Parashat Shemot: Dreams and Miracles

In this week's Torah portion, Shemot, Hashem asks Moshe to gather the people of Israel together and tell them that Hashem is going to take them out of slavery in Egypt, and that he, Moshe, is going to lead them. When Moshe protests, saying that he needs some kind of "proof" that he is speaking on behalf of Hashem, Hashem provides a miracle for him (Shemot 4: 1-3):

"But Moses spoke up and said, 'What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say: The Lord did not appear to you?' The Lord said to him, 'What is that in your hand?' And he replied, 'A rod.' He said, 'Cast it on the ground.' He cast it on the ground and it became a snake; and Moses recoiled from it.”

In addition to providing Moshe with this miracle that he can show B'nai Yisrael (the Israelites) if they don't believe him, Hashem provides him with additional miracles to establish beyond all doubt that Moshe is the "real deal."

In his blog post this week, Rabbi Morey Schwartz, International Director of the Melton School, correctly asserts that a belief in supernatural miracles has been used to prove the superiority of one religion over another. He posits that they only lead to competition between religions about which one is "true." He writes:

"These are the miracles that are shoved in your face as evidence that 'I am right and you are wrong.' A splitting sea, an immaculate conception, and a magical flying horse are all meant to 'prove' to us the legitimacy of one faith over another, affirming that what we have dedicated our lives to is THE REAL TRUTH."

I agree with Rabbi Schwartz that belief in these miracles has sometimes been used historically to establish a black and white belief system which is a zero sum game.  I disagree however, that belief in supernatural miracles always or must always lead to religions being in conflict.  

For example, Christians accept the miracles that happened in the Torah on face value.  And most Muslims, for example, believe that Jesus was carried in bodily form to heaven by Allah, itself a supernatural miracle despite its conflict with the Christian belief in resurrection.  The Muslim belief may have been influenced by a similar narrative in the Gospel of Basilides, part of the New Testament apocrypha.  

Over time, as religions were created and evolved, they culturally appropriated sacred mythic narrative.  Sometimes it conflicted with the "original," sometimes it did not.  I disagree that a belief in supernatural miracles "are all meant to prove to us the legitimacy of one faith over another."  Sacred stories-whether they include supernatural miracles or not--are there to teach us lessons in a poetic fashion.  Written with mystical overtones, they are the collective dreams of each of our great religions, not intended to be taken literally.

Rabbi Schwartz is in good company with Rambam as they both express a certain discomfort with supernatural miracles being included in our texts.  Rambam, in chapter 3 of his Treatise on the Resurrection of the Dead writes:

"Our endeavor, and that of the select keen-minded people, differs from that of the masses. For many people of Torah like nothing better, and, in their silliness, enjoy nothing more than to set the Torah and reason at opposing extremes, and to move everything far from the explicable. So they claim it to be a miracle, and they shrink from identifying it as a natural incident, whether it is something that is said to have happened in the past, that exists in the present, or is expected to happen in the future."

Rambam's underlying concern is that people will disregard the Torah because it contains stories impossible to reconcile on face value.  Rabbi Schwartz's underlying concern is that people will use these stories to prove the superiority of their religion.  

My feeling is that miraculous stories, as they stand, hold incredible value in their juiciness, imagery, and conflict with reason.  Why after all, does our dream life contain things like human flight, monsters, miraculous healing, or individuals morphing into other individuals?   It is because "going by the rules" in the regular world just isn't sufficient to convey the complexity, beauty, horror, and nuance of the unconscious.  It also isn't sufficient to convey spiritual beauty or truth.  For example, there just aren't enough words to describe the miracle of true love. This is why people say things like "I love you to the moon and back."  

So, in response to Rabbi Schwartz, I will take my religion WITH miracles and angels please--much like my coffee tastes better with cream and sugar.  Despite my differences in preference though, I do agree it's important not to use miracles to "prove" one religion is superior to another.  There are many ways up the mountain, and many miracles that happened to many people along the way.  I think we can find a way to "believe" in a piece of almost all of them.