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Miracles and Modernity

The Hanukkah Dilemma – Some Thoughts on Miracles and Modernity

Hanukkah is one of my favorite holidays. Lighting candles, eating latkes and sufganiyot, singing and playing dreidel. I love eating our dinner as we watch the candles burn and we listen to Hanukkah songs that warm us with memories of childhood Hanukkahs past, and inspire us with the deeds of the Maccabees.

The problem creeps in when we start thinking a bit more about why we are lighting those candles. Do we really believe that a miracle happened and a small cruse of oil sufficient to last only one day burned for eight days? A serious look at the traditional Jewish sources from the Books of Maccabees and the Talmud strongly suggest that the idea of miracle oil was a rather late rabbinic invention designed to shift the focus from the heroic Maccabees and their descendants’ less than virtuous actions to a more spiritual and enduring back story.

The rabbis could pull this off because they had complete faith that a miracle could have occurred, that God could have done anything.

It is a bit harder for us. Can we reconstruct Hanukkah in a way that is faithful to the historical facts, and relates a significant spiritual truth?

One approach to this task is to focus on the military victory of the Maccabees and their heroic actions. This has been the approach of Zionism. It is inspiring and significant, but  focuses on a limited set of honorable qualities.

Another approach is that of the rabbis who focused on the loyalty of the Maccabees to their God, their Torah/laws and their people. It was inconceivable to the rabbis that the Maccabees could have prevailed without the help of God. The miracle of the oil was the demonstrable proof that God was involved and that the deeds of the Maccabees had spiritual significance.

If talking about miraculous oil seems too fantastic for us we can focus instead on the real meaning of what a miracle is. Rabbi Herschel Matt (OBM) is reported to have said  a miracle is anything that reveals the power and greatness of God. I would add only that a miracle must show us how God actually functions in the world and in our lives. The real miracle of Hanukkah was the Maccabees belief in God, and their loyalty to their tradition and their people. They didn’t need a supernatural miracle to tell them what to do. The reclamation and rededication of the Temple was their statement that what they had done militarily was not for their own glorification, but was in service to all they held sacred.

When we lose the ability to believe in miracles we lose so much more than belief in a supernatural order. We lose the ability to connect  in a deeply personal way to God and to the values, ideals, rituals and people who have inspired, enlivened and given meaning to generations of Jews. To regain that connection we will need to reframe our understanding of God and our mission as Jews. The Hebrew name for God spelled Yod Hey Vav Hey is really a verb, not a noun. This tells us to think about God as an emergent force manifest in all of the qualities we refer to as godly: love, justice, compassion and more.  Our service to God then becomes a commitment to act out those qualities in our lives and to bring God into the world. Detailed instructions for how to accomplish this mission are found in the entire corpus of Jewish tradition and culture with its values, rituals, and sancta that in turn help preserve the Jewish people.

It is clear that the Maccabees perceived a clear threat to their lives and ways of life. I imagine that they must also have felt a sense of gratitude for what they had and responsibility for preserving it.  True gratitude is based in the sense that what we are given is fully gratuitous.  That sense is  the source from which the meaning of human life grows.  I had no role whatsoever in my creation. Responsibility for my entire being belongs to my parents, nature, the universe, and the Holy Blessed One. I had nothing to do with it. Awareness that my presence on this planet at this time, in this particular body is a totally gratuitous event plants  the seeds for feeling awe and gratitude.    Nurturing these seeds is the work of spiritual development.   That work proceeds for each individual in the context of their individual development, family, culture, and traditions. In this way, spiritual development produces many types of fruit which all spring from the common seeds of gratitude and awe. Each fruit has a distinct taste and flavor, some more sweet and others more tart. All provide nourishment for souls that search for understanding of what this fortuitous life is, how to grace it with meaning and purpose, and how to respond to and take responsibility for this life. 

The Maccabees provide us with an heroic example of how this task can be accomplished. Physical courage coupled with a strong sense of responsibility planted a new generation of seeds, seeds of faith, loyalty, love, compassion, justice, creativity, and sanctity. Following their victory over the oppressor, the Jewish people experienced a period of intense joy from living within an organic community. Calamity struck again and the Jewish people lost the temple with its sacrifices and some of the major forms of their spiritual expression.

The rabbis reconstructed Judaism using and greatly expanding upon existing forms of prayer, ritual and mitzvot to fulfill many of the functions served by the temple service. Those functions are the core of religious life, orienting individuals to their place in the world and their relationship to God, providing moral and spiritual guidance, nurturing community, kindness and interpersonal connection.  All of the elaborate practices that grew to express these functions in ever more complex detail are simply there to point us back to the most essential spiritual truth,  an awareness of the sacredness of life that emerges from the seeds of awe and gratitude within the context of an organic religious civilization.

This primary awareness is largely neglected in our contemporary culture. Work and consumerism have largely replaced the Holy Blessed One and the awareness of the awesomeness of life as the center of attention and power in the lives of many individuals. While this preoccupation results in some beneficial level of prosperity and elevated living standards, it comes with a certain level of narcissism and self-aggrandizement. Popular Eastern forms of religion which stress individual salvation, or release from individual suffering do not provide  a  vehicle that simultaneously addresses individual needs for spiritual fulfillment, and societal needs for justice and mutual responsibility. This is a task which can be addressed by the program of social and religious Reconstructionism proposed by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. Kaplan effectively points us in the direction of addressing spiritual needs along with societal needs for justice and equality with a large dose of intellectual integrity. This means reclaiming the miracle of Hanukkah not as a supernatural event of miracle oil, but as an event that shows us how belief in God functions to nurture a sense of gratitude, responsibility, and commitment to our highest values.

Hanukkah reminds us that there is a light at the end of the dark tunnel we sometimes travel through. We are reminded that often we have to fight for freedom, justice and our spiritual values. Hanukkah is the Hebrew word for dedication. The holiday is a call both to remember the rededication of the Temple that had been desecrated by foreigners, and to rededicate ourselves and our communities to fight for and nurture a healthy, modern approach to Judaism that promotes spiritual development, social justice, freedom and equality.

Happy Hanukkah to all.

Rabbi Yaacov J. Kravitz, Ed.D. [©12/30/2016; Rosh Chodesh Tevet, 5777]