I’m skeptical of Hanukkah. Maybe it’s the rampant commercialism that defines the entire month of December. Maybe it’s the way mainstream Americans lazily slap a menorah symbol wherever convenient, patting itself on the back for being inclusive, unaware or more likely unconcerned that their elevation of Hanukkah to the level of Christmas violates the very spirit of this anti-assimilationist, minor holiday. Maybe it’s a Pavlovian response to the week of indigestion that follows the smorgasbord of fried starches. Maybe I’m a Grinch.
But I think more than that, it’s the whole Hanukkah story.
You know, the part where the oil that should have lasted one day burns for eight days instead.
I’m skeptical of a holiday that celebrates any miracle, but particularly a miracle wrapped up in extremist triumphalism, as if the magically-replenishing supply of oil was proof that God was pleased by the bloody hands of Jewish fanatics.
Sure, I believe in miracles. In the line of my medical work, I’ve seen more than one phenomenon that defied all logical or scientific explanation, an event so aberrant that it could only be explained as a decisive break from the order of nature.
I have also seen, with greater frequency, the danger of trusting in miracles. All too often do families wait for the miracle that never comes. The victory in the Hanukkah story is known precisely because of the infrequency with which ill-equipped minorities triumph over oppressors. Not only does trust in a miracle make no mathematical sense, but it may be spiritually damaging as well. Once we trust in the kind of God who will break down the walls of Jericho, we can easily fall into the rabbit hole that has driven human minds mad: where was God’s miracle to smash the barbed wire of Treblinka? Why is the natural order compromised in some cases of peril, but not others?
I am not alone in my distrust of miracles. Aside from atheists and agnostics, even some believers find miracles hard to swallow, or at least unimportant in the grand scheme of believing. Among such a group we can find the Sages. Perhaps it is surprising that the rabbis of the Talmud kept miracles at an arm’s length. While they believed that the miraculous tales of the Torah were true, they believed with a twist: miracles are not a break in the natural order, but an exception built into the nature from the start. In this model, one does not have to make the theologically agonizing choice between God’s omnipotence and God’s benevolence.
In Genesis Rabbah, a collection of midrash on the Book of Genesis, the rabbis say that God created the Sea of Reeds with the agreement that it would divide at just the right moment. While the rabbis never doubted God’s omnipotence, they seem lukewarm to the idea that God would break God’s own laws of nature in response to human need. In the same source, they wryly comment, “The earning of bread is as wondrous as the parting of the sea.”
According to the Sages, miracles are not admissible as evidence in any legal dispute. Take the case of Rabbi Eliezer, who was famously overruled even after a carob tree uprooted itself, a river ran backward, and the walls of the building began to collapse in response to his escalating demands to be proved right on an intricate matter of halachah (Bava Metzia, 59b). Additionally, one may not endanger oneself to behold a miracle. When Rabbi Yosei enters a ruin to pray in the presence of a bat kol (a heavenly voice), he is chastised by the prophet Elijah, who tells him the bat kol can be heard three times a day, and that it’s still not permitted to enter an unsafe building (Berachot 3a).
All of this makes Hanukkah a rather awkward holiday, a time of the year we celebrate a miracle which non-believers don’t believe happened and believers don’t believe is important. The queer community especially has reason to pause at the extremist undertones of the Hanukkah story. The tale is an example of our ancestors’ intolerance. If the Maccabees forcibly circumcised those who disagreed with them (Maccabees 2:46), how would they behave toward queer Jews today? A prayer book for San Francisco’s LGBT synagogue, Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, raises the dilemma in its clipped Hanukkah reflection, asking tersely: “How can I praise a battle that I would oppose today?” The Hanukkah story does not reflect my values, neither as a queer person nor as a Jew.
For those of us in the queer community who struggle to find this time of year meaningful, perhaps a glimpse into the world of “daily miracles” would be helpful.
While they downplayed the theological significance of the miracles, the rabbis extolled the daily miracles instead. Every day in the morning service we give thanks for the miracles which go unnoticed — the miracle of awakening, the miracle of seeing, the miracle of renewed energy. For the rabbis, these were the miracles of substance, the miracles through which faith is strengthened.
In queer community we also experience two kinds of miracles: some that seem to break the natural order of things, and some that happen so frequently we scarcely notice them. When gay marriage survived its opponents in four separate states in the past election, the world took notice. We live in a world our parents could not have dreamed of. Yet as momentous as the occasion was, we have reasons to be skeptical. If we take this to be incontrovertible proof that our national psyche has shifted for the better, how are we to explain the LGBT teen suicide rate? Or the 13 transpeople murdered in our own country last year?
Celebration of public milestones also divert focus from the daily queer miracles — the miracle that happens every time a person is finally seen for who they are, every time a transperson makes it safely in and out of the restroom, every time two isolated gay teenagers share a kiss. While they are smaller in scale and more frequent, they are no less of a wonder.
A conundrum that surfaces every year around this time is, “What is the miracle of the first night?” That is, if the Maccabees had oil to last one day, wouldn’t it make more sense to start the celebration on the second day, when the miracle first began?
Dozens of answers have been proposed over the ages. My favorite answer comes from Rabbi Naftali Silberberg, who said that the on the first night we celebrate the miracle that occurred when the oil, enough to last one day, burned for one day.
He relates the tale of Hanina ben Dosa, a miracle worker in the Talmud, who nonchalantly uses vinegar instead of oil in the family menorah (Ta’anit 25a). For a tzaddik, a holy person, Silberman explains, the vinegar burning is no more noteworthy than the daily miracle of oil burning. Fire itself is extraordinary. A contemplative gaze into a fireplace this winter is enough to renew the faculty of wonder, whether you believe God created the flames or not.
Jewish tradition urges us to seek the miracles hidden in plain sight. Queer values challenge us to see the invisible: people invisible because they are deemed less valuable, privileges invisible because they are so entrenched in everyday life. My queer reality has also allowed me to become more attuned to the hundreds of tiny miracles that have made my existence possible. Whatever our feelings about the Hanukkah miracle, we all become like tzaddikim when we light the first candle, a testament to the daily miracle of our queer and Jewish lives.