Candle lighting on Hanukkah is about proclaiming the miracles that occurred. But how do we explain miracles to ourselves, let alone to our children? As modern "believers" in the scientific lawfulness of nature (even if we do not "understand" the theory of relativity and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle or how electro-magnetic fields pass through our houses and our bodies bringing us television images), we are usually embarrassed by traditional "believers" in supernatural interventions into the natural world. Yet we know that since the Middle Ages when the Greek understanding of the lawful structure of nature was accepted by religious people, the belief in God has meant both that God created the world order and the God can at will violate that order. The world as seen by the scientist is not "the whole truth," and other dimensions exist that sometimes encroach on our orderly world. To believe in miracles is to believe in these other dimensions, yet how do we reconcile religious beliefs with scientific ones?
Interestingly enough, it is easier to reconcile religion and science today than ever before. Both religious and scientific beliefs have changed greatly since the Middle Ages. We have completely rejected the Aristotelian science taken for granted then and replaced it first with Newtonian and then with Einsteinian physics. Today many scientists would qualify the "lawfulness of nature" by saying these are merely useful hypotheses, partial models that help predict physical events, until we come up with better models. It is thought best to use multiple models simultaneously even if they appear intuitively contradictory (like the particle and the wave theory of light). Today our picture of reality as law abiding is less secure. Miracles are not as inconceivable as they once were when we took the scientific picture of the world literally.
Still our street-sense as moderns tells us that it is irrational and unhealthy to educate our children that a benevolent God creates anomalies in nature (like splitting the Red Sea) specifically to help the chosen people. It is not only the "belief in miracles" that threatens "our belief in nature" but the kind of person we imagine believes in supernatural occurrences seems weird whether s/he is an ultra-Orthodox Jew, a born-again Christian or a New Age occultist. To open up ourselves and our children to a life-giving faith in God's surprises means not only holding scientific hypotheses with less self-confidence, as in fact many scientists do today, but to ask what the faith in "other dimensions" will do to our everyday life. What kinds of miracle beliefs do we wish to explore and what kinds of believers are dangerous and crazy? Let me map out some of the possible approaches to miracles and on such a map you may be able to locate your own beliefs. I too will express my preferences. Today's science and philosophy cannot totally exclude any of these views of miracles, so it is a matter of choice which one we want to adopt when "proclaiming the miracle of Hanukkah." Rejecting certain options will be as important as adopting others, as we sort out our beliefs.
OPTION #1: Public miracles usually violate the laws of nature because that is how God teaches us to look beyond the physical to a higher realm of reality.
Korah, Datan and Abiram, the desert rebels, accused Moses of making up the whole project of the Promised Land, of pulling off a Wizard-of-Oz hoax on the whole people. Then Moses called upon God to "prove" that he had been chosen, by "making a miraculous creation" like the earth opening its mouth to swallow them up. In fact, earthquakes do occur, but not usually when predicted in advance to prove a point at a particular time. The miracle is not necessarily a violation of natural law, but it is a "sign" felt by the people to be a decisive message from another dimension. Miracles of this sort, like Moses turning his staff into a snake before Pharaoh, come to establish credibility, to prove a point, to end speculation. One might object to such miracles on several grounds:
Personally speaking, I do not believe literally in the supernatural variety of miracles as actual occurrences in the present or the past. Even if they occurred, I do not think they would "prove" something to me, that is, convince me of a certain religious worldview. Yet they do make great stories and they do teach lessons in a dramatic, literary way that I appreciate because I deeply believe that what appears invincible (like Pharaoh at the Red Sea or even a powerful cancer) can sometimes be vanquished in unpredictable ways. "God" is my name for that surprising power when the forces of good are victorious. I choose to believe in that God of surprising moments of reversal, but I also choose to be skeptical of particular "tricks," as I see them, which strike me as trivial, even if I cannot explain them away scientifically.
OPTION #2: Private miracles, the hidden coincidences, that sometimes change the direction of our lives because of amazing timing, are guided by Divine destiny.
The concept of the "hidden miracle" is developed by Nachmanides (13th century Spain) in his explanation of the ups and downs and ups again of Joseph's life in the Bible. Even though God never speaks to Joseph not even in dreams and never violates any laws of nature to cast him down into the pit via his brothers' jealousy or to raise him up by his ability to analyze the future and make a plan to preempt a famine, Joseph is convinced, in retrospect, that it is the hand of Divine destiny that has shaped his roller coaster existence and given it meaning. But one might object on three grounds:
Personally, I have great respect for an existentialist Camus-like stand that there are no Divine safety nets and that accidents may determine one's fate in the most indifferent way. Yet in a world of uncertainty I do not want to be dogmatic either in accepting or denying the possibility of personal, private miracles. It is a matter of interpretation and it is not provable one way or the other. When I choose to interpret coincidences as miracles, as a personal sense of destiny, then it gives me a strength to make meaning out of my life. I feel like Queen Esther who decides to reveal her Jewishness to the King in order to appeal to save her people from Haman, because "who knows if just for this opportunity I became queen." We, like Esther, cannot know for sure but we can wager on the possibility that God has offered us or called us to take an initiative in a significant "window of opportunity" that may just transform history "miraculously." We can become active partners with Divine destiny by regarding key junctures in our life, so-called "accidents," as pregnant with meaning. That is how we rewrite and reinterpret our lives as a purposeful narrative.
