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Moses and the Pope

Moses and the Pope

The recent beatification of Pope John Paul II highlights Judaism's unique basis of belief.


Roman Catholic rituals aren’t usually even a small part of my family’s Shabbat table discussions but a recent Sabbath meal was an exception, granted in the spirit of revisiting an ever-timely Jewish concept.

The late Pope John Paul II was recently beatified by his church. Beatification is a stage in the process by which the Church renders a person a “saint.” For a candidate to attain that stage, a miracle performed by the candidate has to be documented and accepted by a special Vatican committee.

Many, it seems, are the miracles out there. John Paul himself beatified more than 1300 people and canonized 482 saints during his tenure; and the current pope has beatified 790 and canonized 34. (Of course, every breath we take and move we make are miracles, but that’s not what the Church has in mind here.)

Related Article: Did God Speak at Sinai?

To advance the cause of John Paul’s canonization, evidence was proffered that a French nun had been miraculously cured from Parkinson’s disease after praying to the pontiff shortly after his death in 2005. (Yes, Catholics pray to dead people, as intermediaries; for a Jew, that would constitute a most grave halachic offense.) The testimony was notarized and the miracle certified, despite grumblings from some corners. (“Did the prayers for this nun exclude the invocation of any and all [other] recognized saints?” one conservative Catholic publication asked with suspicion.)

Miracles alone don't prove anything at all.

Supernatural interventions have played a great role in Jewish history, of course. But — although many Jews are not aware of the fact — Maimonides clearly states that they do not, and cannot, prove anything at all.

He points out (Foundations of Torah 8:1) that there is simply no true way to distinguish a Divinely-sanctioned miracle from trickery or sorcery. A wonder may be wondrous, but it might also be an illusion. And so, any belief founded on a supernatural sign is, in the end, inherently flawed.

(The requirement that a prophet establish himself or herself by, among other things, performing a miracle or making a miraculous prediction, Maimonides explains, is a purely technical requirement, and does not imply that inherent meaning lies in miracles. [ibid, 7:7])

The wonders recounted in the Torah — even the parting of the Red Sea we revisit on the Seder nights — are not, Maimonides explains, demonstrations of God’s existence but rather expressions of His love for His people.

The sea split, he continues, so that the Jews leaving Egypt could escape from the pursuing Egyptians, not to prove God’s existence. The manna fell from heaven, not as a theological statement, but so that the people would not starve. Even seemingly demonstrative miracles like the ten plagues are interpreted by the Talmud and Midrash as messages, not mere manifestations.

The distinction may seem subtle, but it’s not. We know God not because of any miracle but rather because He communicated directly with our ancestors at Mount Sinai, a carefully preserved historical fact we will soon celebrate on Shavuot. That was no mere miracle, but an actual interaction, a mass meeting of the human and Divine the only such interaction in human history.

That, explains Maimonides, is why, when God tells Moses to lead the Jewish people from Egypt, He adds: “And this is your sign that I have sent you: When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve [Me] on this mountain,” referring to Mount Sinai.

That mass revelation 50 days after the exodus from Egypt is what established, beyond all doubt and suspicion, that the miracles the people had witnessed had not been trickery or sorcery but expressions of the love and concern of the Creator, Who was now introducing Himself directly to their minds and souls, and gifting them with the Torah.

It is, admittedly, strange that a Catholic rite brought me to reflect anew on the difference between a religion that “proves” things by “miracles”— indeed is based on them — and the incontrovertible truth to which we Jews are heir. But the difference is well worth pondering as we continue our “count-up” to this year’s commemoration of the day we met the Creator.


May 21, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 18

(11) Sara, June 24, 2011 3:09 AM

Don't believe in Beatification

Although I am Roman Catholic I don't believe in half of their beliefs. I believe only God has the power to determaine who is a saint or not. Only God knows a person's true spirit. We look at the outward man and only God knows the inward man. The Catholic chruch at times think they are the only authority on earth.

(10) Mary moos, June 6, 2011 1:26 PM


Thank you... Reading this thoughtful explanation fills me with gratitude for the sweet spiritual home I finally found in Judiasm. Judiasm has given me the comfort I longed for to forgive the religion i was born into...Catholicism.

(9) Andy, May 24, 2011 2:11 PM

re "Praying to the dead"

I think all souls mean to beseech God directly but many find it too abstract and often find it helpful to ask for a blessing from God thru a holy person.That seems true in Judaism as well. I believe that Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz explained it in a wonderful book "We Jews who are we and what we should do" by stating that one often asks a tzaddik/saintly person either dead or alive to petition God because most of us feel [probably correctly in my opinion ]that we are maxed out on our spiritual credit. True God may still answer yes but it's based only on mercy not justice. A tzaddik however still has lots of unused credit and God may answer based on justice as well as mercy which on some level leaves more room for outcomes we wish without unravelling the foundations upon which the world is run. It's a difficult concept and and like most things"religious" it's an opinion but Rabbi Steinsaltz's opinion re Torah seems to me like Einstein's re mathematics, so while not a certainty it carries much weight and I think worth sharing.

(8) susannah garbutt, May 23, 2011 12:50 PM

religious differences

I agree with Charlotte - I wish people would not say things about religions other than their own - they don't get it right often, and they can please leave the pejoratives out please. Christian tradition and religions are spoken of as Judeao-Christian in origin, so we have more in common in heritage than not. we can learn about other peoples' faiths (the multitude of world religions which all hold love, kindness, worship of a creator and a sound humane attitude towards others), and realise that it is likely that there is more than one way to know G-d. On the evidence of the world religions, one could draw the conclusion that there is more to find desirable in the multitude of faiths than less, and most people have an innate drive to be the most altruistic they can be, love really does make the world go round, without it life would be a grim miserable grind until the release of death. Good people are found everywhere, no matter what their faith.

Dvirah, May 23, 2011 6:44 PM

Personal Goodness vs Systems

That an individual who wishes "to find G-d" - ie, to have a close personal relationship with the Creator - will find a way to do so no matter what belief system they adhere to is demonstable - but it does not prove the relative soundness of the different systems. The soundness of the systems may perhaps be seen by its affect on those who are not greatly driven by an intrinsic need to know their Creator.

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