On Miracles: Mordecai Kaplan, 1881-1983

Among modern thinkers, Mordechai Kaplan follows the rationalistic approach of the medieval philosophers. He conceives of the accounts of miracles in Jewish literature as reflecting the attempt "of the ancient authors to prove and illustrate God's power and goodness".[*]

To believe literally in the biblical traditions concerning miracles, however, conflicts with modern thought; the idea of God's exercising control and direction over the workings of the world is no longer relevant in a world that has discovered modern physics.

At the same time, while Kaplan rejects the literalness of the miracle, he sees in the concept that God performs miracles for the sake of the righteous teaches modern man the value of responsibility and commitment to that which is right.

The Tradition that accepts as historical the miracles mentioned in the Biblical narrative — the dividing of the waters of the Red Sea, the guidance of the Israelites by a moving pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, the feeding of them by manna, the food from heaven that fell in a double portion on the sixth day of the week but did not fall at all on the Sabbath, the halting of the sun in its path for Joshua and the turning back of the shadow on the sun dial as a sign to King Hezekiah, and even the divine voice which all Israel were said to have heard on Sinai.

The sun stood still
On that occasion, when the LORD routed the Amorites before the Israelites, Joshua addressed the LORD; he said in the presence of the Israelites: "Stand still, O sun, at Gibeon, O moon, in the Valley of Aijalon!"
(Joshua 10:12)

In our day, man has achieved marvels of control over nature by technology, which assumes the uniformities of natural law, belief in miracles that contravene natural law is a psychological impossibility for most people. There are still, to be sure, a dwindling few who repeat the argument used by Judah Halevi that the story of the revelation at Mount Sinai which was witnessed not by a single person but by a whole people simultaneously, could not have been invented, since, if the Biblical account were false, it would long ago have been challenged. That argument however, is not valid. If true, it would apply as well to the miracle of the sun's standing still in obedience to the command of Joshua, and to most of the other incredible miracles recorded in connection with Israel's deliverance from Egypt and march to the Promised Land. In the early stages of a people's culture, before the uniformities of natural processes had been sufficiently established by science to challenge the credibility of miracles, it was easy for a whole people to accept an imaginative account of events as factually accurate.

When we speak nowadays of the "supernatural," we mean something which is really beyond the range of the premodern intellectual perspective. The concept "supernatural" is intended to denote that which implies the suspension of what modern man has come to understand as the laws of nature. To be sure, the ancients did recognize the existence of a fixed world order. The succession of day and night, the changes of the seasons, the stability of the landscape, the behavior of birds and beasts — these were to them manifestations of God's purposive will. On the other hand, the ancients experienced no difficulty in assuming that, on occasion, God suspended that fixed order, either to reward or punish, to warn or to teach mankind. These suspensions of the world order were the miracles and wonders which served in ancient times as a far more striking manifestation of God's power than the fixed world order. They were really not "supernatural" events, since the fixed world order itself was not "natural" but divinely ordered. It is only to us, as we view these miraculous events from our own perspective, that they seem supernatural.

A modern-minded person who regards those "supernatural" events not merely as legendary but as historical has to go through life with a split mentality. He tries to live in two universes of thought and attitude, one natural and secular, the other supernatural and religious. He does so in defiance of human nature, which normally refuses to be compartmentalized, or to tolerate contradiction. It often penalizes such defiance by inflicting distempers of mind, sometimes of body, as well. Most modern-minded people react to all traditions of miraculous events as of no consequence. The immediate effect of that attitude to tradition is spiritual disorientation. That is why modern man is devoid of the motivation to transcend himself. Having ceased to believe in religion based on supernaturalism, and not having found a compensatory belief, most people nowadays consider life as bereft of all meaning. Such is the dilemma in which most thinking Jews, Christians and Moslems find themselves today.

The only way out of that dilemma is to arrive at a method of interpreting the traditional accounts of miraculous events so as to recognize in those events a reflection of the urge of the ancient lawgivers, prophets and sages to stress the moral or religious truths which man must live by, if he is to escape frustration. It is, indeed by virtue of those truths that the miracle stories have been transmitted from generation to generation. The element of miracle was the only vehicle available in ancient times to convey truths of ultimate significance and concern.

From: Mordechai M. Kaplan, Questions Jews Ask: Reconstructionist Answers (NY: Reconstructionist Press, revised edition 1966), pp. 155-56.Permission of The Reconstructionist Press. This title is out of print. To learn more about other books by Mordecai Kaplan or about Reconstructionism, go to http://www.jrf.org.
* Mordechai M. Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, reissued with a new introduction 1994), p. 98. [back]




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