On Miracles: Franz Rosenzweig

There have been two trends in modern Jewish thought concerning miracles. There are those thinkers, like Mordechai Kaplan, who follow (and go beyond) the rationalistic approach of the medieval philosophers, denying any validity to miracles, insofar as they seems to contradict natural law. The other group, represented by such thinkers as Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, has returned to an almost biblical conception of miracle, which is viewed as a "sign" of God's presence. This approach, as beautifully articulated by Franz Rosenzweig, tries to do away with the problem of the miracle contradicting natural law by proposing a new definition of the miracle: The essence of the miracle lies — not in its being contradictory to nature, but — in its having a particular significance in history.

While many things that Rosenzweig said and wrote have been taken as evidence that he did not belief in literal truth of Biblical miracles, he was also capable of saying that "every miracle is possible, even the most absurd, even that an ax floats."[1]

Nonetheless, it is unmistakably clear that for Rosenzweig (as for Buber) the truth of divine revelation did not hinge on the literal accuracy of the biblical narrative.

Franz Rosenzweig's most frequently quoted remark on the question of miracles is found in a letter to a number of his collaborators in the Frankfurt Lehrhaus.

"All the days of the year," he wrote, "Balaam's talking ass may be a mere fairy tale, but not on the Sabbath wherein this portion is read in the synagogue, when it speaks to me out of the open Torah." What it is on that day he cannot say, but it is "certainly not a fairy tale, but that which is communicated to me provided I am able to fulfill the command of the hour, namely, to open my ears."

Balaam and his ass
Then the LORD opened the ass's mouth, and she said to Balaam, "What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?" (Numbers 22:28)

In Hebrew, the original meaning of the word "holy" is "set apart".... [God] is the Holy One who sets himself apart, and everywhere he sets something apart, effecting something unheard of, election, holiness. Without the revealed miracles of this day, the hidden miracles of everyday would be invisible, invisible at least as miracles. Only from the revelation of what is set apart do we learn to revere the Creator in what is "natural." Only the tremors of holiness sanctify even the realm of the profane.

It is, therefore, essential to the miracle that it be drawn into the living presence of holiness. The question as to why miracles do not come to pass "today" as they used to "once upon a time" is simply stupid. Miracles never "came to pass" anyway. The atmosphere of the past blights all miracle. The Bible itself explains the miracle of the Red Sea post eventum as something "natural." Every miracle can be explained after the event. Not because the miracle is not a miracle, but because explanation is explanation. Miracles always occur in the present and, at most, in the future. One can implore and experience it, and while the experience is still present, one can feel gratitude. When it no longer seems a thing of the present, all there is left to do is explain.

Every miracle is possible, even the most absurd, even that an ax floats.[2] After it has happened, there will be no trouble in finding an explanation for it. The sole precondition for its coming to pass is that one can seek it in prayer.... There is nothing that is impossible in itself, but there is much we consider so impossible that we cannot bring ourselves to pray for it, and much else we consider entirely possible which yet we do not pray far, because for some reason or other we have not the strength to do so. In fact nothing is miraculous about a miracle except that it comes when it does. The east wind has probably swept bare the ford in the Red Sea hundreds of times, and will so again hundreds of times. But that it did this at a moment when the people in their distress set foot in the sea — that is the miracle.

What only a moment before was coveted future becomes present and actual. This enriching of a present-moment with the past, with its own past, gives it the continuity as a present and not a past moment, and thus it from the stream of all the other moments, whose companion it remains nonetheless. Thus the miracle becomes the germcell of holiness which is alive so long as it retains connection with this its origin, so long as it continues to be miraculous. The Creator, who created the one creation, laughs at the dividing lines man tries to draw, and washes them away again and again with the deluge of primordial chaos. But the dividing lines God himself draws reach over all creation, and in growing oneness and universality manifest the silent mystery of the one creation.


[1] Nahum N. Glatzer, Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought. (New York: Schocken, 1961), p. 290 [back]

[2] Reference to the miracle performed by Elisha in 2 Kings 6:5-6: "As one of them was felling a trunk, the iron ax head fell into the water. And he cried aloud, 'Alas, master, it was a borrowed one!' '"Where did it fall?' asked the man of God. He showed him the spot; and he cut off a stick and threw it in, and he made the ax head float. [back]

Barnes & Noble link"A Note on a Poem by Judah ha-Levi," in: Nahum N. Glatzer, Franz Rosenzweig, His Life and Thought. Copyright 1961 Schocken Books. (Indianapolis : Hackett Publishing: 2000), pp. 289-91. By permission of Hackett Publishing.





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