Nathan Lopes Cardozo

The Miraculous Nature of Normality

Image adapted from Pixabay.

In our last essay we saw how, from the perspective of some Jewish thinkers, there is really no difference between nature and miracle. The difference is only in quantity, not in kind. Nature is a continual occurrence of miracles. Were the splitting of the Reed Sea to take place every two hours and happen everywhere around the world, we would declare it “nature” and we would establish a new “law of nature” which would account for this phenomenon.

Science can only explain one thing in terms of another. The ultimate reality is never explained.

We also established that the laws of nature can often camouflage the miraculous.

As mentioned, by telling the Cohanim to keep the fire burning on the altar in the Tent of Meeting and in the Temple, the impression was made that it is this fire which burned the sacrifices, while in fact it was the Heavenly fire that actually consumed the offering.

The reason for this commandment is that the easier it is to see God’s hand through open miracles, the less value there is in believing in Him. The more one is forced to believe in Him, the weaker one’s religious faith.

Only through effort one can really recognize, acknowledge, and appreciate His hand. This is only possible when the miracle is camouflaged, and one has to work hard to unearth and discover it.

The Walking itself is the Miracle

This is a common phenomenon in all of the Torah. When we look carefully at the Biblical miracles, we see that they are often camouflaged within the laws of nature. For example, in one instant we are told that, the splitting of the Reed Sea, is an open miracle:

Then Moshe held out his arm over the sea…. The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall on their right and on their left. (Shemot: 14: 21-22)

This is clearly an open miracle. Huge walls of water and dry land in between cannot be explained by the laws of nature.

However, we are also told that “the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind.” 14:21. This seems to be a natural happening: a strong east wind arose and blew back the water.

The miracle is therefore concealed within the laws of nature. For every miracle there is a natural explanation to give human beings the opportunity to deny it.

More than that, for the same reason, there are cases where God only does the minimum of a miracle and leaves the rest to human beings. When the Israelites are attacked by their arch enemy, Amalek, Moshe tells Yehoshua and the Jewish people, on the command of God, to fight them.

Subsequently “Moshe lifted up his arms to Heaven and the Israelites prevailed but when his hands grew heavy and he lowered them, Amalek prevailed.” (Shemot: 17,10-13) This was no doubt a miracle showing that God’s providence was at work.

But all of this was concealed by Yehoshua’s fighting a conventional war. We could have asked why God did not fight this war on His own, without the Israelites lifting a hand. The answer is clear: It would have been too easy, and therefore meaningless.

The same is true concerning the forty years that the Israelites walked through the desert. While several miracles happen on the way, there is no huge miracle by which God, in a matter of a moment, moved all the Israelites (on wings?) to the land of Israel. In fact, their complaint that God had left them (Bamidbar 14) gave them the opportunity to believe in Him. The concealment of God’s presence while in the desert was the foundation of their belief. Only spiritual effort bears religious fruit.

What needs to be understood is that their walking through the desert is just as miraculous as any open miracle.

That we can breathe, walk, see, speak, eat, drink, think, etc. is more miraculous than the splitting of the Reed Sea. While all these things are seen as “normal”, they are in truth an ongoing accumulation of supreme miracles. They are never—not even by the greatest scientists—explained, but only described. It is the occasional extraordinary miracle which makes us realize that all the “ordinary” occurrences in our lives are totally miraculous. The sum total of all existence is completely astonishing and unexplainable. Nothing really makes “sense”. “The world is heavy with wonder” wrote Heschel.[1] We refuse to take notice of what is “beyond”. We prefer habit over mystery and the common over the stillness of the eternal.

Belief is Beyond the Intellect

Belief means striving for belief. It is a destination, never an arrival. It can only burst forth at singular moments. It does not arise out of logical deduction, but out of uncertainty, which is its natural breeding ground.

To have faith is to live with unresolved doubts, prepared to rise above ourselves and our wisdom. Looking at the Jewish tradition, with its many debates, we clearly understand that those who deny themselves the comfort of certainty are much more authentic than those who are sure.

Faith means that we worship and praise God before we affirm God’s existence; we respond before we question. One can die for something even when he is unsure of its truth, because his inner faith tells him it is right to do so. This honest admission of doubt is not only the very reason to be religious in modern times; it is the actual stimulus to be religious.

We need to understand that faith is “the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises”.[2] Or, as Eric Hoffer once wrote: “we can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand”.[3]

To have Faith is to Yield to a Vision

To believe is not to prove, nor to explain, but to yield to a vision.

Of course, belief cannot be credo qua absurdum est. It has to make sense, and must have a lot to say for itself in terms of knowledge and wisdom. Still, just as no building stands on bedrock, but on unsure pillars deeply driven into the ground, so as to resist an earthquake, so must belief have enough strength to prove its worth without ever reaching absolute certainty.

