On Miracles: Solomon Schechter, 1848-1915

Although Solomon Schechter was dedicated to the historical study of Judaism, he was staunch traditionalist. He believed that it not the mere revealed Bible that is of first importance to the Jew, but the Bible as it repeats itself in history, in other words, as it is interpreted by Tradition. Since the interpretation of Scripture is mainly a product of changing historical influences, it follows that the center of authority is actually removed from the Bible and placed in some living body, which he called "catholic Israel."

In his classic work Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, Schechter distills the principles and dogmas which run through Jewish life through the centuries, and among them — the belief in miracles.

There is the interesting subject of miracles, which plays such an important part in the history of every religion. Despite the various attempts made by semi-rationalists to minimize their significance, the frequent occurrence of miracles will always remain, both for believers and skeptics, one of the most important tests of the religion in question; to the former as a sign of its superhuman nature, to the latter as a proof of its doubtful origin. The student is anxious to see whether the miraculous formed an essential element of Rabbinic Judaism. Nor are we quite disappointed when we turn over the pages of the Talmud with this purpose in view. There is hardly any miracle recorded in the Bible for which a parallel might not be found in the Rabbinic literature. The greatest part of the third chapter of the Tractate Taanit, called also the " Chapter of the Saints," is devoted to specimens of supernatural acts performed by various Rabbis. But miracles can only be explained by more miracles, by regular epidemics of miracles. The whole period which saw them must become the psychological phenomenon to be explained, rather than the miracle-workers themselves. But of the Rabbinical miracles we could judge with far greater accuracy if, instead of the few specimens still preserved to us, we were in possession of all those stories and legends which once circulated about the saints of Israel in their respective periods.[1]

Jonah and the whale
The LORD provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah; and Jonah remained in the fish's belly three days and three nights.[3]

Another problem which a fuller knowledge of these ancient times might have helped us to solve is this: With what purpose were these miracles worked, and what were they meant to prove ? We are told in 1 Corinthians (1:22), that "the Jews ask for signs as the Greeks seek for wisdom." As a fact, however, in the whole of Rabbinic literature, there is not one single instance on record that a Rabbi was ever asked by his colleagues to demonstrate the soundness of his doctrine, or the truth of a disputed halakhic case, by performing a miracle. Only once do we hear of a Rabbi who had recourse to miracles for the purpose of showing that his conception of a certain halakhah was the right one. And in this solitary instance the majority declined to accept the miraculous intervention as a demonstration of truth, and decided against the Rabbi who appealed to it.[2] Nor, indeed, were such supernatural gifts claimed for all Rabbis.

Whilst many learned Rabbis are said to have "been accustomed to wonders," not a single miracle is reported for instance of the great Hillel, or his colleague, Shammai, both of whom exercised such an important influence on Rabbinic Judaism. On the other hand, we find that such men, as, for instance, Honi Ha'maagel,[4] whose prayers were much sought after in times of drought, or R. Hanina b. Dosa, whose prayers were often solicited in cases of illness,[5] left almost no mark on Jewish thought, the former being known only by the wondrous legends circulating about him, the latter being represented in the whole Talmud only by one or two moral sayings.[6]

"Signs" then must have been as little required from the Jewish Rabbi as from the Greek sophist. But if his was the case, we are actually left in darkness about the importance of miracles and their meaning as a religious factor in those early times.


[1] About the probability that there may have existed other collections of such stories, see Rapoport, Bikkure Ha'ittim, pp. 12, 78, 79. [back]
[2] TB Baba Metzia, 59 a. [back]
[3] Jonah 2:1 [back]
[4] TB Taanit, 24 b ; cp. Jer. Taanit, 64 a, 64 b. [back]
[5] TB Berakhot, 33 a, and TJ Berakhot 10 b. [back]
[6] Pirkei Avot 3.9. [back]
From: Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology: Major Concepts of the Talmud Copyright 1961 Schocken Books (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1994), pp. 5-8.





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