OPTION#3: The laws of nature are themselves a miracle created by God and worthy of wonder.
As the Jewish philosophers Maimonides (12th century) and Heschel (20th century) argue, the fact of order can itself be seen as Divine. As the prayerbook phrases it, "we thank you God for miracles of the everyday" such as our success in processing our wastes without diarrhea or constipation. In experiencing the beauty of order in the snowflake and in the glacier, in the human mind's innovative wisdom and in the lawfulness of the everyday, we discover the miracle of what exists, rather than the miracle of the anomaly and of the bizarre. Though the miracle of Hanukkah celebrates the extraordinary, in which we may be reticent to believe, we can still have faith in the miracle of the ordinary, the amazing patterns of order in a world created by God out of chaos.
OPTION #4: The Biblical miracles are always associated with historical redemption because they point not to the violation of natural order which is seen as Divinely beautiful, but to the violation of human order which is so often corrupt and oppressive.
This is an insight I owe to my teacher Rabbi David Hartman. Miracles in the Bible are often not merely proofs of religious dogmas (as in the case of Elijah on Mount Carmel), but also contributions to undermining totalitarian oppressors. For example, at the Red Sea the Jews needed not only a military miracle to be saved from Pharaoh's chariots, but a psychological-political miracle to be liberated from their paralyzing fear of Pharaoh, their self-deified master. When Pharaoh is so amazingly defeated before their very eyes, then they can begin to believe in their own potential as free human beings and to give their allegiance to a God of liberation.
The violation of nature is the form the miracle took in the eyes of the people because for them the absoluteness of the rule of Pharaoh, his invincibility, seemed as solid as the laws of nature. Many of the ten plagues are described as events that had never before occurred since the foundation of Egypt. Thus described, they served to undermine the mental hold on the slaves who believed the ancient kingdom of Egypt could never be shaken. But the message of the miracle is about people's mistaken belief that the power of an empire is absolute and eternal. I believe in this message which liberates me from the totalitarian propaganda of the oppressor, even if I regard the supernatural form of the miracle as a rhetorical device, a kind of educational gimmick, to shake me out of my habitual defeatism about "the way things are and always will be."
Choosing our Hanukkah Miracle
With these options in mind, we return to the Hanukkah narratives. The Rabbis speak of two different kinds of miracles that the menorah proclaims. We must decide whether to believe in and propagate either.
A. Miracle Oil
The miracle recalled in the Talmud speaks of a cruse of oil that burned for eight days instead of one. That is a supernatural miracle violating the laws of nature. Taken literally it promotes a belief in supernatural intervention. It may even denigrate human effort. Perhaps that kind of belief explains why Lubavitch Hasidim refused to wear gas masks during the Iraqi missile attacks on Israel in 1991 when chemical warheads were feared.
However David Hartman argues that the miracle of oil is only a symbol that arouses human faith. When human beings are willing to believe that more is possible than meets the eye, then they will invest in historical projects like the Maccabean Revolt and the Declaration of the Independence of Israel in 1948 even against all odds. Our presupposition that a cruse of oil cannot burn for eight days, that it is a natural impossibility, is only a symbol of the mistaken belief in the historical impossibility of change.
B. The Miracles of the Few Against the Many
Even if we cannot embrace the miracle of the cruse of oil, the Rabbis offered a different kind of miracle to celebrate. The Rabbinic prayer for Hanukkah, Al HaNissim, ignores the miracle of the oil and speaks of a general phenomenon possible in every generation whereby God helps human beings to bring about miraculous rescues from historical oppressors. This belief in God's miracles does not undermine human effort but causes it to redouble. The miracle is "natural" within the realm of historical possibility, yet inconceivable and unattainable by oppressed peoples who don't believe in its possibility.
In the Exodus from Egypt, God initiates the miracles for a passive, despairing people of slaves. However on Hanukkah, first the martyrs like Hannah and then the zealots and the warriors initiate the redemptive process. In a world where God seems eclipsed, where there are no supernatural signs and no prophets, where the leading priests accepted Hellenism as a boon, the Maccabees bear witness to another dimension. They evaluate the world differently and they believe in a Divine power whose hidden will becomes manifest. The Rabbis celebrated the political and military manifestation of God's miracle in the Maccabees' victory.
Personally, I prefer the miracle of the few against the many. I need to reject the miraculous long-burning cruse of oil lest I be understood as an anti-rationalist or passive Jew. But perhaps beyond my polemic against the childish legend, I need to mature and to reinterpret both kinds of miracles as opening me up to other dimensions, to possibilities in myself and in my world that I have too quickly foreclosed. Believing in miracles is another way of learning to keep my options open and letting myself be surprised. See David Hartman, "Trusting in a New Beginning," in the companion volume, The Hanukkah Book of Celebration, p. 195.