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(I'm not sure this is on-topic, and feel free to close it if it's not, of course.)

I understand some who study the Bible claim natural reasons for things we recognize as miracles, from the plagues of the Exodus to the splitting of the sea to the stopping of the sun at Giv'on to the writing on the wall in Daniyel. Why? If you believe the Torah's true, then you believe these things are miracles, and if you don't, then why believe they happened at all?

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This question comes to my mind pretty much every year at this time, when I hear the latest claims of natural causes for the Plagues, etc. –  Isaac Moses Apr 15 '11 at 21:47
See also mi.yodeya.com/questions/124. –  msh210 May 9 '11 at 21:26
This sounds like it's more syntax than substance. If a scientist with zero religious education is standing next to me, and we both witness something that seems to defy nature: I might say "it's a miracle!" and he would likely say "What an unusual phenomenon! I must study this more and understand how this is occuring!" In any case, we aren't required to believe that any given Tanach event was a miracle - only that the event happened. It's cliche, but still very true: science answers "how", Torah answers "why". –  user1095 Jan 19 '12 at 20:43
This reads like a chatty, forum-style question that has no real answer. Those who choose their beliefs will all have different reasons for what they do. –  neilfein Jan 20 '12 at 6:08
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7 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Some of it may indeed be based on the attempt to claim that (G-d forbid) the Torah is not true at all.

The early Bible critics did exactly that - nearly everything described in Tanach was dismissed as a fable. But then, when archeology began to turn up evidence that meshes with the Torah narratives, that approach became untenable.

So the next logical thing for these types was to claim, "Well, okay, the Hebrew scribes were recording something that actually occurred more-or-less as they say - but they were ignorant, primitive people who didn't understand Science as we do, and so they attributed these events to miracles rather than to Nature."

(Which isn't to say, though, that there can't be legitimate reasons for it too, as in the other answers.)

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I down voted because of a lack of "benefit of the doubt" that people might have legitimate reasons for doing so. –  avi Jan 19 '12 at 16:50
@avi, I hear you. (And apparently you're not the only one - it's got two downvotes now.) I did say that it's only "some of it," but you're right - there can of course be perfectly legitimate reasons for it too, as the other answers have pointed out. –  Alex Jan 20 '12 at 16:57
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At least some people who "half-believe" the torah are in transition. Not everybody is a rock-solid believer from birth; for the rest of us, there will be some period during which you are trying to figure out what torah you accept from scientific validation ("yeah, it would be possible for the Sea of Reeds to do that"), what you accept because of publicity ("could 2 million witnesses at Sinai be wrong?"), and what you come to accept through a deeper recognition of God's truth. People aren't static, and today's half-believers could be tomorrow's believers.

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3 (not 2 million) jews in Sinai could not be wrong. But what we have is not a direct testimony of those 2 million jews. What we have is varying copy of ancient scrolls, many of which may be falsified. The christians deal with this problem all day. In fact, most gospels actually have anonymous author. Not sure how Torah can be accurate. The greek are quite technologically advance and even more so than the jews. –  Jim Thio Jan 1 '13 at 11:26
It's not about the scrolls; it's about the eyewitnesses. No, none of us heard the account from them, but can you imagine the conspiracy that would be needed to create and maintain a story about Sinai that didn't actually happen? The people who were there told the next generation, who told the next, and so on, and in all that not one single person said "actually, that was just a practical joke grandpa pulled"? (As for the number, the torah only tells us 600k fighting-age men, so anything we say about the total is an estimate. 2M is pretty safe; could be more.) –  Monica Cellio Jan 1 '13 at 16:07
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Let me float something out there. In some sense one who pursues an explanation for the events in the Torah through natural causes is not totally incorrect. The Torah does not preclude the events from being brought about through the laws of nature. The Torah is just asserting that Hashem initiated the phenomena. Hashem either initiated the event through pre-programming it into the laws of nature (as Chazal assert) or through a breach in the normative patterns of nature (as Rambam asserts). Either way Hashem is manipulating nature to bring about the result. For example the splitting of the sea was a result of strong winds (see description in the Chumash). The plague of the first born does deviate from this pattern. It is expressed as being brought about by Hashem directly, through no agent. Which makes sense, because there is no natural way to explain the selection process.
You see even by the Jews request for Meat, Mosses was uncertain that Hashem would bring it about. In Bamidbar, Chapter 11, Verse 13 "Where will I get meat to give this entire people...?" and in Verse 23 Hashem responds "Is the hand of Hashem limited?..." Why would Moshe doubt whether Hashem could bring it about. Didn't he just see all the Miracles done in Egypt? I don't know the particular issue Moshe was grappling with, but Moshe has some idea of how Hashem brings about Miracles. Hashem doesn't just make meat appear out of thin air onto each persons plate. It is through some manipulation of nature that it is brought about. In this case it was a strong wind that brought the meat from the sea to the Bnai Yisroel.

