened was experienced, while it happened, as the act of God. The people saw in whatever it was they saw "the great hand" and they "believed in YHVH'' or, more correctly translated, "they gave their trust to YHVH."


[1] Buber, Martin. Moses. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988) [back]
[2] Exodus 14:21 [back]

Barnes & Noble linkfrom: Martin Buber, Moses, (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books). Copyright 1988. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.




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