Blood, Frogs, Lice… In Parashat Vaera Moses confronts Pharaoh with the threat of plagues.
Dr. Ari Ackerman, Lecturer in Jewish Philosophy and Golinkin Chair of TALI Jewish Education, discusses how God is portrayed during these supernatural events. A naturalistic portrayal of God was described by the medieval Maimonides and the modern Heschel. How can God be perceived in these different ways?
In parshat Va’era, Moses confronts Pharaoh and tells him that God will bring upon him a series of plagues. And he introduces the plagues by emphasizing their role in educating Pharaoh of God’s existence and power. He thus states:
“כה אמר ה’ בזאת תדע כי אני ה'”
“Thus says the Lord: By this you shall know that I am the Lord.” So Moses forces Pharaoh to acknowledge God through series of miracles. We have here a clear link between divine supernatural powers and arriving at a belief in God. That is, we see God when the natural order is overturned. And this is true not only for Pharaoh but also the Jews as well. Often in the Bible when God is interested in generating the commitment of the Jews miracles are performed. This is most evident when immediately before the enactment of the covenant between the Jews and God at Mount Sinai we are told of the upheavals of nature that occurred.
But there is also a counter tradition in the Bible in which God becomes known not though miracles and God’s overturning of the natural order. But rather God reveals Himself through nature: the ordinary and everyday workings of nature indicate to us God’s wisdom and power. We see this for example in the famous verse in the Psalms (19:2):
“השמים מספרים כבוד אל ומעשה ידיו מגיד הרקיע”
“The heavens declare the glory of God, the sky proclaims His handiwork.” So from this verse we see that God can be known through simply contemplating nature and miracles are not necessary for discovering God.
This second more naturalistic tradition is also found in post-Biblical Jewish sources. In medieval Jewish philosophy it receives it most forceful articulation in the philosophy of Maimonides. In a famous passage on love and fear of God in his legal code, Mishne Torah, Maimonides argues that when a person contemplates the works of God then one sees God’s infinite wisdom and comes to love the Divine. So for Maimonides human beings only need to study nature to understand God’s wisdom and recognize His existence.
This naturalistic conception of God’s presence and wisdom continues in modern Jewish thought with the philosophy of Abraham Joshua Heschel. He takes this Maimonidean theme and he connects it to gratitude. He speaks of contemplating nature and arriving at a sense of “radical amazement.” To quote Heschel, ““Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. …. get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. … To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
So even though by bringing the plagues God insists on revealing Himself in a supernatural manner God also chooses to show Himself through nature. And for Maimonides and Heschel it is through the natural order that we get at more significant and profound religious insights.
Ari Ackerman is the (David) Golinkin Professor of TALI Jewish Education at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and a lecturer where he teaches courses in the areas of Jewish philosophy and education. He received his PhD in Jewish thought from Hebrew University. His most recent book is a critical edition of the sermons of Zerahia Halevi Saladin (Beer Sheva University Press, 2013). Dr. Ackerman is currently working on a monograph on creation and codification in the philosophy of Hasdai Crescas.