Stories of Miracles, Moments of Being: A Skeptic’s Hanukah


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 presents.

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 ridiculous.

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 the Whale?

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 gay.

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.