Introduction to the Thought of the Ramban
by Rav Ezra Bick
Ramban -04: Miracles
Last week, we read the lengthy comment of the Ramban to Shemot 13,16, defining the purpose of the mitzvot which serve as remembrances for the miracles of the exodus. We saw that the Ramban viewed miracles as the basis for the basic Jewish belief in God as creator and all-powerful provider. Today we shall finish reading that same section of the Commentary to the Torah, where the Ramban explicates his theory of miracles.
From the great and public miracles a man recognizes the hidden miracles, which are the foundation of the entire Torah, for a man has no part in the Torah of Moshe our teacher unless he believes that all our things and occurrences are all miracles and have no nature or the way of the world in them, whether communally or individually, but rather, if he fulfills the mitzvot his reward will bring him success, and if he transgresses them his punishment will cut him off everything by the decree of the Most High.
In this very famous section, the Ramban distinguishes between two types of miracles, the "great, public" miracles, and the "hidden" miracles. The first category includes the miracles referred to in the first part of the comment, the miracles of the exodus, the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea. The second category includes every other occurrence that affects the believer, those usually categorized as "natural," as parts of nature subject to the laws of nature. The important point in the Ramban is that there is in fact no difference at all between the two, on the metaphysical level. Both have the same meaning, namely that God is directly responsible for whatever occurred and not a law of nature. The only difference is basically psychological the first is psychologically imposing, forcing its meaning on the observer. The second can, and usually will, be interpreted incorrectly as a natural occurrence, whose cause is the chain of natural cause which we, today, call science. The relationship between the two types of miracles is educationally causative. The existence of the first, and man's recognition of what it teaches about God, leads to the recognition of the second and its implied meaning that everything is to be viewed as a miracle, as a direct and personal intervention of God in the life of the believer.
I think it is important to notice that the Ramban is not expressing a metaphysical principle here. He is not saying that "nature" does not exist, that it is an illusion. He is not rejecting the Maimonidian (and Aristotelian) physics, which grants to each created thing a particular nature, whose laws it obeys. The Ramban is first of all speaking about the Jewish people and not about creation in general. Secondly, he is stating that one must learn to view the world as part of a miraculous dialogue between oneself and God, but not that in fact one merits this constant and total providence all the time.
The two points are interrelated. If the Ramban thought that metaphysically everything that takes place in the world is the result of a direct miraculous Divine cause, there would be no way to distinguish between Jews and the rest of the world, or to allow even the possibility that some occurrences that affect Jews were in fact the result of natural law.
We will come back to a deeper understanding of what the Ramban means shortly. But we can already draw certain immediate conclusions, especially in light of what we discussed two weeks ago, when we read the first part of this comment of the Ramban. The Ramban places the belief that everything that affects me comes directly from God as a central belief of Judaism. The extraordinary statement that one who does not share this belief has "no share in the Torah of Moshe" does not leave a great deal of room for maneuver. What is so important about this way of viewing reality? We have already seen that the basic religious attitude is the acknowledgement of God's creative power. The Ramban here greatly increases the scope of that attitude. It is not a mere belief, nor is it an acknowledgment of a historical relationship (as the term "You have created us" might have indicated). It is a basic and constant orientation. It would be fair to say that according to the Ramban, it is what defines the relationship of the religious individual with God. There is no other proper attitude towards God, and not having it in the forefront of one's consciousness is the equivalent to losing one's relationship with God altogether.
The Ramban has drawn a three-part path between the believer and God.
The mitzva-remembrance which points to the exodus from
b) The great public miracles of the exodus which point to "hidden miracles."
c) The view of everyday life as the hand of God.
So, the miracle is not merely the key to true belief, it is the content of true belief. In fact, I know of no other major thinker in Judaism who places such a great emphasis on the category of the miracle. Of course, the Ramban by miracle does not mean the wondrous, or the astonishing. That would be merely a psychological aid in perceiving the true nature of the miracle, which pervades reality for the believer. The miraculous means the hand of God, present and close to the believer. The Torah again, I repeat, the Torah and not reality itself is a system which brings God into close proximity with the adherent, and places the adherent directly in God's hand. Since the purpose of creation is the recognition and acknowledgement by Man of his relationship with the omnipotent creator, for a Torah adherent to not recognize the omnipresent hand of God hovering over his every occurrence would be for him to miss the central point of Torah existence. In the Ramban's words, he would have no part in the Torah of Moshe.
In order to understand this fully, we must have recourse to the kabbalistic framework which lies behind the scenes of the Ramban's formulation. Skipping over the details, which are basically unknown, the Ramban believes that everything in reality is directly tied to different levels of emanations of God, the sefirot. The natural world and the system of natural laws which so impressed the Aristotelians, is itself a manifestation of a particular sefira of God. The acknowledgement of God's creative power is, on a deeper level, an acknowledgement of the connection between yourself and the sefirot. If we were subject to the blind operation of natural law, that would also be a connection with God, but on a much lower level of the sefirot. The key here is Torah. The Torah itself is a reflection of a higher sefira, and the people of the Torah, who live according to its precepts, are therefore connected to a higher level of the sefirot. On a practical level, that difference is expressed in the difference between being subject to nature, or being in the hands of God's ethical decisions. Is what happens to me a result of my interaction with the laws of nature or my interaction with the laws of the Torah? To the extent that I am existing on the level of Torah, I am expressing a higher level of existence corresponding to a higher sefira, and, like all of existence, it is imperative to recognize and acknowledge that level of existence; in other words, that level of dependence on God's creative power.
