Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Miracles and the Natural Order

R. Gil Student over at Hirhurim posted an analysis of R. Moshe Shternbuch's statement. I think that R. Shternbuch's position is more defensible than one might think from reading the critique and comments, but I have to gather sources and figure out how to frame it, which will probably take more time than I have at the moment or am likely to have in the near future.

{One thing R Shternbuch cited is the Ramban that everything in the natural order is also miraculous, and one who does not believe this does not have a portion in the world to come. Gil counters that the Ramban's intent is not how R Shternbuch took it, for this would contradict other statements of the Ramban, but rather, based on an explanation by Dr. David Berger, this is restricted to reward and punishment.}

In the meantime, I posted two things in the past that touch slightly at the issue at hand. First, on parshat Eikev I wrote about how the clear message of the parsha is that God provides sustenance, in the desert with manna that was overtly miraculous1, and in Israel through control of the natural order. Thus, even though things happen naturally, this does not mean that ultimately God is not in control.

Second, on parshat Korach I wrote about how (most) miracles seem to be bound by certain limits, if not necessarily the natural order.

Consider the following story with R Chanina ben Dosa, in Bavli Taanit 25a:
חד בי שמשי
חזייה לברתיה דהוות עציבא
אמר לה בתי <למאי> [במאי] עציבת
אמרה ליה כלי של חומץ נתחלף לי בכלי של שמן
והדלקתי ממנו אור לשבת
אמר לה בתי מאי איכפת לך
מי שאמר לשמן וידלוק הוא יאמר לחומץ וידלוק
תנא היה דולק והולך כל היום כולו
עד שהביאו ממנו אור להבדלה
One twilight (going into Shabbat)
he saw his daughter was upset
He said to her: My daughter, why are you upset
She said to him: a vessel of vinegar was switched for me with a vessel of oil
and I lit from it the light for Shabbat
He said to her: why are you concerned?
He Who said to oil and it burns Is He Who will say to vinegar and it will burn
We learnt: It continued burning the entire day
until they brought from it light for Havdalah.
This can be understood in many ways. One can say it advances the idea that Hashem controls the natural order, and if Hashem wants to deviate from the natural order He can.

Alternatively, one can say that even the burning of oil is a miracle, and happens because Hashem tells it to. That does not mean there is no natural order. Hashem set up the natural order, and it generally works via some mechanism. Hashem can make the world operate via an alternative mechanism as well, if he so chooses. Thus, each thing happens because Hashem wants it to.

This would not stop a scientist, such as the Ramban, from treating a patient by making a diagnosis based on the natural order - that is, the way Hashem usually makes the world operate.

Also, even if we interpret the Rambam as referring only to matters of schar veOnesh, as Hirhurim reported was the conclusion in an article by Dr. Berger, the case in this gemara, of oil burning, is not such a case. Perhaps one can argue that the vinegar burning was a reward, but the idea was that the natural order of oil burning is as much of a miracle.

I did not originate this idea. In fact, the Alter of Kelm reads the same (and see here as well) into this Talmudic story, and uses it to answer the Bet Yosef's question of why Chanukkah isn't 7 days instead of 8, since after all there was enough oil to last 1 day. He answers that it is the celebration of the miracle of the natural order, besides that of the overt miracle.

And R Shternbuch is not the first to read into the Ramban the idea of everything natural also being miraculous, Dr. Berger's interpretation notwithstanding. I did not see the original, so I do not know if it is the Alter of Kelm's thought, or that of the two who wrote the divrei torah I linked to above, but the Ramban on parshat Bo is dragged into this.

Now, it may be that the true understanding of the Ramban is different, but at any rate, we see that there are sources for this point of view. Not that it really matters, because, as I hope to eventually get to, this idea is not really crucial to R Shternbuch's position.

Perhaps now would be a good time to turn to the Ramban.
Perhaps to be continued...

[1] though the mishna in pirkei avot lists it as something created at twilight, implying perhaps a miracle built into creation

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