If you look at a glass of wine closely enough, you will see the entire universe.
–Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate physicist
The Passover seder is one of the most widely observed religious services. It recounts the Jewish people’s socio-political progression from slavery to freedom, as well as their spiritual progression from idol worship to monotheism. It has a universal appeal that spans the full range of religious affiliations and levels of observance.
Seder literally means order. The Haggadah orders the retelling of the Exodus in a specific sequence, punctuated by the drinking of four cups of wine. The seder counts and recounts the specific divine miracles, including the 10 plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea. It concludes with the Hallel service, psalms that praise those miracles and the divine mastery over nature.
The universal messages of freedom from oppression and redemption have broad appeal. Miracles, however, have fallen out of fashion. Culturally they are often associated with superstition and mysticism. How do we relate to miracles in a scientific age? What is the traditional Jewish approach to the miraculous?
The Talmud (Shabbat 118b) quotes the opinion of Rabbi Yose, who states that he wishes to be among those who recite Hallel daily. A contradiction to this opinion is introduced in the text, stating that those who recite Hallel daily belittle and blaspheme the Almighty. The Talmud reconciles this contradiction by distinguishing between two distinct meanings of the term Hallel, praising the miraculous. The 20th-century luminary Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, known reverentially as the Rav, elucidates these two types of Hallel or praise. The first type of praise, advocated by Rabbi Yose, refers to an appreciation of the awe-inspiring and miraculous natural world around us. The second type of praise, criticized as belittling, refers to the daily praise of miraculous departures from reality or suspensions of the natural order.
Rav Soloveitchik notes that Judaism is not a religion founded upon singular miraculous experiences, that a religion based on the supernatural cannot survive in the natural world. Only a religion that provides a framework for everyday reality can sustain itself from generation to generation. Thus the Talmud criticizes an overemphasis on the miraculous. Turning the miraculous into a religious philosophy is antithetical to Judaism. It belittles rather than glorifies, for the order present in the natural world is far more awe-inspiring than the intermittent suspension of this order.
What then is the import of the miraculous? Nachmanides, the 13th-century philosopher, addresses this question in his commentary on the Torah relating to the 10 plagues. He states, “from the openly miraculous a person comes to appreciate the subtly miraculous” (Commentary on Shemot 13:16). Restated, the momentary suspension of natural law ultimately elicits an appreciation of the miraculous character of the perfectly functioning system of nature. This inspired perception is a superior realization of the divine role in the natural world.
Perhaps the best expression of this experience in modern parlance is provided by Albert Einstein: “A spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe — a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort.”
Rather than looking for miracles to serve as evidence, Einstein found the fact that the cosmos is ordered, that it follows laws, that we can comprehend its structure, filled him with awe for a “God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists.”
Einstein portrays the ideal religious experience, reaching an understanding and awe of the natural laws of the universe. This is indeed the approach advocated by Rabbi Yose in the Talmud, which was codified into the daily morning service (in Psalms 145-150). King David’s portrayal of the awe that results from the observation of the natural world is indeed humbling and moving. Alternatively, as the Talmud points out, praising the miraculous occurs only on specific celebrations, such as Passover. A sprinkling of the miraculous can be inspirational, but it is not designed to be a primary basis of religious philosophy. The response to the suspension of the laws of nature must yield to an appreciation of the vast and awesome systematic order present in the universe.
Feynman’s cup of wine evokes an appreciation of the universe as a whole. “The twisting liquid, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. It evaporates depending on the wind and weather. The glass is a distillation of the earth’s rocks, and in its composition, [we see] the secrets of the universe’s age, and the evolution of the stars.”
Anyone can be moved by witnessing the 10 plagues or the splitting of the Red Sea. But it requires a different outlook to be moved by everyday phenomena. Passover is not only designed to bring an appreciation of divine power for a given time and place in the history of a people. Ultimately, it brings us to an appreciation of the divinity implanted within everyday life. The four cups of wine on Passover remind us of specific miracles. But the miracles in turn orient us toward the magnificence and elegance of the natural world in which we live, reminding us that it too is miraculous.