(This corresponds to a different famous distinction in the Ramban. I have already pointed out that the Ramban is speaking here only of the Jewish people. The Ramban in several places clams that the rest of the world is run by angels, i.e., through agency, but that the Jews are under the direct providence of God. See, for example, Bereishit 28,12)
This explains, I believe, the contradiction found in the Ramban concerning this point. Although in the section we are reading, the Ramban is quite clear and unequivocal that "all our occurrences are all miracles, and have no nature in them at all," in his commentary to Iyov he expresses himself in much more moderate tones.
This verse explains a great matter in the matter of providence, about which there are many verses, for the men of Torah and perfect faith believe concerning providence that God watches and protects the members of the human race . And it never appears in the Torah or the Prophets that God watches and protects the individuals of other creatures that are not intelligent ("do not speak"), but He only protects the species as part of the heavens and its hosts. Therefore, the Torah permitted the slaughter of animals for the sake of man, as well as to be the atonement for our souls with their blood on the altar. The reason for this is clear and known, for man, since he acknowledges his God, He watches over and protects him, unlike the other species who are not intelligent species and do not know their creator. For this reason, He protects the righteous, for as their eyes and hearts are constantly with Him, so the eyes of God are on them from the beginning of the year to its end. And the perfectly pious man who cleaves to his God always and does not separate the connection to God in his thoughts with matters of the world will be continually protected from all accidents of time even those that arise in nature and he will be protected from them through a miracle that will be done for him always, as though he belongs to the class of the upper world (angels) who are not subject to becoming and destruction in the accidents of time. According to his closeness to the cleaving unto God so he will be protected with superior protection. But he who is far from God in his thoughts and actions, even if he is not deserving of death by his sin, is sent and abandoned to accidents . And since most of the world belongs to this middle group it is proper that they act according to the way of nature and accident. (Commentary to Iyov, 36,7).
The Ramban here explicitly states that most people are subject to nature and accidents, and should therefore take the proper precautions, since they are not worthy of miracles. Only the perfectly pious are elevated above the accidents of the natural world. Indeed, the Ramban in our section never implied that one should ignore the natural world and rely on miracles. On the contrary, the section began with the assertion that public miracles are rare because the generations are not worthy. Despite the Ramban's equation of public miracles and secret ones, he does distinguish between them on the basis of their metaphysical status. In fact, the Ramban believes that secret miracles the course of what appears to be nature derive from the sefira of malkhut, majesty, which is the lowest of the sefirot, whereas public miracles derive from the sefira of tiferet, the third (of seven). I think the answer is that the Ramban, as I stated, is not asserting a metaphysical principle that nature does not exist, but rather a Torah principle, that Torah can elevate us above nature. The acknowledgement that everything is the actions of God and the reality that everything is God's direct miraculous action are in fact interwoven. The Torah gives you the ability to live in the hands of God by acknowledging that that is so. One who psychologically lives in the hands of God is in reality connected to the higher sefira which is expressed in a greater degree of Divine presence, and manifested by a greater degree of the miraculous.
Our section is indeed written in a relatively extreme and absolute manner, because it is expressing a principle. The purpose of creation is that man acknowledge the power of God. Acknowledgment and here we are introducing the kabbala into our understanding is also the ground for bringing God in reality into our existence, and hence it elevates man's status in regards to providence and the miraculous. To the extent that you view the natural world as your home, you are indeed putting yourself outside the world of Torah, for the purpose of man is to recognize the creative power of God over him.
Practically speaking, I think the Ramban is saying that perfect tzaddikim are protected by public overt miracles, and the rest of the Jewish nation by private secret ones. The nature of the secret miracles though is not necessarily protective rather, "if he fulfills mitzvot his reward will bring him success, and if he transgresses them his punishment will cut him off."
The idea that I have just hinted at, that man's actions and beliefs directly affect the nature of the connection of God to the world and the operation of the sefirot, is probably the most important kabbalistic idea found in the Ramban, and one to which we shall devote an entire shiur, when we come to the mitzva of sacrifices.
On a non-kabbalistic and not particularly philosophic level, what is the practical difference between the attitude of the Ramban to God's presence in the world and that of the Rambam, who sees the natural world as a Divine creation of God's wisdom? We have already seen in the Ramban to Iyov that for the average man it is not that he should, according to the Ramban, ignore practical considerations of nature and rely on God's miraculous intervention. But there is a more basic difference, I think. The Ramban strives to remove the psychological barrier between Man and God. For the Ramban, a religious personality is expressed by the feeling of being in God's hands. Knowing that God has created a wonderful and brilliantly designed environment for me to live in, as the Rambam believes, is for the Ramban not a source of religious awareness precisely because it interposes a barrier between Man and God. The Ramban insists on the immediacy of the religious experience, and it is in that light that we should understand the signs, the mitzvot which I surround myself so that the awareness of God's power and presence be all-encompassing and ever-present. The main difference between the religious personality of the Ramban and that of the Rambam is psychological, how you feel about the relationship with God, rather than metaphysical (but of course, as we saw above, psychology awareness and acknowledgement is the basis for God's real presence in the world and the goal of creation). For the Ramban, though, this different mentality is crucial in defining the religious individual and ultimately his relationship with God.