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A Hanukkah Message from Rabbi Teller

11/22/2021 03:00:02 PM


Rabbi Ranon Teller

Do You Believe in Miracles?

For too long, belief in miracles has been a prerequisite for religiosity. Either you believe that the sea split or you’re not a religious Jew. Either you believe that Jesus walked on water or you’re not a religious Christian. Either you believe that Mohamad rode his steed on a night journey through the heavens, or you’re not a religious Muslim. Belief in supernatural miracles remains a litmus test for religiosity.

But, you and I are blessed to be living in a time of intellectual freedom and critical thinking. We can be fully religious and still be skeptical of the historicity of supernatural miracles. Our contemporary faith can be faithful and scientific, pious and intellectual, religious and contemporary.

The Talmud weighs in on conflict between the laws of nature and religious faith. In Tractate Avodah Zara, the Talmud sets up a conflict between religion and nature. The question is: can God bend the natural laws of science? The sages, in typical fashion, respond to this question with a question, “If a thief stole wheat seeds, and planted them in the ground, would they not grow?!” In other words, according to the rabbis, the natural world does not bend to scientific reality. Our sages insist that the laws of nature are immutable, even if a miracle is in order. The Talmudic passage concludes, “The world goes along and follows its own rhythms [olam k’minhago noheg].” And what about the ethical, existential problem of a thief benefiting from theft? Why does God let the thief benefit from stolen property? If God is truly all-powerful, then we might expect a supernatural intervention to stop the stolen seeds from growing.

The sages conclude that God cannot be expected to perform supernatural miracles, even if they are warranted. And what about the thieves? According to our sages, the thieves will be held to judgment for their transgressions in the next world. In this world, nature does not bend to ethical principles. Further, as much as we would like the universe to revolve around our religious beliefs, the natural order always wins. The domain of religion is the metaphysical realm of spirit, ethics, faith, community, metaphor, lore, and poetry. The laws of nature are beyond our control.

So, if this is the case, what are miracles and why do we bless the Hanukkah candles with gratitude for God’s miracles? Our prayer book teaches that miracles are the blessings that “surround us morning, noon and night.” Miracles can be the superhuman effort it takes to rebound from trauma and tragedy. Miracles can be the superhuman faith that we have in each other and in ourselves. Miracles can be the superhuman support we receive from our friends, family, and community in our times of need.

On the surface, the miracle of Hanukkah seems to commemorate a supernatural miracle. But, beneath the surface, we can also celebrate a superhuman miracle in the natural world. The Maccabees had the courage to defeat their enemies, and the fortitude to light a candle even when surrounded by chaos and darkness. I pray that we, too, have the courage and hope to light our own candles in spite of the darkness that surrounds us–both literally and figuratively. And when we practice our faith and perform our mitzvot, we affirm our belief in the great miracles of life–the miracles of hope, imagination, courage, and superhuman strength.

“Miracles sometimes occur, but one has to work terribly hard for them.” –Chaim Weizmann

“Anyone who doesn't believe in miracles is not a realist.” –David Ben-Gurion

“For those who are willing to make an effort, great miracles and wonderful treasures are in store.” –Isaac Bashevis Singer

Mon, September 25 2023 10 Tishrei 5784