Saturday, April 27, 2013

Natural miracles / Behar-Bechukkotai

Miracles: You do not have to look for them. They are there, 24-7, beaming, like radio waves all around you. Put up the antenna, turn up the volume - snap... crackle... this just in, every person you talk to is a chance to change the world... (Hugh Elliott, Standing Room Only weblog, May 6, 2003)
The Israelites have lived for many years in the wilderness, sustained by manna that rains down from heaven six days a week. Each Friday (erev shabbat) God provides a double portion because they rest, and do not gather, on shabbat. In parshat Behar, God tells the Israelites through Moses that their days of dependency will end when they enter the Land.

Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest of gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. (Leviticus 25:3-5)

This is a description of the sh’mittah — sabbatical year. As we rest every seventh day, the land lies fallow and rests every seventh year. An agricultural society in an arid region depends entirely upon rain this must have been a terrifying idea. It’s hard enough to plow the rocky terrain and weather periodic drought.  If they couldn’t farm the land, how would they eat? Torah addresses this concern in the very next verses:

But you may eat whatever the land, during its Sabbath, will produce — you, your male and female slave, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts in your land may eat all it yield. (Leviticus 25:6-7)

But will that suffice? God anticipates this understandable anxiety:

If you should ask, “What will we eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?” I will ordain My blessings for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years.  When you sow in the eighth year, you will still be eating old grain of that crop; you will be eating the old until the ninth year, until its crops come in. (Leviticus 25:20-22)

In the Wilderness, the Israelites receive a double portion of manna before the Sabbath — just enough to meet their needs. In the Land, when the fields lie fallow during the sabbatical year, produce will nonetheless sprout — more than what they need. Torah considers manna to be a miracle, but what about the produce of the fallow fields? Would you consider this a miracle, a combination of nature and miracle, or nature asserting itself?

The Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, 1847–1905) ponders this question in light of the Israelites asking, “What will we eat?” Does their question bespeak the Israelites’ failure to trust God despite manna, breakfast of champions, delivered each morning to their tents? Or, as S’fat Emet understands it, are the people asking whether they will be sustained by miracle or by nature? He tells us:

The answer was that their sustenance would come about by means of “blessing,” and blessing is somewhat closer to nature [than is a miracle].

He explains further:

Really, Jews should understand that miracles and nature are all one. In fact there is no miracle so great and wondrous as nature itself, the greatest wonder we can know. When this faith becomes clear to Jews, it is no longer any problem to be fed by miracles. Only If you should ask: “What will we eat?’ then I will command the blessing.

The S’fat Emet goes on to confirm that a miracle is, as we would think, an “uplifting; this is the way of conducting the world that is lifted out of the natural state.” He tells us that not all generations are equally deserving of miracles. For those whose trust in God is strong, “nature and miracles were all the same to them. That is why God performed miracles for them.” Perhaps this view is shaped by a passage in the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) concerning a man for whom a most unnatural miracle occurred: a widower left with a newborn grew breasts to feed the child. The Bavli recounts:

One Rabbi remarked: How great this man must have been that such a miracle was performed for him. But his colleague retorted: On the contrary! How unworthy this man must have been that the order of creation was changed on his behalf. (Shabbat 53b)

Crab Nebula (Hubble Space Telescope)
Rabbi Arthur Green explains the S’fat Emet’s meaning:

This passage offers a glimpse into a very interesting theology of the relationship between the natural and the supernatural. The only ones for whom God provides miracles are those who don’t notice them as such, those whose faith is so great that for them nature and miracle are all one. For the rest of us, God does not perform miracles, presumably because we do not deserve them, lacking the faith to take them in our stride. But the upshot is that there are no miracles encountered by their recipient as such. “Miracles” stand out only afterward; the miracle is named as such by a lesser generation. Those of greater faith know such happenings simply as part of the natural/divine whole, a way of being that cannot be divided into “natural” and “supernatural.” (The Language of Truth, p. 204)

The natural order proceeds by it own laws. Miracles are not deviations from nature, but rather the perceptions of people looking back at events that have taken on great significance for them.

Galileo peering through his telescope
Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger (d. 1905) lived in an age of science. Although quantum mechanics was not formulated until the first decade of the 20th century, at the end of his life, consider this: Galileo proved Copernican heliocentrism in the early 17th century. Robert Boyle published the gas law in 1662. Isaac Newton had published Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, laying out Newtonian Physics in 1687.  Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen and wrote about electricity already in the 18th century (though some consider his greatest feat to be the invention of seltzer). The existence of molecules and atoms were known in the early 19th century thanks to John Dalton and Amedeo Avogadro. Scientists were exploring and explaining our world on every level: from the grandeur of the cosmos to particles of matter too small for the human eye or even the microscope to view and everything in between — all before the S’fat Emet was born.
Depiction of carbon atom, the basis of life on earth
I wonder how being born into a world of burgeoning, vibrant scientific inquiry shaped the S’fat Emet’s theology.  It appears that the S’fat Emet adapted Kabbalistic theology to the new truths of the physical world, as scientists understand it. Or perhaps put better: he understood and explained Torah through not only a Kabbalistic lens, but through a scientific and rational lens as well. He recognized that there is no such thing as a miracle in the sense of an abrupt abrogation of the laws of physics. The physical universe is governed by nature, a marvel so enormous it is miracle enough for us all. What we conventionally call a “miracle” is an expression of meaning that people assign to an event some time after it happens, as they look back and recognize it as unexpected, momentous and significant, and accordingly ascribe particular religious meaning to it.
The horrific events in Boston this month reminded many of us that normalcy, including the quotidian of life that we are tempted to brand “boring,” is miraculous when we are able to see the ordinary as a blessing (as Leviticus 25:21 does). The breath of life, our capacity to use our minds and bodies, the safe return home at the end of the day of our loved ones, our ability to put food on the table and sleep with a roof over our heads — these are daily miracles.

The S’fat Emet’s intellectual honesty in telling us that there is no different between nature and miracles does not compromise his spirituality. And perhaps that is one of the most important lessons here. The Scopes Monkey Trial is sadly still being tried in the courtroom. We live amidst an array of fundamentalists who view science as a heresy and try to force “Intelligent Design” into the curricula of public schools, and other absurd ideas in the public square. Ponder this — from December 2010 — for a minute:

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) has proposed a 2012-2013 budget that includes heavy cuts to some key department while giving a $43 million tax break to a massive creationist theme park.

In his plan, Beshear calls for a 6.4 percent cut to Kentucky's higher education department, a 2.2 percent cut to the State Police force and sizable cuts to other agencies in what he calls an effort to cut the budget to the bone. 

No one would have called the S’fat Emet and his Hasidic community (the Ger Hasidim) “modern” or anything but strongly orthodox in their religious practice. Yet the S’fat Emet not only recognizes and respects the reality science reveals, but revels in it, teaching us that science shows us that the world as it is abounds in miracles.

We should take note. There is no fundamental [yes, pun intended] conflict between science and religion unless we choose to interpret our sacred texts to create such a conflict. God’s universe is a unity; the laws that govern it are in and of themselves miraculous.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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