My main point being, is that even if you are able to show through natural scientific causes each of the phenomena described in the Torah, it would not take away from the נס aspect, which is that Hashem is the creator and he can and does manipulate nature to bring about results that are beneficial for mankind. The fact that the sea split exactly at that time that was beneficial for the Bnei Yisroel and closed exactly the right time to eliminate the Egyptians as predicted is what is so "miraculous".

Just some food for thought.

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Perhaps that's why Moses didn't talk to the rock to get the water from it. Perhaps it was a way for G-d to debunk Egyptian-style superstition; just as in the Akedah, G-d debunked human sacrifice. –  Collin Merenoff Sep 2 '11 at 12:21
can you alaborate on what you mean? –  RCW Oct 17 '11 at 7:22
Sources for "as Chazal assert" and "as Rambam asserts" would be most valuable. –  Seth J Jan 20 '12 at 17:12
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There is a long tradition for Rishonim and others who attempt to minimize the miracles in the Torah, and miracles in general.

I believe it is the ralbag(Thanks @ArielK), that goes out of his way to explain that miracles can never go against nature.

I'm aware of the following reasons why people might feel this way.

  1. They do not see overt miracles today, and want to find a way to relate the Torah to their own lives better.

  2. They do not believe that miracles which break nature can occur at all. There is a concept brought down by Rav Solevetchik, that the laws of nature are Halacha of Din, they can not be broken, they are pure justice. The halacha of our daily lives is Rachamim, and so we have free will to obey them or not.

  3. Miracles which break the natural order of the world imply an imperfection in Hashem. Some read the mishna regarding items created before creation as a response to this criticism. Some also read this as the reason for Rambam reducing angels to visions and minimizing miracles in general. The less of the natural world that Gd has to "edit", the more perfect He and His creation are.

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The ralbag tries to minimize miracles and only accepts the type that do not change the basic nature of things. –  Ariel K Jan 19 '12 at 17:10
Thanks, I often get those two confused. –  avi Jan 19 '12 at 17:19
For a more detailed (although not completely thorough) description of Ralbag's understanding of miracles, see here (p. 391-395). –  jake Jan 19 '12 at 22:55
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Obviously many individuals who take such an approach are those who believe that their is moral, philosophical, and/or spiritual value in the Bible, but do not believe it is strictly speaking true in every statement it makes ר"ל.

There are others however, who affirm that the Torah is divinely inspired yet feel that the issue of God changing nature is somewhat problematic. The Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim 2:29 writes:

Our sages, however, said very strange things as regards miracles; they are found in Bereshit Rabba, and in Midrash Koheleth, namely, that the miracles are to some extent also natural; for they say, when God created the Universe with its present physical properties, He made it part of these properties, that they should produce certain miracles at certain times, and the sign of a prophet consisted in the fact that God told him to declare when a certain thing will take place, but the thing itself was effected according to the fixed laws of Nature. If this is really the meaning of the passage referred to, it testifies to the greatness of the author, and shows that he held it to be impossible that there should be a change in the physical properties of Nature, or a change in the will of God [as regards the physical properties of things] after they have once been established. He therefore assumes, e.g., that God gave the waters the property of joining together, and of flowing in a downward direction, and separating only at a time when the Egyptians were drowned, and only in a particular place. (Friedlander translation, page 210, bold mine).

