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.