Stories of Miracles, Moments of Being: A Skeptic’s Hanukah
By JAY MICHAELSON
We were told the oil lasted for eight days. They were told
that a fat man in a red suit would come down your chimney and give you
And by the time I was about ten, I didn't believe any of it—not our stories,
and certainly not theirs. To me, and to the vast majority of my nominally
Jewish friends, religion was a lie, and people who told you otherwise were
liars. But “they”—that is, the vast Christian nation we lived in—seemed to keep
believing, and now the stories got even crazier. Sure, my team believed some
crazy things about the Torah and where it came from, but theirs said that the creator of the universe impregnated a girl,
and that his Son was God too, and He was crucified so that sins could be
forgiven. I couldn’t tell whom I thought was more foolish: the kids with Santa
or the adults with Jesus. And I was glad that our stories weren’t as
When I was growing up, it seemed like religion was purely a matter of
credulity. “Faith,” they called it. But the dirty secret was... it wasn’t true.
Somehow the secret was dirty, like a
dirty magazine (that other Bible) or a dirty joke. But like the magazines and
the jokes, the secret was irresistible: these guys actually believed it! What suckers!
Sure, Hanukah was supposedly about religious freedom, and really about the
gifts, but we kept hearing about that one jar of oil and the miracle of the
eight days. That’s why we ate latkes, after all, and lit the menorah. And yet,
I couldn’t see how anyone could possibly believe this stuff. Even if the oil
was a harmless little tale, what about Noah’s Ark? The Ten Plagues? Jonah and
We’re told miracle stories because they do seem to work. Whether because of the
deep resonance of myth, or just the power of peer pressure, large numbers of
Americans do, in fact, believe that the myths of the Bible are literally
true—that these things actually happened, and that they prove that God exists
and cares whether we behave nicely or not. For such people, presumably, to
undermine the literal truth of the six-day creation story, let alone the
existence of something called “sin,” is like knocking away the chair that
someone’s standing on; everything comes crashing down.
For me, however, miracles were an obstruction to faith, not an aid to it. As I
grew older, and explored both Jewish and non-Jewish religious paths, I came to
appreciate deeply the ways in which religion functions spiritually, socially,
and ethically. It brought my mind closer to a state of peace which I came to
identify with “God.” It reminded me of ideals which I did actually hold dear,
but which were all too easy to forget in a moment of haste. And it helped me
construct my life as a holy, communal response to the sacred.
But miracles were a problem. So, like most Jewish theologians of the 20th
century, I looked for ways to explain them away. Reading Abraham Joshua Heschel
and Mordechai Kaplan, I came to believe that miracles were not supernatural but
were, instead, remarkable coincidences that inspired a sense of awe in all who
witnessed them. And following Buber, I sought
“everyday miracles” in encounters with other people and with nature. To explain
a miracle was not to deny religion; on the contrary, it let me keep practicing
it despite the ludicrous stories. And now the real significance of miracles was
not magic, but wonder.
Well, fair enough, but the more I’ve come to appreciate the emotional resonance
of myth, the way it speaks to deep archetypes in the subconscious, the more
I’ve had to admit that the Bible means it—maybe not literally, but not as some
psychological-existentialist account either.
I’ve also come to appreciate how dangerous miracle stories can be, since, in
the minds of the true believers, they validate claims to exclusive truth, to
special destiny, and to the impossibility of real tolerance. The ultra-Orthodox
protestors threatening violence against the Jerusalem Pride march, for example,
did so based on very old stories about collective responsibility and collective
punishment. Sure, they were largely motivated by hate and fear—but they were
backed up by countless stories in the Bible in which God visits justice on all
because of the sins of some.
Ironically, the Talmudic rabbis saw the miracle story of Hanukah as a way to
mute religious violence, not encourage it. The original Hanukah texts were never
about “religious freedom”—they were about the military victory of a zealous
band of Jewish extremists over both the Syrian Greeks and the assimilationist Jews who preferred contemporary secularism
to religious piety. This holiday became enormously popular, especially with
those struggling against the Roman occupation and the assimilationist Jews who
supported it. So the Talmudic rabbis, unable to kill the story but also deeply
uncomfortable with its militarism, refused to canonize the Books of the Maccabees,
fished out an obscure myth from the legendary literature, and made it, not the
military story, the centerpiece of their holiday.
Now, however, miracle stories only sharpen the divide between believers and
unbelievers, between the faithful and the damned.
People like me, who are deeply spiritual but not “faithful” in the simple sense
of the word, are caught in the middle. On the one hand, as I’m now on tour
promoting a “religious” book, I encounter people all the time who still think
that religion is all about stories, and that I must be nuts to believe in it.
Mainstream—that is, secularist—media won’t touch me. On the other hand,
parochial religionists don’t understand how I can love God and yet not believe
in literal truth of scripture, or embrace multiple religious traditions, or be
These days, as I light the Hanukah candles, I think not of miracle stories, not
of conveniently modern rationales of religious freedom, and certainly not of
Jewish jihad. Nor do I lie to children about a magical old man who rewards good
behavior. Instead, I bring my attention to what we are actually doing when we
light the candles: gathering together with people we love, and joyously
bringing light into a time of deepest darkness. I love the latkes and the jelly
doughnuts, the dreidel and the gelt. I cherish the deep resonance of these
beautiful, ancient symbols probably derived from earth-based traditions far
more ancient than those of the rabbis. And of course, everyone likes presents.
I’m not an atheist. I seek the holy, and strive to be more aware of its
presence. And so I practice this religion because of the wonderful moments of
being which it engenders—moments which, in my heart at least, contain far more
holiness than tall tales which I never quite believed.