The Rambam sees, as I understand it, the notion that God would circumvent nature to be equivalent (or at least uncomfortably similar) to God changing His mind about the decision to make that law of nature. Personally while I do not claim to have a clear understanding of the Rambam's words (especially in the larger context of his thought) I would make three tentative observations about this concern:

  1. It seems to me very likely that this concern is heavily influenced by the fact noted elsewhere in Moreh Nevuchim that according to Aristotle's philosophy the supernatural is not possible. While the Rambam rejects this as untenable, he clearly felt that Aristotle's position (in general) needed to be reckoned with, doing so being a major goal of Moreh Nevuchim. Aristotle's philosophy in these regards has zero weight bizman hazeh.

  2. I do not believe that most of us would intuitively feel that God overriding the laws of nature is entirely inconsistent with God not changing. To do so would require us to presume God made the laws of nature with the intent not to over-ride them, a presumption I have not seen support for. Conversely, insofar as God is outside/above time I'm not certain that one can make a theological cogent distinction between God changing/superseding/overriding the laws of nature versus "pre-programming" exceptions.

  3. The Rambam does not say the events in question are entirely identical with natural events (though it seems reasonable that he would tend towards such explanations when feasible). He says they laws of nature where designed with these events intended. That would mean that while "strictly speaking" the splitting of the Yam Suf, for example, might have been in accordance with the laws of nature, we would not be able to empirically identify and replicate the "property" of water which allows it to act in such a manner. That is to say that for all practical, scientific, purposes a miracle such as the splitting of the Yam Suf would be supernatural. The way that the Rambam is speaking of the "laws of nature" would be very difficult to translate into contemporary scientific discourse, it would seem to me. So while there is certainly similarities, the Rambam is not really taking the same position as those who have extreme materialistic/naturalistic explanations about various miracles we find posited today.

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If you believe the Torah's true, then you believe these things are miracles

Perhaps for one who believes in the Torah the question is simply what to include in the set of "these things", i.e. which things are miraculous and which are not. Would a true Torah believer not concede that there is a difference between the miraculousness of "וישב יצחק בגרר" and "שמש בגבעון דם"?

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Maybe I was distracted by Isaac Moses' comment and addressed its concern more than the question. –  WAF Apr 15 '11 at 21:57
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"If you believe the Torah's true, then you believe these things are miracles, and if you don't, then why believe they happened at all?"

  1. False premise - just because you believe the "Torah is true" doesn't mean you believe the miracles described within are necessarily historically accurate.

  2. The Torah's "truth" value and the historical accuracy of the described miracles within its content are not necessarily linked in my mind. No offense intended - but it is a childish/amateurish approach to look for literal truth in religious scripture. You have over-simplified the meaning of "truth".

There are more reasons (such as those others have put forward), but the above 2 are enough to prompt you to delve deeper towards the hidden truth. Sounds a lot more interesting than the literal truth if you ask me. Good luck finding that truth.

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Judaism doesn't say that the Torah is literally true. It is masoretically true. Our mesorah informs us which verses mean what they state plainly, and which verses have more nuanced meanings. Our mesorah also says that there are several events which happened in the times of the Tanach, that do not commonly occur in nature today. See my comment above in the question - call it a miracle, or a unique natural phenomenon, it doesn't matter. G-d is the only cause of every effect in the universe. –  user1095 Jan 20 '12 at 5:42
@Will, You said it better, Now I know more. Thanks and Shalom from a non-Jew. –  Sam Jan 20 '12 at 6:13
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