Faith is like music. It is true because of its beauty, not because of its intellectual certainty. Is it not created from impossible paradoxes, as well as a great deal of imagination that surpasses rationality and scientific or historical facts?

The truly great need no synthesis. They absorb whatever experience offers them. Their intensely creative personalities act like a fiery furnace, melting away contradictions. What emerges is either a harmonious whole or a creative parallelism with parts that mutually fructify and supplement each other. The truly great do not need to trim edges, as it were, to make genuine experiences fit with each other. They preserve them intact. And if their experiences appear contradictory, they build an emotional bridge spanning them allowing both the landscape and the water to be seen. Lesser mortals resort to logical means of harmonization.[4]

The most challenging question in all of life is what do you do, and what do you believe when you are not sure. It is this question that moves the scientist, the philosopher, and most of all the religious personality. We must destroy the security of all conventional knowledge and undo the normalcy of all that is ordinary. To be religious is to realize that no final conclusions have ever been reached, nor will ever be reached.

To Live Halacha is to Live in Theological Suspense

It is here that Halacha—the commitment to Jewish Law—becomes crucial. Halacha is not lived out of certainty. Nor should it be lived out of certainty.

Halacha is the upshot of un-finalized beliefs, a practical way of living while remaining in theological suspense. This prevents Judaism from turning into a religion that either becomes paralyzed in awe of a rigid tradition, or evaporates into a utopian reverie. This dynamic can only come about when Jewish beliefs remain fluid, which Halacha then turns into solidity. The purpose of Halacha is to chill the heated steel of exalted beliefs and turn them into pragmatic deeds, all without allowing the inner heat to be cooled off entirely.

Jewish beliefs are like arrows shot into the air from a slack bowstring; they waver, darting hither and thither. Halacha, on the other hand, must be straight and unswerving, but still adaptable.

Indeed, we should be careful not to make faith into an intellectual issue. It is much more than that. If we look down on those who continue to have unshakable faith while intellectually in doubt, or consider them primitive, we have overlooked an important dimension of real faith.

Besides the fact that such an attitude reflects arrogance, it also misses an important point: Faith is always more than just thinking about faith. In fact, those who have lost their faith, and yet still hold on to it, honestly attempting by way of discussion and study to give their lost faith a new shape, should be deeply respected. Why? Because they realize that faith is the result of something which moves beyond the intellect.

When we place reflecting on faith higher than the direct experience of faith, we are involved in a purely intellectual endeavor. The search for faith can only be genuine when it is personal, deep, and emotional, and the intellect plays only a small part. The accompanying qualities must be humility, the notion of inadequacy, and a strong urge to find authentic faith. Genuine belief is a way of living, not an academic undertaking. It is an experience in which the whole of the human being is engaged.

Doubt appeals only to the intellect. The intellectual approach to faith is always a barer form of existence than faith itself. The reason is obvious. Thinking involves only our critical assessment, while the other human faculties remain idle. Trust, hope, love, and the notion that one is part of something bigger no longer play a role. Instead, life becomes nothing more than what it essentially is: Nature. When doubt and skepticism are no longer the most important faculties through which we seek religious faith, only then is it possible to actually find it. Skepticism, though it has its place, should not be at the center of one’s search.

In today’s climate there is a certain gratification in going to the extremes of genius and brilliance until one nearly loses that which one seeks to discover. But intellectual thought and scientific discovery can never cover the sum total of the inner life. When one prays, one is involved in something that the intellect can never reach. When one studies Torah and hears its Divine voice, one discovers something that academic study can never achieve. It is in a separate category, which is closed to the purely scientific mind.

It is crucial that we see these facts for what they are. Only when we realize that intellectual certainty is not the primary path toward religious truth, will we be able to deal with our new awareness that the transitional phase we now experience has great purpose. This phase must be part of our religious struggle and identity. This awareness won’t be easy. Novelty, as always, carries with it a sense of violation, a kind of sacrilege. Most people are more at home with that which is common than with that which is different. But this sense of sacrilege must be overcome.

Only when we let go of the certainty that what is ordinary is “normal” will we open ourselves to authentic being.


[1] See A J Heschel, I asked for Wonder, Ed. Samuel S. Dresner, Crossroad NY, page 3.

[2] Samuel Butler and Francis Hackett, The Notebooks of Samuel Butler (Nabu Press, 2010) p. 27.

[3] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2010) p. 81.

[4] Rabbi Professor David Weiss Halivni, “Professor Saul Lieberman z.l.,” Conservative Judaism, vol. 38, (Spring 1986) pp. 6-7.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Rabbi Cardozo heads a Think Tank focused on finding new Halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity amongst Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism. His ideas are widely debated on an international level on social media, blogs, books and other forums.
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