Questions and Suggested Answers
Based on the writings of Nehama Leibowitz
It would seem that what is related in Exodus (4, 1-8) and in our chapter (7, 9) contradict what is related in Deut. (13,2-6). Explain the contradiction and how it can be harmonized with the help of Rambam and Mendelsohn.
1. The “contradiction “ of texts:
From the texts in Exodus it would seem that miracles wrought by God through Moshe and Aaron played a central role in convincing both the enslaved Jews and Pharaoh of the authenticity of Moshe’s mission to win the freedom of the Jewish slaves.
From the text in Deuteronomy, we learn that the role of miracles as a convincing argument is emphatically rejected - even if the miracles are empiracally real!
2. Harmonizing the above texts of Exodus and Deuteronomy:
Rambam: The bases for our belief in God is the one time experience of our receiving the torah at Mt. Sinai. That experience witnessed by the whole nation authenticated Moshe and his mission, and established an eternal bond between God and the Jewish people. All other miracles wrought prior to Mt. Sinai only had a temporary impact on the people because that is the nature of all miracles. After receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, we require no miracles of any kind to strengthen or authenticate the Torah’s message. If in the future a prophet speaking in the name of God performs a miracle in order to bring us to do a specific action (not in contradiction to Torah teaching) then we listen to him only because Moshe thus commanded us in Deut. (18, 15) and not because of the miracles. At best miracles play a marginal role. Thus if a prophet arises with a message denying Torah teachings, he commits a capital offense and is to be ignored no matter what convincing miracles he might perform i.e. the text in Deuteronomy.
Mendelsohn: In his reply to the Swiss priest, Mendelsohn uses the above argument of Rambam. In his Biur, he explains that if a prophet uses a miracle in order to negate the existence of God or one of his attributes, he can not be believed on simple philosophical grounds; By denying an aspect of God, one is violating the essential unity of God. The miracle performed to deny any aspect of God is irrelevant given the fact that the message itself is self-contradictory! Rambam approaches miracles from a theological point of view while Mendelsohn, in his Biur, rejects miracles from a philosophical point of view. Mendelsohn would explain the text in Deuteronomy philosophically and the text in Exodus theologically. Rambam’s approach can be applied to both texts removing any apparent contradiction.
Prepared by: Rabbi Mordechai Spiegelman veteran yeshiva educator (USA) now residing in Jerusalem